U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Western Samoa

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.


Samoa, a small Pacific island country with a population of approximately 162,000, is a parliamentary democracy but with certain concessions to Samoan cultural practices. The Constitution provides for a Samoan head of state, a unicameral legislature composed of matai (family heads) elected by universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, protection of Samoan land and traditional titles, and guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms. Executive authority is vested in the Head of State, with the Government administered by the Cabinet, consisting of the Prime Minister and 12 ministers chosen by him. All laws passed by the Legislative Assembly need the approval of the Head of State, Malietoa Tanumafili II, who holds the position for life. His successors will be elected by the Legislative Assembly for 5-year terms. The country does not have a defense force. The small national police force is firmly under the control of the Government but has little impact beyond Apia, the capital city. Enforcement of rules and security within individual villages is vested in the fono (Council of Matai), which settles most internal disputes. Judgments by the fono usually involve fines or, more rarely, banishment from the village. Samoa is a poor country with a market-based economy in which over 60 percent of the work force is employed in the agricultural sector. Coconut products and kava are the principal exports. The small industrial sector is dominated by a Japanese factory which assembles automotive electrical parts for export. The Government has initiated a major push for tourism. Per capita gross domestic product is $1,100 per year. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and on remittances sent to family members by the more than 100,000 Samoans living overseas, mostly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. Principal human rights abuses arise out of political discrimination against women and nonmatai, and violence against women and children. Societal pressures and customary law may interfere with the ability to conduct fair trials. Those who do not conform to accepted societal values may face pressure, threats, and violence. There are some restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, and religion.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that officials practiced them. However, villages are controlled by customary law, and the fono may mete out banishment when deemed necessary. This is one of the harshest forms of punishment in this collective society. Although jail conditions are fairly basic so far as food and sanitation are concerned, there have been no reports of abuses in prisons. While there are human rights groups, the question of monitoring of prison conditions by them has not arisen. Prison visits by family members and church representatives are permitted.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes this prohibition.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law assures the right to a fair public trial, and this is honored by the official court system. However, many civil and criminal matters are not handled by courts but by village fono, which differ considerably both in their decisionmaking style and in the number of matai involved in the decisions. The Village Fono Act of 1990 gives legal recognition to the decisions of the fono and provides for limited recourse of appeal to the Lands and Titles Courts and to the Supreme Court. In a 1993 court case, a village fono ordered the property of a villager to be burned after he had disobeyed and flouted village rules. An angry mob killed the villager and burned all his belongings. The villager who actually shot the victim was tried in 1994 and sentenced to death by the Supreme Court. The six matai members of the fono, although originally charged by the Supreme Court with inciting murder, were subsequently charged only with willful damage and received a minimal fine and no jail sentence. The Attorney General lodged an appeal in 1994 on the grounds that the sentence was inadequate and inappropriate, but the appeal was not heard. Similarly, a civil case by the spouse of the deceased against the matai involved was dropped. In both the criminal appeal and the civil suit, traditional reconciliation measures were used by the parties to settle the matter. In March 1997, in another village on Savai'i, the village fono threatened to burn at the stake a villager who refused to accept a banishment order issued as a result of a disagreement over land being donated for a church. Intervention by police and religious authorities prevented the threatened burning from being carried out. The man subsequently left the village for a time but was eventually allowed to return. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law provides for protection from invasion of the home or seizure of property without substantive and procedural safeguards, including search warrants, which are issued by the judicial branch. Practically, however, there is little or no privacy in the village. While village officials by law must have permission to enter homes, there can be substantial social pressure to grant such permission.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. However, the Government's ban on press coverage of the leader of the opposition on state-run radio and television stations generated controversy in 1997. In practice, however, the Government's ban is largely symbolic. Statements by the leader of the opposition receive prominent coverage in the private news media. The Newspapers and Printers Act and the Defamation Act require journalists to reveal their sources in the event of a defamation suit against them. There has been no court case requiring that these acts be invoked. Two English-language newspapers and numerous Samoan-language newspapers are printed regularly in the country. The Government operates a radio station and the country's sole television station. There are two private radio stations. Television from American Samoa is readily available. The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, along with freedom of thought and conscience. Nearly 100 percent of the population is Christian. While the Constitution grants each person the right to change religion or belief and to worship or teach religion alone or with others, in practice the matai often choose the religious denomination of the aiga (extended family). There is strong societal pressure to support church leaders and projects financially. Such contributions often total more than 30 percent of personal income.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, but in practice some citizens have been banished either from village activities or completely from the village. The Government actively supports emigration as a safety valve for pressures of a growing population, especially for potentially rebellious youths, and because it generates foreign income through remittances. The Government does not restrict foreign travel arbitrarily or the right of citizens to return from abroad. Samoa has not had any refugees or asylum seekers, and it is not a party to any international protocol on them. However, the authorities have indicated that they would conform to international norms if such cases should arise.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have the right to change their government through direct, multiparty elections, but women's political rights are restricted by the fact that few of them are matai. While all citizens above the age of 21 may vote, the right to run for 47 of the 49 seats in the Legislative Assembly remains the prerogative of the approximately 25,000 matai, 95 percent of whom are men. The remaining two seats are reserved for citizens not of Samoan heritage. While all adult Samoans may vote for the Legislative Assembly, matai continue to control local government through the village fono which are open to them alone. The political process is more a function of personal leadership characteristics than of party. In the April general elections, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana, retained the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly. Tofilau and the HRPP have dominated the political process, winning five consecutive elections since 1982. Although candidates are free to propose themselves for electoral office, in practice, they require the blessing of the village high chiefs. Those who ran in the 1996 elections in spite of fono objections faced ostracism and even banishment from their village. Following the elections there were multiple charges of fraud and bribery. Four elections were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, and by-elections were held. Women occasionally reach high public office. The 12-member Cabinet has 1 female member, and women hold 3 of the 49 seats in Parliament. The first female judge was named in 1994, and the first female Attorney General was appointed in 1997.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of human rights groups operated without government restriction. Government officials are usually cooperative.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status. This is a homogeneous society with no significant ethnic minorities. Politics and culture are the product of a heritage of chiefly privilege and power, and members of certain families have some advantages. While there is discrimination against nonmatai and women, women (and particularly female matai) play an important role in society and may occasionally reach high office.


The traditional subordinate role of women is changing, albeit slowly, especially in the more conservative parts of society. While abuse of women is prohibited by law, social custom tolerates physical abuse of women within the home. The role and rights of the village fono and tradition would prevent police from interfering in instances of domestic violence, barring a complaint from the victim--which village custom strongly discourages. While police do receive some complaints from abused women, domestic violence offenders are typically punished by village councils, but only if the abuse is considered extreme. (Extreme abuse would be visible signs of physical abuse.) The village religious leader may also intervene in domestic disputes. Many cases of rape may still go unreported because tradition and custom discourage such reporting. In spite of this, the authorities note a greater number of reported cases of rape, as women are slowly becoming more forthcoming with the police. Rape cases that do reach the courts are treated seriously. Convicted offenders are often given relatively stiff sentences of several years' imprisonment. The Ministry of Women's Affairs oversees and helps ensure the rights of women.


The Government has made a strong commitment to the welfare of children through the implementation of various youth programs by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. Law and tradition prohibit severe abuse of children, but tradition tolerates corporal punishment. The police noted an increase in reported cases of child abuse, attributed to Samoans becoming more aware of the need to report physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children.

People With Disabilities

The Government has passed no legislation pertaining to the status of handicapped or disabled persons or regarding accessibility for the disabled. Samoan tradition dictates that handicapped persons be cared for by their family, and this custom is widely observed in practice.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have legally unrestricted rights to establish and join organizations of their own choosing. To date, two trade unions have been organized. The Samoa National Union, organized in 1994, is a six-member association which includes workers from the three major banks. A second union represents members at the sole factory in the country. Both unions are independent of the Government and political parties. There are no laws specific to union activity. The Commissioner of Labor would adjudicate any cases of retribution against strikers or union leaders on a case-by-case basis. The Public Service Association, representing government workers, an increasingly important sector of the work force, also functions as a union. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of government workers to strike, subject to certain restrictions imposed principally for reasons of public safety. Workers in the private sector have the right to strike, but in 1997 there were no strikes. The Public Service Association freely maintains relations with international bodies and participates in bilateral exchanges.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

While workers have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, they have seldom practiced it, due to the newness of union activity and the inexperience of union leaders. However, the Public Service Association engages in collective bargaining on behalf of government workers, including bargaining on wages. Minimum wages are set by an advisory commission to the Minister of Labor. Wages in the private sector are determined by competitive demand for the required skills. Any antiunion discrimination case would be reported to and adjudicated by the Commissioner of Labor. Arbitration and mediation procedures are in place to resolve labor disputes, although these rarely arise. Labor law and practice in the one export processing zone are the same as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

While the Government does not demand compulsory labor, and it is prohibited by law, in this collective society people, including minors, are frequently called upon to work for their villages. Most people do so willingly, but if not, the matai can compel them to do so.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Under the Labor and Employment Act (LEA) of 1972 as amended, it is illegal to employ children under 15 years of age except in safe and light work. The Commissioner of Labor refers complaints about illegal child labor to the Attorney General for enforcement. Children are frequently seen hawking goods and foodstuffs on Apia street corners. Although a violation of the LEA, local officials mostly tolerate and overlook the child vendors. There are no reports of bonded labor by children, but the LEA does not apply to service rendered to the matai, some of whom require children to work for the village, primarily on village farms (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The LEA established for the private sector a 40-hour workweek and an hourly minimum wage of $0.50 (Tala 1.25). This minimum wage suffices for a basic standard of living when supplemented by the subsistence farming and fishing in which most families engage. The act provides that no worker should be required to work for more than 40 hours in any 1 week. The act also establishes certain rudimentary safety and health standards, which the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing. Independent observers report, however, that the safety laws are not strictly enforced except when accidents highlight noncompliance. Many agricultural workers, among others, are inadequately protected from pesticides and other dangers to health. Government education programs are addressing these concerns. The act does not apply to service rendered to the matai. While the act does not specifically address the right of workers to remove themselves from a dangerous work situation, a report of such a case to the Commissioner of Labor would prompt an investigation, without jeopardy to continued employment. Government employees are covered under different and more stringent regulations, which are adequately enforced by the Public Service Commission.

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