Freedom in the World
In 2011, President Johnson Toribiong appointed a new special prosecutor to investigate white-collar crime as well as a new public auditor, though neither appointment had been approved by the legislature by year’s end. Meanwhile, a fire at a power plant in November led to power outages, rationing, and the declaration of a state of emergency.
The United States administered Palau, which consists of eight main islands and more than 250 smaller islands, as a UN Trust Territory from 1947 until 1981, when it became a self-governing territory. Palau gained full independence in 1994 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States; the compact granted Palau $442 million in U.S. economic aid between 1994 and 2009 and allowed Palauan citizens to reside, work, study, and access federal government programs in the United States in exchange for U.S. military access to the archipelago until 2044. A new financial agreement signed in September 2010 under the compact promises more than $250 million in total assistance through 2024, though the U.S. Congress had not ratified the deal by the end of 2011. Development assistance from Taiwan and other donors is a significant source of revenue for Palau.
Johnson Toribiong was elected president in November 2008. Parliamentary elections were held the same month, with all candidates running as independents.
In February 2011, the Supreme Court struck down a law that had been in effect since June 2010 that required all foreign nationals—except diplomats, their dependents, and tourists—to register with the state within their first seven days of arrival and pay a registration fee of $25. The government had said the measure was necessary to help fight illegal immigration and that the fee was required to cover administrative expenses.
In June, voters rejected a proposal to legalize casino gambling. The referendum was held in accordance with a law signed by Toribiong in December 2010 that would have created a casino gaming commissioner had the referendum passed, and barred the legislature from reconsidering the issue in the event of the referendum’s failure.
A power plant fire in November 2011 prompted the government to declare a state of emergency for two weeks that month to ration electricity. Power shortages lasted through the end of the year, and rationing took place throughout the islands; hospitals, the sewage system, schools, and public services were all affected. The incident demonstrated the vulnerability of the nation’s infrastructure.
Palau is an electoral democracy. The bicameral legislature, the Olbiil Era Kelulau, consists of the 9-member Senate and the 16-member House of Delegates. Legislators are elected to four-year terms by popular vote, as are the president and vice president. The president can serve only two consecutive terms. Palau is organized into 16 states. Each is headed by a governor and has a seat in the House of Delegates. Every state is also allowed its own constitutional convention and to elect a legislature and head of state.
There are no political parties, though no laws prevent their formation. The current system of loose political alliances that can quickly form and dismantle has had a destabilizing effect on governance.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems, with several high-ranking public officials having faced charges in recent years. Although anti-money laundering measures were introduced in 2007, evaluations have found significant deficiencies in due diligence, record keeping, and monitoring, and the attorney general’s office generally lacks the resources to oversee implementation of these measures. As part of Palau’s continuing effort to improve accountability and continue receipt of U.S. assistance, in January 2011, President Johnson Toribiong named a new special prosecutor to investigate white-collar crime and wrongdoing by government officials. In December, he appointed a public auditor, a position that had been empty for six years. Neither appointee had been confirmed by the legislature by year’s end.
Freedoms of speech and the press are respected. There are several print publications, five privately owned radio stations, and one privately owned television station. Cable television rebroadcasts U.S. and other foreign programs. The government does not impede internet access, but high costs and a lack of connectivity outside the main islands limit diffusion. Palau is seeking assistance from multilateral development banks to finance an underwater cable that would expand internet access.
Citizens of Palau enjoy freedom of religion. Although religious organizations are required to register with the government, applications have never been denied. There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom, and the government provides well-funded basic education for all.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Many nongovernmental groups represent youth, health, and women’s issues. Workers can freely organize unions and bargain collectively, though the economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture and is heavily dependent on U.S. aid, as well as rent payments and remittances from Palauans working overseas.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. A 300-member police and first-response force maintains internal order. Palau has no military. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse, though overcrowding is a problem in the country’s only prison.
Foreign workers account for about one-third of the population and 75 percent of the workforce. There have been reports of discrimination against and abuse of foreign workers, who cannot legally change employers once they arrive in Palau. In response to social tensions and a slower economy, the government in 2009 decided to limit the total number of foreign workers in the country at any time to 6,000.
Women are highly regarded in this matrilineal society; land rights and familial descent are traced through women. Many women are active in traditional and modern economic sectors and in politics, though there are no women in the current legislature. The number of domestic violence and child abuse cases is small. Sexual harassment and rape, including spousal rape, are illegal. The U.S. State Department reports that Palau is a destination for women trafficked for prostitution. In October 2011, Palau pledged to end discrimination against homosexuals following a UN audit of human rights in the island state.