Freedom in the World
In January 2011, the government implemented a brief ban on public gatherings of three or more people following public protests against a lawmaker for his failure to meet with community leaders. In September, the government declared a two-week state of emergency to impose strict control on the use of fresh water to alleviate the effects of a severe rain shortage.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands, situated in the central South Pacific Ocean, became a British protectorate in 1892 and a British colony in 1916. Polynesian Ellice Islanders voted to separate themselves from the Micronesian Gilbertese in 1974. In 1978, the Ellice Islands became independent under the name of Tuvalu, while the Gilbert Islands become part of Kiribati.
Politics in Tuvalu have been marked by intense personal and political rivalries and the use of no-confidence votes to unseat incumbents. In the September 2010 elections, 26 candidates—all independents—competed for 15 seats in Parliament. The elections were considered free and fair, with no reported incidents of fraud or violence. In December 2010, Prime Minister Maatia Toafa was ousted in a no-confidence vote and was replaced by Home Affairs Minister Willy Telavi.
In January 2011, amid public protests over Finance Minister Lotoala Metia’s refusal to meet with community leaders—a breach of traditional protocol—Telavi banned public meetings involving more than 10 people; the government said that rumors of threats to burn down lawmakers’ residences had made the ban necessary. The emergency order was revoked after four weeks, with the provision that public meetings could be held only with permission from the police commissioner.
Global climate change and rising sea levels pose significant challenges for Tuvalu and other low-lying island states. Tuvalu’s highest point is just five meters above sea level. Meanwhile, the weather pattern known as La Niña resulted in far less rainfall than usual in 2011, causing a severe fresh water shortage for Tuvalu. In September, the government declared a two-week state of emergency when about 50 percent of the population had only a two-day supply of fresh water; water usage was strictly monitored and rationed in some areas. New Zealand and the United States sent desalination equipment, which turns salt water into fresh water, to help alleviate the shortage.
Tuvalu is an electoral democracy. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and is represented by a governor general, who must be a citizen of Tuvalu. The prime minister, chosen by Parliament, leads the government. The unicameral, 15-member Parliament is elected to four-year terms. A six-person council administers each of the country’s nine atolls. Council members are chosen by universal suffrage for four-year terms.
There are no formal political parties, though there are no laws against their formation. Political allegiances revolve around geography, tribal loyalties, and personalities, with elected representatives frequently changing sides and building new alliances.
Tuvalu is one of the few places in the Pacific Islands where corruption is not a serious problem, though international donors have called for improvements in governance.
The constitution provides for freedoms of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. The semi-public Tuvalu Media Corporation (TMC) operates the country’s sole radio and television stations, as well as the biweekly newspaper Tuvalu Echoes and the government newsletter Sikuelo o Tuvalu. Human rights groups have criticized the TMC for its limited coverage of politics and human rights issues, but there have been no allegations of censorship or imbalances in reporting. Many residents use satellite dishes to access foreign programming. Internet use is largely limited to the capital because of cost and connectivity challenges, but authorities do not restrict access.
Religious freedom is upheld in this overwhelmingly Christian country, where religion is a major part of life. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The constitution provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government upholds these rights in practice. However, on January 13, 2011, the government for the first time invoked the Public Order Act for two weeks to ban public gatherings of three or more people on the main island of Funafuti. The decision was made after hundreds of protestors demanded the immediate resignation of Finance Minister Lotoala Metia for refusing to meet with traditional elders. The government cited a rumored arson threat against Metia as the reason for the ban. Two weeks later, the ban was replaced by a regulation requiring organizers of protests to obtain prior permission from police; this requirement was lifted after two weeks. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide a variety of health, education, and other services. A 2007 law allowing the incorporation of NGOs strengthened legal protection for civil society groups. Workers have the right to strike, organize unions, and choose their own representatives for collective bargaining. Public sector employees, numbering fewer than 1,000, are members of professional associations that do not have union status. With two-thirds of the population engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, Tuvalu has only one registered trade union—the Tuvalu Overseas Seamen’s Union—with about 600 members who work on foreign merchant vessels. Remittances from these and other Tuvaluans working overseas are a major source of income for the country.
The judiciary is independent and provides fair trials. Tuvalu has a two-tier judicial system. The higher courts include the Privy Council in London, the Court of Appeal, and the High Court. The lower courts consist of senior and resident magistrates, the island courts, and the land courts. The chief justice, who is also the chief justice of Tonga, visits Tuvalu twice a year to preside over the High Court. A civilian-controlled constabulary force maintains internal order. There are no reports of abuse in the prison system.
About 10 percent of Tuvalu’s annual budget is derived from the Tuvalu Trust Fund, a well-run overseas investment fund set up by Britain, Australia, and South Korea in 1987 to provide development assistance.
Traditional customs and social norms condone discrimination against women and limit their role in society. Women enjoy equal access to education, but they remain underrepresented in positions of leadership in business and government. There are currently no women in Parliament. There have been few reports of violence against women. Rape is illegal, but spousal rape is not included in the definition. No law specifically addresses sexual harassment.