Freedom in the World
Intense factional rivalries continued to fragment politics in 2011, resulting in three different prime ministers during the first six months of the year. Although in November the World Trade Organization approved Vanuatu’s application to join the group, Vanuatu’s parliament did not ratify the agreement by year’s end due to significant opposition from churches and civil society groups.
Vanuatu was governed as an Anglo-French “condominium” from 1906 until independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, including politics, religion, and economics.
Widespread corruption and persistent political fragmentation have caused governments to collapse or become dysfunctional. No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years, and parliamentary coalitions are frequently formed and dissolved.
In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Vanua’aku Party (VP) won 11 seats, the National United Party (NUP) took 8, while the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and the Vanuatu Republican Party (VRP) each captured 7. Parliament chose Edward Natapei of the VP as prime minister.
Natapei was ousted by a no-confidence vote in December 2010, and replaced by Sato Kilman. On April 24, 2011, Kilman was ousted by a 26 to 25 no-confidence vote, and the speaker of Parliament appointed Serge Vohor to replace him. Kilman asserted that a minimum of 27 votes is required for his removal, and a court of appeal reinstalled Kilman as prime minister on May 13. On June 16, however, the Supreme Court declared Kilman’s election in 2010 null and void on the grounds that the speaker of Parliament violated constitutional requirements to hold a secret parliamentary ballot. On the same day, the speaker named Natapei as interim prime minister. The court also ordered a new parliamentary ballot to elect a new prime minister, and Kilman was chosen to another term on June 26.
While the economy has improved somewhat in recent years, it has suffered setbacks amid global economic troubles. In July 2011, Vanuatu asked China for $32 million to meet its budget shortfall in return for pledging to support China in the United Nations and other international forums. Vanuatu threatened to switch formal recognition to Taiwan if China did not meet its demand. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese ambassador to Vanuatu said China would pay a portion of this sum under the condition that Vanuatu recognizes only China.
In November 2011, the World Trade Organization approved Vanuatu’s application to join the group. The decision was controversial in Vanuatu due to concerns over the possible impact on the country’s poor, and churches and civil society groups held rallies against the move. Parliament did not ratify the agreement by year’s end.
Vanuatu suffered a shortage of fresh drinking water in 2011 amid a sever drop in rainfall due to the La Niña weather pattern. The United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security ranks Vanuatu as the Pacific island most at-risk of natural disasters.
Vanuatu is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for parliamentary elections every four years. The prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet, is chosen by the 52-seat unicameral Parliament from among its members. Members of Parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments form an electoral college to select the largely ceremonial president for a five-year term. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with the Parliament, exercising authority mainly over language and cultural matters.
Many political parties are active, but politicians frequently switch affiliations. Politics is also driven by linguistic and tribal identity. The leading parties are the VP, the NUP, the UMP, and the VRP. The Vanuatu Progressive Development Party was launched in May 2011.
Corruption is a serious problem. Allegations of bribery of both voters and parliament members are common. Accusations surfaced in early 2011 that Henry Iauko and Carlot Korman, the current and former ministers of lands, respectively, along with other senior officials, were involved in illicit land deals; all land leases ceased in March pending investigation and review. The practice of politicians distributing passports to foreign nationals in exchange for personal gain has long been a concern of local critics and international aid donors. In April 2011, the government approved creation of a commission to audit all Vanuatu passports. Vanuatu was ranked 77 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press, though elected officials have been accused of threatening journalists for critical reporting. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. Newspapers include the state-owned Vanuatu Weekly and several privately-owned daily and weekly papers. In March 2011, government official Henry Iauko assaulted the Daily Post’s publisher and threatened the newspaper’s staff over articles reporting his legal troubles. Although Iauko was found guilty of assault, he was fined only $150 and kept his cabinet position. In August, journalists from the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation alleged that Pastor Don Ken, the Minister of Ni-Vanutau Business, demanded suppression of a story on his drunken behavior and arrest in July. State monopoly of telecommunications services ended in 2008. The number of internet users is growing, but access is limited by cost and lack of infrastructure.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom in 2011.
The law provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government typically upholds these rights. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice. Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. Five independent trade unions are organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Workers can bargain collectively and strike. One hundred Aviation Vanuatu workers went on strike in May 2011.
The judiciary is largely independent, but a lack of resources hinders the hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. Long pretrial detentions are common, and prisons fail to meet minimum international standards. Tribal chiefs often adjudicate local disputes, but their punishments are sometimes deemed excessive. Harsh treatment of prisoners and police brutality provoke frequent prison riots and breakouts. In March 2011, the justice minister released a report by the Commission of Inquiry that criticized the police’s handling of 2007 riots involving Tanna and Ambryn islanders; the report called for a major revamp of the police force and a national summit on security and policing.
Discrimination against women is widespread. No laws prohibit spousal rape, domestic abuse, or sexual harassment, which women’s groups claim are common and increasing. Most cases go unreported due to victims’ fear of reprisal or family pressure, and the police and courts rarely intervene or impose strong penalties.