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TITLE: VAUATU HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE DATE: FEBRUARY 1995 VANUATU Vanuatu, a small South Pacific island nation which became independent in 1980, has a parliamentary form of government with a 46-member Parliament, including a Prime Minister, and a President. The latter's powers are largely ceremonial, except when acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers. Political legitimacy is based on majority rule. The civilian authorities control the small police and paramilitary mobile forces. Because the Vanuatu economy is dependent on international trade, it is vulnerable to shifts in world market prices. Growth in tourism and Vanuatu's offshore banking center were expected again to lead other sectors of the economy in 1994. Restrictions on freedom of speech and press, together with the treatment of women, remain the major human rights problems. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS 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 Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Constitutional provisions against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are observed in practice and enforced by the courts. The law provides that prisoners shall have recourse to the Ombudsman, a constitutional position filled for the first time in July. Laws and regulations governing the office are still to be defined. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile There were no reports of arbitrary arrests. Arrest is by warrant. The constitutional provision that suspects must be informed of the charges and given a speedy hearing before a judge is observed in practice. There is no exile. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The courts uphold constitutional provisions for a fair public trial, presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, prohibition against double jeopardy, the right of judicial determination of the validity of arrest or detention, and appeal to the Supreme Court. The courts are free of military or executive interference. There were no political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence There were no reports of arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the Government does not fully respect this in practice and frequently uses its control over access to the media to prevent opposition viewpoints from reaching the general public. In 1993 the Government threatened to revoke the editor's work permit and the publication license of Vanuascope, an independent newspaper, because it defied a government ban on covering the statements of an opposition political party. With the demise of Vanuascope early in 1994 due to financial losses, the Government controls all of the nation's domestic media. In December the Prime Minister's Office instructed the government-run Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation to submit stories on political events for approval, ostensibly to ensure their accuracy. A Pacific regional news agency (PACNEWS) was permitted to move its headquarters to Vanuatu in January 1994 and has continued to enjoy freedom to transmit its stories throughout the region, even when they include criticism of political leaders in the country. Correspondents for international media are also allowed to report from Vanuatu without interference; they write largely for external audiences. Even so, the Government continues to manipulate the media to its advantage. The political opposition and trade unionists often encounter difficulty in getting press statements broadcast and published in state-controlled media. The national court tends either to uphold the Government's ban on access to media or to refuse to hear such cases. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association Permits must be obtained to hold public demonstrations and rallies. In response to a general strike (see Section 6.a.), the Government in February obtained a court order prohibiting picketing on government property. The Government did not restrict the forming of political parties or other groups. c. Freedom of Religion The law provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respected it in practice. Missionaries of various Christian denominations work without restrictions. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation All citizens are free to travel internally and externally and to return from abroad without restrictions. In the wake of an extended strike (see Section 6.a.), the Government stopped an athlete from leaving the country to compete in regional championships. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens have the right freely to change the Government through periodic multiparty elections. The Constitution provides for parliamentary elections every 4 years. The Government is a coalition of Prime Minister Maxime Carlot Korman's Francophone Union of Moderate Parties and the Deputy Prime Minister's People's Democratic Party, which broke from the Anglophone National United Party in midyear. In opposition are the Vanua'aku Party, National United Party, and three others. Outside observers generally consider campaigns and voting to be fair, although government restrictions and pressure on the media inhibit the ability of opposition parties to publicize their views (see Section 2.a.). There were reports of government discrimination in the provision of services to persons and communities suspected of or known to be supporting opposition political candidates. The Government has also been charged with politically biased employment practices (see Section 6.a.). In Vanuatu's traditional society, males are dominant and women are frequently limited to customary family roles. These traditional attitudes have hampered those women who have sought to take more active roles in economic and political life. There is only one female member of Parliament. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights There are no restrictions on the formation of local nongovernmental human rights organizations (NGO's). Vanuatu's first such NGO, Human Rights Forum, was founded in late 1994. An NGO to promote and protect the rights of women, The Women's Center (formerly Committee on Violence Against Women), provides counseling and conducts workshops to improve the status of women. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status Women While women have equal rights under the law, they are only slowly emerging from a traditional culture characterized by male dominance, a general reluctance to educate women, and a widespread belief that women should devote themselves primarily to childbearing. There are no women serving as leaders in Vanuatu's municipal or village councils, churches, or chambers of commerce. Members of the National Council of Women (NCW) view village chiefs as a primary obstacle to the attainment of social, political, and economic rights by women. While no accurate data are available, violence against women, particularly wife beating, is reportedly common and on the rise. However, very few cases of wife beating are brought to the attention of the authorities, and even fewer are prosecuted. Usually the women involved drop the cases before trial. In villages, where custom is strong, women who have been beaten, abused, or raped frequently suffer greater punishment than their abusers. The police are reluctant to intervene in what are considered purely domestic matters. Although there are no specific laws against spouse beating, the courts have at times dealt severely with such cases, using common-law assault as a basis for imposing punishment. At a conference on violence sponsored by the Women's Center, a senior government minister said that traditional village societies had dealt effectively with women's issues for thousands of years and cautioned against "inappropriate" Western notions of equality. The Government has refused the Center's application to establish a women's refuge, ostensibly because of fears that it would encourage the breakup of families. The majority of women enter into marriage through "bride-price payment". On those islands where the custom of paying "bride price" is observed, the woman is regarded as the property of the husband and may be dealt with as he chooses. In some areas, women are still forced to marry men chosen for them. Children Children are protected within the traditional extended-family system, in accordance with the family's financial resources and access to services. Members of the extended family, particularly paternal uncles, play an active role in a child's development. As a result, virtually no children are homeless or abandoned. Though cases of child abuse are sometimes reported, there is no pattern of societal abuse. The Government has made education a priority, but access is limited and school attendance not compulsory. National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities Most of the population is made up of Melanesians. Small minorities of Chinese, Fijians, Vietnamese, Tongans, and Europeans are generally concentrated in two towns and on a few plantations; they experience some discrimination with regard to land ownership. Although there have been allegations of corrupt practices by a member of the Government, there is no evidence to suggest a pattern of ethnic discrimination in the provision of basic services. People with Disabilities There is no known governmental or national policy on the disabled, and no legislation mandates access for the disabled. Their protection and care is left to the traditional extended family and to voluntary nongovernmental organizations. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The law provides workers with the right to organize unions. Unions may not affiliate with international labor federations without government permission. There are 5 trade unions, with a combined membership of more than 4,000, in the private and public sectors. The high percentage of the population still engaged in subsistence agriculture and fishing deters extensive union activity. The unions are grouped under an umbrella organization, the Vanuatu National Council of Trade Unions (VCTU), a member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The trade unions are independent of the Government. Strikes are generally uncommon, due in part to high rates of unemployment. The union movement declared the country's first general strike in February in support of the long-running public servants' strike begun in November 1993 over wages. The Vanuatu Teachers Union (VTU) and private sector Vanuatu National Union of Labor (NUL) joined the Vanuatu Public Servants Union (VPSA) in a 24-hour strike in February. During the general strike, there were reports of isolated violence, some allegedly instigated by a government minister. Approximately 50 strikers were arrested, and 4 were convicted of contempt of court for defying a court order against picketing on government property. They were sentenced to 6 months' imprisonment, later suspended. Private sector employers fired at least 20 private sector strikers as a result of the general strike. The Government also suspended about 170 teachers who had joined the strike, although approximately 90 percent have been reinstated. In March the Chief Justice restrained the VCTU and three of its leaders from claiming or alleging to have legal authority to represent their members in relation to the strike. In June the Government formally dismissed two VTU leaders from their teaching positions for advising members to join the February general strike. The long-running public servants' strike affected postal, health, and agricultural sectors badly. In January the Government dismissed all daily rate workers and suspended all strikers, approximately 1,200, and reportedly prohibited state-owned media from airing union views. At the end of February, the Supreme Court ruled that the VPSA had not complied with its own rules when it undertook strike action, and it declared the strike illegal, without addressing the legality of the Government's subsequent suspensions. (Public service rules require a hearing before dismissal. No strikers were granted such a hearing.) The Government formally dismissed all strikers in March. Of the approximately 400 full-time public servants dismissed, 100 reportedly applied for reinstatement. Only 15 have been rehired, with loss of seniority and rank, amid credible allegations that the Government's decisions were politically influenced. In a test case, the court ruled in November that the Public Service Commission should conduct a hearing on the dismissal of a medical doctor. At year's end, the hearing had not yet been held. Public services are gradually returning to normal, but some offices are still understaffed. The law prohibits retribution if the strike is legal. In the case of private sector employees, violations would be referred to the Labor Department for conciliation and arbitration. In the public sector, violations would be handled by the Public Service Commission. In the wake of the strike, in February the Government reportedly stopped a local athlete from leaving the country to compete in championship games in New Zealand because he had participated in strike action. The Government also reportedly canceled previously approved overseas scholarships for public servants involved in the strike. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively Unions exercise the right to organize and bargain collectively. Labor unions negotiate wages and conditions directly with management. If the two sides cannot agree, the matter is referred to a three-member arbitration board appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs. The board consists of one representative from organized labor, one from management, and the senior magistrate of the magistrate's court. While a dispute is before the board, labor may not strike and management may not dismiss union employees. Unions and management, however, generally reach agreement on wages without having to refer the matter to arbitration. Complaints of antiunion discrimination are referred to the Commissioner of Labor. While the law does not require union recognition, once a union is recognized, it does prohibit antiunion discrimination. In the private sector, violations are referred to the Labor Department for conciliation and arbitration; in the public sector, to the Public Service Commission. There are no known instances of such complaints. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there have been no reports that either is practiced. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The law prohibits children under 12 years of age from working outside of family-owned agriculture, where many children assist their parents. Employment of children from 12 to 18 years of age is restricted by occupational category and conditions of labor for example, restrictions on employment in the shipping industry and nighttime employment. The Labor Department effectively enforces these laws. The high level of unemployment discourages the use of child labor. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work Vanuatu has a legislated minimum wage, effectively enforced by the Labor Department. Minimum wage rates were last raised in November 1991 to $107 monthly for urban workers and $93 monthly for rural workers (13,200 and 11,440 Vatu, respectively). Agricultural workers' minimum wages are tied to market prices for copra and cocoa. Most workers are not in the wage economy and are thus outside the scope of the minimum wage laws. For those covered by them, the wages provide an adequate standard of living within the local context. Various laws regulate the rights to sick leave, annual vacations, and other conditions of employment, including a 44-hour maximum workweek, with at least one 24-hour rest period. Vanuatu's Employment Act, enforced by the Labor Department, includes provisions for safety standards. However, the 1987 safety and health legislation is inadequate to protect workers engaged in logging, agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, and the single inspector attached to the Labor Department is hard pressed to enforce the Act fully. Workers do have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations. (###)
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