Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 23, 2000

Samoa is a parliamentary democracy that incorporates certain traditional practices into its legislative system. The Constitution of this Pacific island country of approximately 170,000 persons provides for a head of state, a unicameral legislature composed of family heads, or "matai," who are elected by universal suffrage, the protection of land rights 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. The Legislative Assembly is to elect his successors for 5-year terms. The judiciary is independent.

The country does not have a defense force. The small national police force is controlled by the Government but has little effect 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.

The country is poor with a market-based economy in which more than 60 percent of the work force are employed in the agricultural sector. Fish, kava, and coconut products are the principal exports. The small industrial sector is dominated by a Japanese factory that assembles automotive electrical parts for export. The Government has initiated a major effort to promote 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.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. Principal human rights abuses arise from 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 freedom of speech, press, and religion.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Minister of Public Works Luaglau Levaula Kamu was shot and killed on July 16. Three persons were charged in the case: The former Minister of Women's Affairs; his son; and the former Minister of Telecommunications. Eletise Leafa Vitale, the son of the former minister of Women's Affairs, confessed and was sentenced to death on August 7. At year's end, all three remained in custody. They also are charged with the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister. The trial of the two former ministers is ongoing.

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.

Although jail conditions are fairly basic so far as food and sanitation are concerned, they appear to meet minimum international standards, and there have been no reports of abuses in prisons. While there are human rights groups, the question of monitoring 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 these prohibitions. However, villages are governed by customary law, and the fono may mete out banishment when deemed necessary. Banishment is one of the harshest forms of punishment in this collective society.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice.

The law provides for 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 vary considerably both in their decisionmaking style and in the number of matai involved in the decisions. The 1990 Village Fono Act 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.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The law provides substantive and procedural safeguards from invasion of the home or seizure of property, including a need for search warrants, which are issued by the judicial branch. However, there is little or no privacy in a 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, in 1997 the then Prime Minister banned coverage of the leader of the opposition on state-run radio and television stations. This ban has not been lifted, but remarks by the leader of the opposition received limited coverage during the year. However, in practice the Government's ban remains largely symbolic, since opposition statements 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.

On February 15, the Supreme Court granted government-owned Polynesian Airlines an injunction to prevent an independent daily, the Samoa Observer, from publishing news about the company's expenses for senior staff. In response to a subsequent editorial published about the incident, the airline filed a petition asking the court to jail the newspaper's editors. At year's end, the case was still pending.

Two English-language newspapers and a number of Samoan-language newspapers are printed regularly. The Government operates a radio station and the sole television station. There are two private radio stations, and a satellite-cable system is now available in parts of Apia. 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, and such contributions often total more than 30 percent of family income.

Despite the constitutional protection, village councils sometimes banish or punish families that do not adhere to the prevailing religious belief in the village.

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 agreement concerning them. The Government has not formulated a policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum. 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 traditional family leaders (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. The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has dominated the political process, winning five consecutive elections since 1982. The 1996 general elections again gave the HRPP a majority, but in November 1998 ill health forced then-Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana to resign. The HRPP caucus selected former Deputy Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi as Acting Prime Minister. Tofilau died in March, and Tuilaepa became Prime Minister. 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 1996 elections, there were multiple charges of fraud and bribery. Four elections subsequently were overturned by the Supreme Court, and by-elections were held.

Women are underrepresented in government and politics; however, they occasionally reach high public office. The 12-member Cabinet has 1 female member, and women hold 3 of the 49 seats in the Legislative Assembly. 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. Society is homogeneous 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 women and nonmatai, women (and particularly female matai) play an important role in society and occasionally may reach high office.


While the law prohibits the abuse of women, social custom tolerates their physical abuse within the home. The role and rights of the village fono and tradition prevent police from interfering in instances of domestic violence, unless there is a complaint from the victim--which village custom strongly discourages. While police receive some complaints from abused women, domestic violence offenders typically are 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.

The State punishes persons responsible for extreme assault cases, which can result in imprisonment.

Many cases of rape still may 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 slowly become more forthcoming with the police. Rape cases that reach the courts are treated seriously. Convicted offenders often are given relatively stiff sentences of several years' imprisonment.

The traditional subordinate role of women is changing, albeit slowly, especially in the more conservative parts of society. 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 citizens 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 disabled persons or regarding accessibility for the disabled. Tradition dictates that the family cares for a disabled person, and this custom is observed widely in practice.

Section 6--Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers legally have 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 there were no strikes during the year. 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. An advisory commission to the Minister of Labor sets minimum wages. 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 persons, including minors, frequently are 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 1972 Labor and Employment Act (LEA) 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 frequently are seen hawking goods and food 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 $0.47 (WS$ 1.40). 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 week.

The act also establishes certain rudimentary safety and health standards, which the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing. However, independent observers report that the safety laws are not enforced strictly 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 enforced adequately by the Public Service Commission.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country.

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