Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2004

Kiribati is a constitutional republic that occupies 33 small islands widely scattered across 1.365 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean. The country has a popularly elected president and a legislative assembly of 42 members; 40 are elected by universal adult suffrage, the Rabi Island Council in Fiji nominates one, and the Attorney General holds an ex officio assembly position. The most recent parliamentary and presidential elections, held in May and July respectively, were considered free and fair. Anote Tong of the Boutokan te Koaua Party was elected President; he took office on July 10. The government party and allied independents together held 25 legislative seats. Elected village councils ran local governments in consultation with traditional village elders. The judiciary is independent.

The country has no military force. Australia and New Zealand are responsible for its external defense. A police force of 284 sworn officers and 200 constables, headed by a commissioner who reports directly to the Office of the President, is responsible for internal security. The civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses.

The country has a mixed economy. The Government owns and operates most enterprises; however, there also are some privately owned enterprises. The population of over 90,000 was primarily Micronesian, with a significant component of Polynesian origin. Economic activity consisted primarily of subsistence agriculture and fishing. Remittances from sailors employed on overseas merchant vessels and foreign development assistance also were important sources of revenue. The islands' isolation and meager resources, including poor soil and limited arable land, severely limited prospects for economic development. The rate of economic growth in 2002 was approximately 3 percent and the per capita gross domestic product was approximately $660.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse; however, the Government retained some limits on freedom of the press. In this traditional culture, women occupy a subordinate role and have limited job opportunities. Violence against women and child abuse in urban areas were problems.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports of the arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life committed by the Government or its agents.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them. Traditional village practice permits corporal punishment for criminal acts and other transgressions. On some outer islands, village councils occasionally ordered strokes with palm fronds to be administered for public drunkenness and other minor offenses, such as petty theft.

Prison conditions generally met international standards. There were separate prisons for men and women. Children under age 16 were not incarcerated. There was no separate facility for juvenile offenders aged 16 or older. Juveniles aged 16 to 17 generally may be detained no longer than 1 month in the adult facility; however, for more serious offenses, such as murder, juveniles over the age of 16 can be held in custody for more than 1 month and can be sentenced to longer terms. Pretrial detainees who did not meet bail were housed with convicted prisoners.

Family members and church representatives are allowed access to prisoners. Both diplomats and senior judicial officials have visited the prisons, including some unannounced visits, and reported no problems. During the year, there were no reported requests by local human rights groups or nonresident international human rights observers to visit prisons. The Government has not formulated a policy concerning such visits.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions.

The Commissioner of Police and Prisons, who reports directly to the Office of the President, heads the police force. There are three superintendents under the Commissioner responsible, respectively, for crime and security, prisons, and administrative functions. The police force was reasonably effective in maintaining law and order. Police corruption generally was not a problem, and there were no reported instances where the police acted with impunity.

The law requires that arrested individuals be informed of their rights, which include the right to legal counsel during questioning and the right not to incriminate themselves. Two police officers must be present at all times during questioning of detainees, who also are provided the option of writing and reviewing statements given to the police. Those taken into custody without a warrant must be brought before a magistrate within 24 hours or within a reasonable amount of time when arrested in remote locations. Many individuals are released on their own recognizance pending trial, and bail is granted routinely for many offenses. Detainees were allowed prompt access to legal counsel.

The Constitution prohibits government restrictions on citizens' freedom of movement, but does not restrict such actions by village councils. The Government does not use forced exile; however, on rare occasions, village councils have used this punishment. This practice sometimes results in exile from a specific island, but not from the country. This form of punishment never has been challenged legally.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

The judiciary consists of magistrate courts, a High Court, and a Court of Appeal. The law provides for the right to a fair public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The Constitution provides that an accused person be informed of the charges against him and be provided adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The law also provides for the right to confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal convictions. Defendants facing serious criminal charges are entitled to free legal representation. Procedural safeguards are based on English common law, and include the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The law prohibits such practices, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

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 respected these rights in practice; however, the Government limited these rights in some instances. Under the 1988 Newspaper Registration Act, newspapers are required to register with the Government. In 2002, the legislature amended the act to give the Government the authority to deregister a newspaper if the publication was found to have published material deemed to be offensive to good taste, decency, or public feeling, or was likely to encourage or incite to crime. The amendment also requires newspapers to ensure that, in an article affecting the "credibility or reputation of any person," the affected individual can respond in the same article. Fines of $329 (A500) may be assessed for each violation of these provisions. As of year's end, no publications had been deregistered or prevented from publishing. Opponents criticized the amendment as an attempt by the Government to restrict press freedom.

The Government owns the country's main newspaper, along with one AM and one FM radio station in Tarawa. In 2000, a former president established the country's first private newspaper to provide a forum for views divergent from those of the government. In 2002, the former president commenced operations of New Air FM, the country's first private radio station. (In 1999, the government blocked the radio station from operating for importing broadcast equipment without a license; the station owner initiated legal action and won the right to operate in 2002.) Churches published newsletters and other periodicals. High costs limited the availability of foreign print media and Internet access, but there were no government-imposed limitations.

The Government did not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. Permits are required for public gatherings, but these were granted routinely.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2003 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice. On rare occasions, village councils have banished persons from a specific island within the country, usually for a fixed period of time (see Section 1.d.).

There is no law providing for the granting of refugee status or asylum to persons who meet the definition in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the Government has not formulated a policy regarding refugees or asylum. However, there were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. There were no applications for refugee resettlement or asylum during the year.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. To be elected, a candidate must secure at least half the valid votes cast; if there is no first-round winner, a runoff election is held. The President exercises executive authority and is elected for a 4-year term. The elected Legislative Assembly nominates no fewer than three and no more than four presidential candidates from among its members. Under the Constitution, the President is limited to three terms. In March, Parliament was dissolved after the administration of President Teburoro Tito, who had been reelected in February by a narrow margin, fell on a no-confidence vote. New parliamentary elections were held in May, and opposition leader Anote Tong of the Boutokan Te Koaua Party (BTKP) was elected President in July; the elections were considered free and fair. In October, the High Court ruled in favor of President Tong in a lawsuit filed by several members of opposition parties alleging illegal cash payments by the BTKP to village councils during the presidential election campaign. Under the law, traditional gifts to village councils do not constitute bribes; however, the law places limits on the amount of such gifts. The plaintiffs alleged that the BTKP's payments exceeded these limits and constituted "vote buying." The court dismissed the claims, ruling that the gifts in question lacked a "corrupt motive" and did not constitute "vote buying."

There were 2 women, including the Vice President, in the 42-member Parliament, and 4 women held permanent secretary positions.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There were no restrictions on the formation of local human rights nongovernmental organizations, but none have been formed. There were no restrictions on operations by international human rights groups. There were no reported allegations of human rights abuses by the Government during the year, and no known requests for investigations.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, creed, national origin, or sex, and the Government observed these prohibitions in practice; however, only native I-Kiribati (those with Kiribati ancestry) may own land. Society is fundamentally egalitarian and has no privileged class.


Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women were a significant problem. Alcohol abuse frequently was a factor in attacks on women. The law does not address domestic violence specifically, but general common law and criminal law make assault in all forms illegal. Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime, and the law was enforced when charges were brought to court. However, it is believed that such prosecutions are relatively infrequent for cultural reasons.

Prostitution is not illegal, but it was not common; procuring sex and managing brothels are illegal. The law does not specifically prohibit sex tourism; however, there were no reports of such activity. Obscene or indecent behavior is banned.

The law does not prohibit sexual harassment; although it sometimes occurred, it generally was not regarded as a major problem.

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex; however, the traditional culture, in which men are dominant, has impeded a more active role for women in the economy. Nevertheless, women are slowly finding work in unskilled and semiskilled occupations. The Government has increased its hiring and promotions of women; women filled many governmental office positions and teaching positions. The Employment Ordinance prohibits night work by women except in seven exempt occupations, including health worker, hotel, bar, and restaurant worker, and business manager. However, this ordinance was little known, and there were no reported prosecutions based on its provisions. Statistics on the participation of women in the work force and on comparative wages were unavailable, and statistics generally were not well collected in the country. Women have full rights of ownership and inheritance of property as well as full and equal access to education.


Within its limited financial resources, the Government made adequate expenditures for child welfare. Primary education is compulsory, free, and universal for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. In practice, the Government did not enforce primary school attendance. Unofficial estimates indicated that over 50 percent of all children attended school, with no significant gender discrimination. The approximately 40 percent of primary school graduates who pass a national examination qualify for 3 additional years of subsidized junior secondary and 4 years of subsidized senior secondary education; a small fee was charged to other students who wished to matriculate at these levels.

The Government provided free national medical service; however, there were no doctors on the outer islands. The central hospital in Tarawa provided basic medical services, but not intensive care facilities. There were no reports of gender bias in the provision of health services.

Child abuse was an ongoing problem, particularly on more densely populated South Tarawa.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit specifically discrimination against persons with disabilities; however, there were no complaints of discrimination in employment, education, or in the provision of other state services for persons with mental or physical disabilities. Accessibility of buildings for persons with disabilities has not been mandated; accommodations for persons with disabilities were basically nonexistent.

The central hospital on Tarawa has a wing for persons with mental disabilities, and there was a foreign national psychiatrist working on Tarawa. Foreign-based aid workers and the World Health Organization cooperated with the Ministry of Health to conduct outer island workshops for health workers.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, and workers are free to join and organize unions; workers exercised these rights in practice.

Over 90 percent of the work force were occupied in fishing or subsistence farming, but the small wage sector had a relatively strong and effective trade union force. An estimated 10 percent of wage-earning workers were union members. In 1982, seven registered trade unions merged to form the Kiribati Trade Union Congress (KTUC), which has approximately 2,500 members. There are no official public sector trade unions; however, public sector nurses and teachers belonged to voluntary employee associations similar to unions and constituted approximately 30 to 40 percent of total union and association membership.

Unions are free to affiliate internationally. The KTUC is affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law protects workers from employer interference in their right to organize and administer unions. The Government did not control or restrict union activities; however, unions must register with the Government. Collective bargaining is provided for under the Industrial Relations Code. The Government sets wages in the large public sector. However, in a few statutory bodies and government-owned companies, employees could negotiate wages and other conditions. In the private sector, individual employees also could negotiate wages with employers. In keeping with tradition, negotiations generally were nonconfrontational. There were no reports of anti-union discrimination, and there were mechanisms to resolve any complaints that might arise.

The law provides for the right to strike. However, strikes are rare; the last one took place in 1980.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Bonded Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or bonded labor, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

The prohibition does not mention specifically forced and bonded labor by children; however, there were no reports that such practices occurred.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children under age 14. Children through the age of 15 are prohibited from industrial employment and employment aboard ships. Labor officers from the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Employment generally enforced these laws effectively, given the rudimentary conditions of the economy. Children rarely were employed outside the traditional economy.

The Government has not ratified ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage. There is provision for a minimum wage at ministerial discretion, but it has never been implemented. Income tended to be pooled within the extended family, and the standard income appeared adequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. There is no legislatively prescribed workweek. Workers in the public sector (80 percent of the wage-earning work force) worked 36¼ hours per week, with overtime pay for additional hours.

Employment laws provide rudimentary health and safety standards for the workplace. For example, employers had to provide an adequate supply of clean water for workers and ensure the existence of sanitary toilet facilities. Employers are liable for the expenses of workers injured on the job. However, the Government's ability to enforce employment laws was hampered by a lack of qualified personnel. Workers do not have the right to remove themselves from hazardous work sites without risking loss of employment.

There are no laws specifically to protect foreign workers; however, there were no significant numbers of foreign workers and no reports of mistreatment. Some foreign volunteers and missionaries worked in the schools.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law does not prohibit trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.