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

The Republic of Nauru adopted a modified form of parliamentary democracy on gaining independence in 1968. The country is governed by a unicameral Parliament. The Parliament is elected at least triennially and consists of 18 members from 14 constituencies. It elects the President, who is both chief of state and head of government, from among its members. The most recent parliamentary elections, held in May, were considered free and fair. The presidency changed five times during the year. In May, Parliament elected a new president, Ludwig Scotty, but he was replaced in August by Rene Harris after three members of Parliament changed alliances. The judiciary is independent.

There are no armed forces, although there is a small police force, with fewer than 100 members, under civilian control. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses.

The population was approximately 12,000. The economy depended almost entirely on mining of dwindling phosphate deposits. The government-owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC) controlled the mining industry, and a large percentage of its earnings were placed in long-term investments meant to provide national revenue after the phosphate reserves were exhausted. However, financial mismanagement and corruption led to severe and chronic shortages of basic goods and utilities and some domestic unrest. In February, in response to international money laundering concerns, the Government announced that it would close its offshore banking operations, suspend its investor passport program, and update its banking laws and financial sector legislation. However, none of these actions had been completed by year's end.

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, some human rights advocates continued to express concerns about poor living conditions and alleged arbitrary detention of asylum seekers held in the country since 2001. The country has a refugee processing and detention center, funded by the Government of Australia, that held approximately 300 asylum seekers at year's end, down from 700 at the end of 2002. Most were intercepted at sea en route to Australia; Australian immigration officials continued to process their asylum claims in coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On December 10, 33 of the detained refugees began a hunger strike, which had not been resolved by year's end.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports of 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.

The Government attempted to meet international prison standards within its limited financial means and in accordance with local living standards; however, prison conditions were basic, and food and sanitation were limited. There were separate accommodations for pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners, for men and women, and for adults and juveniles.

The country hosted a refugee processing and detention center, funded by the Government of Australia, that held approximately 300 asylum seekers at year's end. Most of the detainees were citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries; were intercepted at sea en route to Australia in 2001; and sought resettlement in Australia or another developed country. Australian human rights organizations expressed concern about conditions at the detention center, including problems with the water quality and the power supply. However, water quality and power supply problems were common in the country as a whole. During the year, Amnesty International and other Australia-based human rights groups protested that journalists, human rights activists, doctors, lawyers, and clergy members were denied visas to visit asylum seekers held in the detention center. On December 10, 33 of the detained refugees began a hunger strike, which had not been resolved by year's end.

There were no local human rights groups, and the question of visits to local prisons by human rights observers was not raised. Prison visits by church groups and family members were permitted.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions. The police may hold a person for no more than 24 hours without a hearing before a magistrate.

In 2002, the Australia-based Catholic Commission for Justice, Development, and Peace asserted that the detention of asylum seekers in the country was not being handled in accordance with the Constitution, since these individuals had been detained without first being brought before a court for a hearing. The court system reportedly took up the issue during the year; however, no decision was announced by year's end.

The Constitution and law do not prohibit forced exile; however, the Government did not use it.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

The Supreme Court is the highest court when addressing constitutional issues; it is presided over by the Chief Justice. The Appellate Court, composed of two judges, hears appeals of Supreme Court decisions on other matters. Parliament cannot overturn court decisions. Under the Appeals Act, cases may be reviewed by the High Court of Australia on Criminal and Civil Actions, but this rarely was done. A Resident Magistrate, who is also the Registrar of the Supreme Court, presides over the District Court. The Resident Magistrate also presides over the Family Court as Chairman of a three-member panel. There are two other quasi-courts established under the Constitution, the Public Service Appeal Board and the Police Appeal Board. The Chief Justice presides over both as chairman, with two members for each board.

Defendants may have legal counsel, and a representative for the defense is appointed when required "in the interest of justice." However, traditional reconciliation mechanisms rather than the formal legal process were used in many cases--usually by choice but sometimes under communal rather than governmental pressure. Contract workers from Kiribati and Tuvalu working in the mining sector did not have recourse to effective communal assistance and were disadvantaged in complaints against citizens. There were only three trained lawyers in the country, and many persons were represented in court by "pleaders," trained paralegals certified by the Government (see Sections 6.a. and 6.b.).

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution prohibits such actions, 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. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

The country had no regular print media. Occasional publications included the government bulletin. In addition, The Visionary, a newsletter published sporadically by the opposition party Naoero Amo, provided an independent and critical view of the Government. It was particularly vocal regarding economic crises during the year. In December 2001, Presidential Counsel David Adeang and Senior Medical Officer Dr. Kieren Keke (both members of Naoero Amo) were suspended from and later resigned their government positions following publication in The Visionary of their comments criticizing the Government's policy toward asylum seekers. In May, Adeang and Keke were elected to Parliament and were briefly appointed as Ministers, until the defection of coalition members forced them into the opposition in August. The sole radio station was owned and operated by the Government; it broadcasted Radio Australia and British Broadcasting Corporation news reports. Local television included government-owned Nauru TV, as well as a privately owned sports network.

The Government was the sole Internet service provider in the country, but did not monitor or censor content.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricted this right in some cases. In recent years, the Government has prevented Mormons and members of Jehovah's Witnesses from practicing their religion freely on some occasions, and members of these religions were subjected to arbitrary licensing and immigration requirements.

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.

Foreign workers were required to apply to their employers for permission to leave during the period of their contracts. They could break the contract and leave without permission but would lose their positions and often a sizable bond as a result. In most cases, foreign employees whose contracts were terminated by their employers had to leave the country within 60 days.

The Government has not formulated a formal policy regarding refugees, asylees, or temporary protection. However, the Government cooperated with the office of the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The country has accommodated asylum seekers as a processing center for Australia. These asylum seekers were held in facilities funded by the Government of Australia, with day-to-day supervision provided by officials of the International Office on Migration and local authorities. At year's end, some asylum seekers had been resettled, primarily in Australia and New Zealand; however, approximately 300 remained in detention, down from 700 at the end of 2002. Most of this population had been denied refugee status but not yet repatriated. None had requested resettlement in Nauru. In 2002, the UNHCR asked the Government to reconsider its denial of admission to the bar for several Australian lawyers offering legal assistance to detained asylum seekers. The Government reportedly had suggested that asylum seekers instead retain local counsel. During the year, the Government continued to deny admission to the Australian lawyers.

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

The Constitution provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully. The Government also can be changed through a petition from the members of Parliament. Although the country's politics is based more on clan than party membership, persons with diverse points of view have been elected to Parliament.

Parliament elects the President. In a year marked by political uncertainty, there were five changes in government. Following general elections in May, Ludwig Scotty was elected President by Parliament, after the reformist party Naoero Amo won enough seats to form a coalition government. In August, Scotty was replaced by President Rene Harris, following the defection of three members of the coalition to the opposition.

During the country's history, all changes in government have been peaceful and in accordance with the Constitution. In parliamentary elections, voting by secret ballot is compulsory for all citizens over the age of 20. There were multiple candidates for all parliamentary seats in the elections held during the year.

There are no legal impediments to participation in politics by women. In the past, the dominance of traditional clans in national politics limited participation by women, and there were no female members of parliament. However, there was growing participation by women in party-based politics, and women held many senior civil service positions, including Permanent Secretary and Cabinet Secretary-level jobs.

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

There were no restrictions on establishing local groups that concern themselves specifically with human rights, but no groups have been formed. The Catholic Commission for Justice, Development, and Peace raised concerns about alleged arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, asserting that the detainees were not being processed in accordance with the Constitution (see Section 1.d.).

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

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, language, or social status, and the Government observed these provisions.


The Government did not keep track of incidents of physical and domestic abuse against women. However, credible reports indicated that sporadic abuse, often aggravated by alcohol use, occurred. Families normally sought to reconcile such problems informally, and, if necessary, communally. The judiciary and the Government treated major incidents and unresolved family disputes seriously.

Spousal rape is not a crime, but police will prosecute charges of rape leveled against a spouse. Prostitution is illegal and not widespread. Sexual harassment is a crime, and it was not a serious problem.

The law grants women the same freedoms and protections as men. The Government officially provided equal opportunities in education and employment, and women were free to own property and pursue private interests. However, in practice societal pressures limited opportunities for women to fully exercise these rights. There was a Women's Affairs Office to promote professional opportunities for women.


The Government devoted adequate resources for education and health care for children. Education was compulsory until age 16. Child abuse statistics did not exist, but alcohol abuse sometimes led to child neglect or abuse. There were no reported cases of child abuse or child prostitution during the year.

Persons with Disabilities

There was no reported discrimination in employment, education, and the provision of state services to persons with disabilities. However, no legislation mandated access to public buildings and services for persons with disabilities. Persons who applied to the Health Department could obtain government assistance in building access ramps to homes and workplaces.

There are no formal mechanisms to protect persons with mental disabilities; however, the Government at times provided essential services to the families of such persons.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Nonnative Pacific Island workers experienced some discrimination. While foreign workers were provided free housing, the shelters were often poorly maintained and overcrowded. In the past, some foreign workers alleged that the police rarely acted on their complaints against citizens (see Section 6.e.).

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of citizens to form and belong to trade unions or other associations. However, the country has virtually no labor laws, and there were no trade unions. Past efforts to form unions were discouraged officially. The transient nature of the mostly foreign work force also hampered efforts to organize the labor force. There were no prohibitions or limits on the right of unions to affiliate with international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

While there were no legal impediments, collective bargaining did not take place. The private sector employed only approximately 1 percent of salaried workers. For government workers, public service regulations determined salaries, working hours, vacation periods, and other employment matters.

The right to strike is neither protected, prohibited, nor limited by law. Workers of the government-owned Nauru Phospate Company (NPC), the country's largest employer, went on strike in August. The strike ended after approximately 3 weeks when the company agreed to pay the full 6 months' back wages. However, the wages had not been paid in full by year's end.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Bonded Labor

The Constitution forbids forced or bonded labor, including by children, and the Government effectively enforced these prohibitions.

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

The law sets age 17 as the minimum age of employment. The only two large employers, the Government and the NPC, honored this rule. Some children under the age of 17 worked in small, family-owned businesses.

The country is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and has not ratified ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wage rates for office workers and manual laborers provided an adequate, if modest, standard of living for a worker and family. However, due to the Government's near-permanent lack of funds during the year, public service salaries often went unpaid, often for months at a time. Most families lived in simple but adequate housing, and almost every family owned some sort of motor vehicle. The Government set the minimum yearly wage administratively for the public sector. Since 1992, that rate has been $6,562 ($A9,056) for those 21 years of age or older. The rate is progressively lower for those under 21 years of age. Employers determined wages for foreign contract workers based on market conditions and the consumer price index. Usually foreign workers and their families received free housing, utilities, medical treatment, and often a food allowance. Some noncitizen contract workers complained about conditions in company living compounds. By regulation, the workweek for office workers was 36 hours and, for manual laborers, 40 hours in both the public and private sectors. Neither law nor regulations stipulated a weekly rest period; however, most workers observed Saturdays and Sundays as holidays.

The Government sets health and safety standards. The NPC had an active safety program that included an emphasis on worker education and the use of safety equipment such as helmets, safety shoes, and dust respirators. The NPC had a safety officer specifically responsible for improving safety standards and compliance throughout the company.

f. Trafficking in Persons

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