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

Samoa is a parliamentary democracy that incorporates certain traditional practices into its governmental system. The Constitution provides for a head of state; a unicameral legislature composed primarily of extended family heads, or "matai," and elected by universal suffrage; the protection of land rights and traditional titles; and other fundamental rights and freedoms. In 2001, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) won reelection to its sixth term as the governing party and holds 31 of the 49 parliamentary seats. The election was marred by charges of bribery. In September 2001, the Supreme Court ordered four by-elections as a result of election challenges filed by losing candidates; the HRPP won all four. Executive authority is vested in the Head of State with the Government administered by the Cabinet, which consists 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 civilian authorities maintained effective control over the small national police force, but it had little effect beyond Apia, the capital city. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses. 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 economy is market based. The population was approximately 199,000 as of December, according to the Government Statistics Department. More than 60 percent of the workforce was engaged primarily in agriculture. The country was heavily dependent on foreign aid and on remittances sent to family members by the more than 100,000 citizens living overseas. The Government reported a 1.8 percent gross domestic product increase in 2002 and a per capita income of approximately $1,680.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas. The law and the courts addressed some of these problems. Political discrimination against women and non-matai was a problem. 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, violence, and banishment. However, in April, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and found that a village fono had acted illegally when it banished some residents for their religious activities. The ruling affirmed that both statutory and customary laws are subject to the individual rights provided for in the Constitution. Violence against women and children was a problem.


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.

There were no further developments in the 2002 case of parliamentary by-election candidate Taliaoa Taamilosaga and three other persons, whose deaths in a fire were ruled homicides. The police investigation was ongoing at year's end (see Section 3.).

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 government officials employed them.

Prison conditions generally appeared to meet international standards, although they were fairly basic with respect to food and sanitation. Within the country's sole prison, men and women were housed separately, juveniles were held separately from adults, and pretrial detainees were separated from convicted prisoners.

There were no known requests by independent human rights observers to visit prisons; however, the Government indicated members and church representatives also were permitted.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

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

The country's police, prison guards, and firefighters all belong to one consolidated national service. A commissioner appointed to a fixed 3-year term of office heads this service. He is assisted by four assistant commissioners and, since a government reorganization in August, reports to the Minister of Police. Corruption and impunity were not significant problems among the police; however, a lack of resources limited police effectiveness.

The law provides for issuance by the Supreme Court of an arrest warrant based on sufficient evidence, and the Government generally adhered to this provision in practice. The law provides for the right to a prompt judicial determination regarding the legality of detention, and the authorities generally respected this right in practice. Detainees are informed within 24 hours of the charges against them, or they are released. Detainees were allowed prompt access to family members and a lawyer of their choice. If the detainee is indigent, the Government provides a lawyer. There is a functioning system of bail.

Villages are governed by traditional law, and the fono may mete out banishment, one of the harshest forms of punishment in this collective society. In some cases, civil courts have overruled banishment orders (see Sections 1.e. and 2.c.). Exile is prohibited by law, and 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 judiciary consists of the District Court, the Lands and Titles Court, the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is the highest court. It has appellate jurisdiction only and can review the rulings of any other court. It is composed of a panel of retired New Zealand judges and sits once a year for several weeks.

The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The accused must be charged within 24 hours. A trial judge examines evidence and makes a determination as to whether there are grounds to proceed. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to be present and to timely consultation with an attorney, at public expense if required. Defendants may confront witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence, and defendants have the right to appeal a verdict.

However, many civil and criminal matters were handled by village fono, which varied considerably both in their decision-making 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 appeal to the Lands and Titles Court and to the Supreme Court. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Village Fono Act may not be used to infringe upon villagers' freedom of religion, speech, assembly, or association. More recent court decisions reinforced this principle (see Section 2.c.).

There were no reports of political prisoners.

Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law provides substantive and procedural safeguards against invasion of the home or seizure of property, including a requirement for search warrants, which are issued by the judicial branch. However, there is little or no privacy in villages. While village officials by law must have permission to enter homes, there can be substantial societal pressure to grant such permission.

In accordance with traditional law, village fono may impose a punishment of banishment (see Sections 1.d. and 2.d.).

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. Three English-language newspapers and a number of Samoan-language newspapers were published regularly. The law requires journalists to reveal their sources in the event of a
defamation suit against them. However, there has been no court case invoking this law.

The Government operated one of two television stations. There were five private radio stations, and a satellite-cable system was available in parts of Apia. In addition, approximately one-third of the population was within the broadcast area of the television station in American Samoa. Internet use was expanding rapidly, both as a news source and as a means of two-way communication; there was no government interference with its use.

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. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Village Fono Act may not be used to infringe upon villagers' freedom of religion, speech, assembly, or association (see Sections 1.e. and 2.c.).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

The Constitution acknowledges "an Independent State based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and traditions." Although Christianity is favored constitutionally, there is no official or state denomination. There are no requirements for the recognition of a religious group or for licenses or registration.

The Constitution grants each person the right to change religion or belief and to worship or teach religion alone or with others; however, in practice, the matai often choose the religious denomination of the extended family. In past years, despite the constitutional protection, village fono--in the name of maintaining social harmony within the village--sometimes banished or punished families that did not adhere to the prevailing religious belief in the village. However, civil courts take precedence over village fono in matters involving the exercise of constitutional rights, and courts have ordered families readmitted to their villages. During the year, there were no new cases of individuals being banished by villages due to their practicing religion differently from that practiced by the village majority.

On April 24, the Supreme Court overturned a September 2000 ruling by the Lands and Titles Court that had affirmed a decision by the Falealupo village fono to banish members of a Bible study group for their religious activities. The Supreme Court's ruling in this case was the latest in a series of judicial decisions in recent years that affirmed that all laws, whether statutory or customary, are subject to the individual rights provided for in the Constitution.

Missionaries operated freely, either as part of one of the established churches or by conducting independent revival meetings. There was an independent Christian radio and television station.

The Constitution provides for freedom from unwanted religious indoctrination in schools but gives each denomination or religion the right to establish its own schools; these provisions were adhered to 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 Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice; however, village fono have, and regularly employed, the power to ban citizens from village activities or to banish them from the village for failing to conform to village laws or to obey fono rulings.

The Government actively supported emigration as a "safety valve" for the pressures of a growing population, especially for potentially rebellious youths, and because it generated income through remittances. There were an estimated 100,000 citizens living abroad, and their remittances made a significant contribution to the national economy.

The country is a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol; however, the Government has not enacted enabling legislation or formulated a policy regarding refugees or asylum. Nevertheless, the authorities have indicated that they would conform to international norms if such cases should arise. The Government was prepared to cooperate with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees; however, the need did not arise during the year. There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

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 held on the basis of universal suffrage; however, women's political rights are restricted by the fact that few of them are 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. The remaining two seats are reserved for "at large" voters (primarily citizens who are not of full Samoan ethnic heritage and lack strong ties to one of the 47 village-based electoral districts). Matai are selected by family agreement; there is no age qualification. Although women sometimes are selected, 95 percent of matai are men. Matai control local government through the village fono, which are open to them alone.

The HRPP has dominated the political process, winning six consecutive elections since 1982. Although candidates were free to propose themselves for electoral office, in practice, they usually required the approval of the senior matai of the villages within their electoral district.

In elections in March 2001, the HRPP won 23 seats and declared victory 2 weeks later when 5 opposition party members switched to the HRPP. At year's end, the HRPP held 31 of the Parliament's 49 seats. The newly formed opposition Samoa Democratic United Party, which resulted from a December merger of the Samoa National Development Party and the United Independent Party, held 17 seats, while an HRPP-aligned independent Member of Parliament (M.P.) occupied the remaining seat. The election was marred by charges of bribery, and 10 losing candidates initially filed election challenges. In August 2001, the Attorney General intervened to foreclose further challenges and thereby prevented as many as 40 additional challenges from being filed. Following a series of trials in 2001, the Supreme Court in September 2001 ordered four by-elections. The HRPP won all four.

Retaliation was directed against witnesses who testified in these bribery cases. In March 2001, the Afega village fono banished 10 persons and their families for giving evidence in such a case; however, in June 2001, the Supreme Court overturned the village fono order, and the persons returned to their village. Other candidates who ran against the wishes of their village fono were banished. For example, in January 2001, Aeau Peniamina Leavai, former Speaker of Parliament, and his family were banned from entering his village of Falealupo, reportedly because he ran for Parliament against the wishes of the village fono (see Section 1.f.). In July 2002, the authorities determined that the deaths in a fire of four persons, including a candidate in a parliamentary by-election who had refused to withdraw in favor of the village leadership's preferred candidate, were homicides (see Section 1.a.).

There were no prohibitions on the formation of opposition parties, and there were several such parties.

There are 3 women in the 49-member legislature, and 1 woman in the 13-person Cabinet. The political rights of citizens who are not of ethnic Samoan heritage are addressed by the reservation of two parliamentary seats for "at large" voters. One cabinet minister is an at-large M.P. of mixed European-Samoan heritage. Samoans of mixed European-Samoan or Chinese-Samoan heritage are well represented in the civil service.

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

A number of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, disability, language, or social status. Citizens of foreign heritage constituted approximately 3 percent of the population; they were not subjected to discrimination. Politics and culture reflect a heritage of matai privilege and power, and members of certain families have some advantages. While there was discrimination against women and non-matai, who only occasionally reached high office, women (and particularly the few female matai) nonetheless played an important role in society.


While the law prohibits the abuse of women, social custom tolerates their physical abuse within the home; such abuse was common. The role and rights of the village fono and tradition prevented police from interfering in instances of domestic violence, unless there was a complaint from the victim--which village custom strongly discouraged. While police received some complaints from abused women, domestic violence offenders typically were punished by village fono, but only if the abuse was considered extreme (that is, visible signs of physical abuse). Village religious leaders also may intervene in domestic disputes. The Government punished persons responsible for extreme assault cases, including by imprisonment.

Many cases of rape still go unreported because tradition and custom discourage such reporting; spousal rape is not illegal. Despite such discouragement, the authorities noted an increasing number of reported cases of rape, as women slowly became more forthcoming with the police. Rape cases that reached the courts were treated seriously. Convicted offenders often were given sentences of several years' imprisonment.

Prostitution is illegal; it existed, but was not a major problem. The law does not address sex tourism specifically; however, it was not a problem. The law prohibits sexual harassment; it was not a widespread problem but was believed to be underreported.

Women have equal rights under the Constitution and statutory law, and the traditional subordinate role of women is changing, albeit slowly, particularly in the more conservative parts of society. The Ministry of Women, Community, and Social Development, which in an August governmental reorganization assumed the responsibilities of the former Ministry of Women's Affairs, oversees and helps secure the rights of women. In order to integrate women into the economic mainstream, the Government sponsored literacy programs and training programs for those not completing high school.


The Government 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. Education is formally compulsory through age 14; however, the Government did not enforce this law, and the children of families that could not pay the required school fees were unable to attend. Boys and girls were treated equally and attended school in approximately equal percentages. Most children attended school through junior high school. The Government provided health care for children at public hospitals for minimal charge. Law and tradition prohibit severe abuse of children but both tolerate corporal punishment. The police have noted an increase in reported cases of child abuse, which was attributed to citizens becoming more aware of the need to report the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children. The Government aggressively prosecuted such cases. There were no reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The nongovernmental organization Mapusaga o Aiga (Women against Domestic Violence) provided limited educational programs on children's rights.

There was one privately run behavior modification camp for foreign children with emotional or behavioral problems. The children were enrolled in the camp by their parents.

Persons with Disabilities

The Government has passed no legislation pertaining to the status of persons with disabilities or regarding accessibility for them. Tradition dictates that families care for persons with disabilities, and this custom was observed widely in practice. There were no reports of societal discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities. In April, the Government convened a national symposium on mental health, which focused attention on the needs of the mentally ill and the challenges local communities and caregivers faced in addressing those needs.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers legally have unrestricted rights to establish and join organizations of their own choosing. There were no practical limitations to union membership, and approximately 20 percent of the workforce was unionized. There are two trade unions in the country. The Samoa National Union, organized in 1994, is a six-member association that includes workers from the three major banks. A second union represented members at the sole factory in the country. Both unions were independent of the Government and political parties. The Public Service Association, which represents government workers (an important sector of the work force), also functions as a union. There are no laws specific to union activity. The Commissioner of Labor adjudicates any cases of retribution against strikers or union leaders on a case-by-case basis.

The Public Service Association freely maintained relations with international bodies and participated in bilateral exchanges.

The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

While workers have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, they seldom have practiced it, due to the novelty of union activity and the inexperience of union leaders. The Public Service Association engages in collective bargaining on behalf of government workers, including bargaining on wages. Any anti-union 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 such disputes rarely arise.

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.

Labor law and practice in the sole export processing zone are the same as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Bonded Labor

The law prohibits forced or bonded labor, including by children; however, in this collective society, persons, including minors, frequently were called upon to work for their villages. Most persons did so willingly; however, the matai may compel those who do not (see Section 6.d.). In February, police in American Samoa uncovered a prostitution ring in which women from Independent Samoa were lured to American Samoa with the promise of work as waitresses; once there, they allegedly were forced into prostitution (see Section 6.f.).

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

Under the law, 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; however, no cases were prosecuted during the year. Children frequently were seen vending goods and food on Apia street corners. The Government has not made a definitive determination as to whether this practice violates the country's labor laws, which cover only persons who have a place of employment. Although the practice may constitute a violation of the law, local officials mostly tolerated and overlooked it. There were no reports of bonded labor by children; however, the law does not apply to service rendered to the matai, some of whom required children to work for the village, primarily on village farms (see Section 6.c.). The extent of this practice varied by village, but it generally did not significantly disrupt children's education.

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

The law establishes for the private sector a 40-hour workweek and an hourly minimum wage of $0.55 (WS$1.60). 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. This minimum wage sufficed for a basic standard of living for a worker and family when supplemented by the subsistence farming and fishing in which most families engage. The law provides that no worker should be required to work for more than 40 hours in any week.

The law also establishes certain rudimentary safety and health standards, which the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing. However, independent observers reported that the safety laws were not enforced strictly, except when accidents highlighted noncompliance. Many agricultural workers, among others, were protected inadequately from pesticides and other dangers to health. Government education programs were addressing these concerns. The law does not apply to service rendered to the matai. While the law does not address specifically 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 were enforced adequately by the Public Service Commission.

Foreign workers are protected by law; minimum wage and working conditions standards apply equally to them. There were very few foreign workers in the country due to the high unemployment rate. Most foreign workers were educated professionals in technical and health services fields.

f. Trafficking in Persons

There is no statute that specifically addresses trafficking in persons. In February, police in American Samoa uncovered a prostitution ring in which up to 40 young women from Independent Samoa were lured to American Samoa with the promise of work as waitresses; once there, they allegedly were forced into prostitution. The Government cooperated with the American Samoan authorities' investigation and deported an alleged leader of the ring, who had fled to Independent Samoa, back to American Samoa for prosecution. The six Samoan women found in a brothel operated by the ring when the authorities acted to close it down returned to Independent Samoa.