Update 2011 - Tuvalu
Tuvalu voted to separate from the Gilbert Islands in 1974. On 1 October 1978, the island nation became independent. Tuvalu became a member of the United Nations in 2000. The four reef islands and five atolls, consisting of a mere 26 sq. kilometres, is one of the most densely populated independent states in the UN and the second smallest in terms of population, with 11,000 citizens. No point on Tuvalu is more than 4.5 metres above sea level.
Tuvalu is a constitutional monarchy. The parliament (Te Fale o Palamene) consists of 15 members that are popularly elected every four years from eight constituencies. There are no formal political parties.
Subsistence farming and fishing are the primary economic activities. Fishing licences to foreign vessels also provide an important revenue source. Approximately ten per cent of the male workforce are employed as seafarers in the commercial shipping industry, providing households with overseas remittances.
Tuvalu is a party to and has ratified two international human rights treaties – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Tuvalu has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169 but it voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
Freedom of speech and assembly
In early 2011, a 14-day ban on gatherings of more than ten people was imposed by the Government of Tuvalu. Activating the Public Order Act for the first time in the country’s history, the emergency regulations meant that all public meetings,
protest marches and community feasts were banned. The ban was put in place after community leaders and members of the Nuku
fetau island community in the capital marched to the home of Nukufetau Member of Parliament Lotoala Metia in Funafuti on 12 January 2011, calling for his resignation.1 This peaceful protest was organised after Mr Metia had failed to meet with community elders upon request, which was seen as breaching traditional protocol. The prime minister of Tuvalu, Willie Telavi, activated the Public Order Act in response to alleged threats made in a letter sent to Finance Minister Metia by his constituents in Nukufetau. The prime minister stated that the group had issued Metia with an ultimatum that he should resign immediately. The letter also allegedly stated that they would do everything within their power to remove him if he did not comply. Telavi further stated that there were rumours circulating that the group planned to burn down buildings.
That same day (January 12), the armed Coast Guard vessel Te Mataili was deployed off shore in the Funafuti lagoon close to the residences of the Governor General and the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. It is not known why the vessel was moved in. However, the involvement of this vessel and the fact that some of the personnel may have been armed – an unprecedented event in Tuvalu’s peaceful history - was a source of grave fear and concern for Tuvalu’s population. 2 The government later denied deploying armed personnel when questioned on the matter by the opposition in parliament.
The events leading up to this action started in mid-December 2010 when a vote of no confidence was passed in relation to the planned budget of Maatia Toafa’s government, formed three months earlier following national elections. Three members of Toafa’s government crossed the floor and joined the opposition, including Willy Telavi, who was subsequently elected Prime Minister. The Nukufetau community was not happy that one of their two elected members, Mr Lotoala Metia, had joined the Telavi government.
A regional media monitoring group, Pacific Freedom Forum, said that the first use of the law to impose “an historic 14-day ban on public meetings” would have “trickle down impacts on free speech and free expression” in the country.3
Predictions about climate change resulting in more serious droughts in Tuvalu seemed to be vindicated when a state of emergency was declared in September following months of well below average rainfall. Two of Tuvalu’s nine islands - Funafuti (the capital) and Nukulaelae - were most affected. Most households on these islands were either out of water by September or running very low on supplies and were dependent upon a free water ration of two buckets of water per family per day, supplied by the government. Agriculture was also being seriously affected.
The sources of fresh water in Tuvalu are groundwater, rainwater, bottled water and desalinated sea-water. Groundwater is either contaminated by urban run-off or brackish and therefore unsuitable for consumption. Of the five existing desalination plants in Tuvalu, four were not operating during the drought because of a lack of capacity to repair them. Households therefore have to rely largely on rainwater collected in domestic tanks. An Australian aid project had delivered and installed 607 water tanks the year before the drought, reportedly improving access to fresh water for 85% of the population of Funafuti. Nevertheless, considerable hardship was experienced in 2011. In September, emergency desalination equipment, hand sanitisers and water containers were deployed by Australian, New Zealand and Red Cross teams to address the water shortage in the short term. A major health crisis was averted, but many questions remain as to the long-term appropriateness of desalinators, the efficiency and maintenance of household collection systems, and on-going food security.4
Related to this, climate change policy moved forward in 2011 with extensive community consultations for a national climate change policy. There is optimism that this policy, when passed by Parliament in early 2012, will provide considerable protection and recognition of traditional land, fishing and cultural rights, which are under threat from climate change. Less optimistically, the head of the Tuvalu-an civil society delegation to the international climate negotiations at Durban, Tafue Lusama, stated:
My general feelings about this convention are those of disappointment. There is no sense of urgency in the negotiations and the issue is treated with political mandates and self-interests rather than with urgency and sincere concern for the wellbeing of Mother Earth and the most vulnerable.5
Women in Tuvalu have earned places in the traditionally male-dominated workplace and political arena. The second female member of parliament in Tuvalu’s history was elected in August 2011. Pelenike Isaia, wife of deceased member of parliament, Isaia Italeli, won the seat vacated by her husband’s death in a by-election in Nui. In another significant step forward, the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute accepted its first ever female cadet, and there is optimism that the traditionally male-dominated seafaring sector will now be more accessible to women. The female cadet joins Tuvalu’s first female air pilot to provide young Tuvaluan women with important new role models.
4 Twenty-fifth Annual Report of the Tuvalu Trust Fund Advisory Committee, TTFAC Secretariat, 2011.
Carol Farbotko is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Taukiei Kitara is a member of Tuvalu Climate Action Network.