The Indigenous World 2021: Samoa

Samoa was the first Pacific Island State to secure the right to self-determination and independence in Oceania during the 20th century (1962).[1] Samoa’s population is estimated at 198,414 people.[2] The demographics of Samoa are: Samoan 96%, Euronesians 2% (persons of European and Polynesian ancestry), and other 1.9%.[3] Through decades of direct action in non-violent protest via the Mau movement, combined with repeated delegations to the League of Nations and later the United Nations, and in the face of violent oppression, the Indigenous Peoples of Samoa secured a seat at the United Nations as a full member in 1976.[4] Samoa originally abstained in the vote to adopt the UNDRIP in 2007; however, they have since expressed their support.[5]

When Samoa achieved its independence, it created a modern nation state upholding the rule of law. However, Samoa retained the fa’a Samoa (traditional culture) in political structures and in its Constitution. Matai (traditional chiefs) are able to stand for election to the Fono (unicameral parliament). The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power since 1982 and has supported specific steps towards universal values of equality. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1990, granting women the right to vote for the first time. In 2013, the Constitution was amended guaranteeing women five seats in the Fono. The Komesina o Sulufaiga(Ombudsman) Act 2013 expanded the mandate of the Komesina o Sulufaiga Act from 1989 onwards to include the National Human Rights Institution of Samoa (NHRI). The independent institution was given three main functions: good governance, human rights and a special investigation unit.

Updates in 2020

Samoa continues its commitment to the United Nations human rights machinery, ensuring a space for civil society to raise concerns and coordinate human rights campaigns. In the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) 2016, Samoa received 129 recommendations.[6] One of them called for the strengthening of the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) and implementation of all the recommendations made in the NHRI State of Human Rights Report 2015, including the protection of land rights for Indigenous communities.[7]

Major concerns raised since the UPR of 2016 include a bill amending the Constitution that declares Samoa a Christian nation (2017) and the status of women’s rights, particularly noting the findings of the Samoa Family Safety Study, which was launched for the second time and found an alarming number of cases of violence against women, reaching 60%.[8] The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice also conducted a 10-day visit to Samoa in 2017 and concluded that there was a need for public reflection and discussion on cultural preconceptions, calling for a coherent national strategy. The five-member Working Group also discussed how a cycle of violence starts with normalized corporal punishment. This is prevalent among men who, victimised as children, go on to repeat the pattern in adulthood.[9] These issues have also been raised by civil society throughout 2020.

Samoa implemented human rights through two main global mechanisms in 2020. It hosted the 84th Extraordinary Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC84), where over 100 youth engaged with the Committee in the first ever regional review hosted outside Geneva.[10] Samoa also underwent its second Voluntary Local Review at the UN High Level Political Forum virtually.[11] Samoa presented its vision and experience of realising the rights embodied in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

84th Extraordinary Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

Samoa became the first state to host a UN human rights treaty body mechanism to review members of a region. The essence of this exceptional exercise was to put people at the heart of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and it forms part of the UN’s piloting of efforts to host meetings outside of the UN’s Geneva headquarters. It is therefore contributing to building a better model for participation and engagement with UN processes, not only in the Pacific but around the world. Samoa is also the first Pacific Islands State to have a member on one of the nine core human rights treaty institutions. Justice Vui Nelson is the only person from the Pacific to serve as a full member of a committee. Justice Nelson also played a diplomatic role in convincing the UN Office of the High Commissioner to be bold and host the session in the Pacific region.[12]

Samoa’s engagement in 2019 advocating for the decentralisation of these meetings was a first, critical step towards achieving this decades-long call. The regional treaty body session brought the process closer to duty bearers and rights holders in Apia, Samoa – resulting in a historic event that ran from 2-6 March 2020.[13]

As the session began, special attention was paid to local custom. On 2 March, as the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean, the UN CRC Chair raised a coconut shell of ‘ava above his head in front of the assembled matai to launch the 84th Extraordinary Outreach Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The traditional ‘ava ceremony bestowed honour upon the CRC members, and breathed life into greater community engagement with the global committee in the “best interest of the child”.

Besides the historic nature of this decentralised meeting, the Committee reviewed a record number of Pacific Islands Nations – the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Tuvalu – and developed a list of issues for Kiribati. The Committee hosted numerous formal and informal sessions with multiple colleges and academics on important issues in the island nations — domestic violence, capital punishment, gender justice, sustainable development and the climate crisis.

In preparation for the event, and throughout 2020, Samoa had already been focusing on children’s rights with a national competition among 10 local schools to debate the forthcoming side-event topics. Six outstanding youths chosen from these competitions acted as moderators for the side events. These attracted Committee members as well as stakeholders from across Oceania. In total, over 700 people took part in the public talanoa side events, which covered topics ranging from “Human rights, culture and religion” to “children’s rights to health” and “protection from abuse and neglect”, and had school children speaking on the panels.

The UN CRC was the first meeting held in 2020. The 84th session became the final in-person session for all participants. It was a major feature, with zero cases of COVID-19 in the dawning of the global pandemic.

Samoa at the UN High Level Political Forum

Samoa continued to participate in global gatherings such as the UN High Level Political Forum in July 2020, representing key challenges facing the Indigenous Peoples of Samoa. The Voluntary National Review (VNR) process allowed the Samoan government to share how the 2030 Agenda is being implemented for 20 minutes, while civil society raised questions and made recommendations for achieving it.

Samoa presented a pre-recorded message, while civil society stayed up through the early hours to interact directly – posing questions and recommendations concerning priorities among Indigenous Peoples. Of particular concern to civil society were the preparations for the third cycle of the UPR in 2021. In addition, Indigenous Peoples in Samoa still face human rights violations around gender-based violence, despite progress made in addressing this, as noted above. Civil society also drew attention to violence related to corporal punishment and its effects, particularly the linkage to violent behaviour later in life.

Constitutional challenges and separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers

Civil society also expressed grave concern over the transfer of the Supreme Court Justices away from Parliament’s oversight and to a Judicial Services Commission, which they note undermines the independence of the judiciary. The Law Society has raised concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary: “The SLS [Samoa Law Society] sub-committee claimed that, along with removing Supreme Court oversight of Constitutional rights, the bills [Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020] undermined the separation of (executive, legislative and judicial) powers entrenched in the Constitution and weaken judicial independence.”[14] The concern has also been raised with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Addressing the climate crisis

Climate and the climate crisis remained a major issue that was again highlighted in 2020. Civil society called for greater urgency in national policy and implementation of the Paris Agreement, urging the government and duty bearers to hold the increase in global average temperature well below 2oC and to pursue all efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5oC.



Joshua Cooper is a lecturer at the University of Hawai'i’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and the UH West O'ahu Political Science Department. He also teaches at the Global Leadership Academy for Human Rights Advocacy and acts as the Executive Director of Oceania Human Rights.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Ghai, Yash. “Reflections on Self-Determination in the South Pacific.” In Self-Determination, edited by Clark, Donald and Robert Williamson, 173-199London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

[2] Worldometer. “Countries in the world by population (2021).” 2021., Data produced by United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2019 Revision.

[3] CIA, The World Factbook. “Samoa.” 25 February 2021.

[4] United Nations. "List of Member States: S". Accessed 27 November 2020.

[5] UNPFII - United Nations Permanent Forum On Indigenous Issues. “UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON

THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES.” March, 2008. Accessed 3 March 2021.

[6] OHCHR. “Universal Periodic Review – Samoa.” 3 May 2016.

[7] Samoa National Human Rights Institution. “State Of Human Rights Reports.” 2015.

[8] Berrell, Jacqui. “Samoa's Historic Inquiry into Family Violence Sparks A National Conversation.” UN Women Asia and the Pacific, 2017.

[9] United Nations, Human Rights Council. “Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination

against women in law and in practice on its mission to Samoa.” A/HRC/38/46/Add.1, 14 May 2018.

[10] APIA. "84th Extraordinary Outreach Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child Comes to Pacific Providing Important Regional Awareness Opportunity.” The Pacific Community, 24 January 2020.

[11] Government of Samoa, SDG Taskforce. “Samoa’s Second Voluntary National Review Report For Implementation Of Sustainable Development Goals.” 2020.

[12] Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. “Landmark Treaty Body Session to be held in Apia.” 27 October 2019.

[13] Bowe, Ashley and Joshua Cooper. “Putting People at The Heart of The Human Rights Treaty Body System.” Open Global Rights, 17 June 2020.

[14] Godfrey, Dominic. “Samoa Law Society Says Govt Could Undermine Constitution.” RNZ, 27 April 2020.



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