Human rights in Samoa
Samoa, formally the Independent State of Samoa, has a population of approximately 188,000 people. Samoa gained independence from New Zealand in 1962 and has a Westminster model of Parliamentary democracy which incorporates aspects of traditional practices. The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) is currently in government and has been so for over 20 years.
While the Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa provides for the protection of certain fundamental human rights, there continue to be several major issues. Major areas of concern include the under-representation of women, domestic violence and poor prison conditions. Reports issued under the auspices of the United Nations have noted that societal attitudes towards human rights tend to be sceptical, this is contributed to concern that that enforcement of such rights will be at the detriment of Samoan customs and tradition.
International treaty obligations
Samoa is a member of the United Nations and has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the eight fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 2012 Samoa ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPPED).
Due to limited resources, Samoa has previously failed to issue reports within the designated time frames of the conventions. For example, Samoa submitted its initial, second and third periodic reports under CEDAW as one document in May 2003 when they were due in 1993, 1997 and 2001 respectively.
Concern has been expressed in regard to Samoa’s limited incorporation of treaty obligations into its national law. For example, in 2005 CEDAW voiced concern over the lack of a time frame for reform of domestic legislation in conformity with the convention.
In response to recommendations, Samoa issued a standing invitation to all United Nations Special Procedures Mandate Holders in 2011.
The Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa 1960 came into force in 1962 and provides for the protection of fundamental human rights such as:
- Right to life (section 5)
- Right to personal liberty (section 6)
- Freedom from inhuman treatment (section 7)
- Freedom from forced labour (section 8)
- Right to fair trial and due process (sections 9,10)
- Freedom of religion (sections 11,12)
- Rights regarding freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement and residence (section 13)
- Property rights (section 14)
- Freedom from discriminatory legislation (section 15)
While freedom from discrimination is provided for in regards to descent, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, social origin, place of birth and family status there is no protection from discrimination on the basis of disability or sexual orientation.
A noteworthy omission from the constitution is the right to be free from torture.
The Office of the Ombudsman
Section 11 of the Komesina o Sulufaiga (Ombudsman) Act 1988 establishes the Office of the Ombudsman as an independent body authorised to investigate complaints concerning the actions of governmental authorities within the public sector.
In Samoa’s 2011 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organisations (SUNGO) was concerned that the office lacked accessibility due to minimal public awareness of the office’s functions and its limitation to the public sector.
National human rights mechanisms
While Samoa has no overarching human rights legislation or institution, there has been movement towards the creation of a Human Rights Commission (HRC). In 2009, a joint ‘Samoa Declaration’ was agreed upon amongst several Pacific island states. The declaration emphasised the importance of national human rights institutions and encouraged states to establish such bodies. Samoa has undertaken a Law and Justice Sector Plan 2008-2012 which is intended to include the establishment of a HRC. Samoa reiterated its intention to do so in the UPR in 2011 and received recommendations that it initially be established within the Office of the Ombudsman. In 2013, the Parliament of Samoa passed the Ombudsman (Komesina O Sulufaiga) Act to include human rights as part of the functions of the existing Ombudsman.
Universal suffrage was achieved in 1991 for all Samoan citizens aged 21 years and over.
Samoan tradition is incorporated into the electoral system. Through consensus, a single person is nominated as the chief (Maitai) of each village and only those with a chieftain title may then stand for election of the 47 Samoan seats. Two seats are reserved for non-Samoans.
Women's rights in politics
The level of female participation in Samoa politics is ranked as one of the world's lowest. Women's right to vote granted through the inception of universal suffrage in 1991 did little to improve women's participation as the prerequisite to become a candidate in Parliament is being a Matai (chiefs) and most matais are men. Therefore, political participation has been a very slow process because women are constantly confronted with challenges and barriers created by traditions, social perceptions, lack of education, measures, policy interventions and much more. To address gender inequality and encourage women's rights in politics, interventions, advocate groups, legislation and treaties have been established. These include the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Constitution Amendment Act (2013).
Right to vote
Since Samoa's independence in 1962, only matais (chiefs) were granted voting rights for various elections at both national and local level. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1991 which granted both women and men aged 21 years and over with voting rights. This was first executed in the 1991 elections. Despite women being granted the right to vote, female candidates in Parliament have not been significant.
An issue exists in regards to the under-representation of women in Parliament. Although there are no legal barriers at the national level, in practice women rarely obtain chief titles. Following the general election of 2006, four women became members of the 49 member Parliament. This represented 8.1% of the available seats. This low representation is thought to be influenced by socio-cultural attitudes. Some villages do not allow women to possess chieftain titles, while others such as Malie, Letogo, Tanugamanono and Saleimoa restrict female chieftain by prohibiting their participation in village councils. This reduces their ability to obtain village consensus for their candidacy.
Despite the inception of universal suffrage, women's representation in the political realm in both local and national levels remain marginalized by chiefs in political decision-making processes. The Electoral Act of 1963 imposes that only a matai is eligible to run or serve as a Member of Parliament. In which case a large majority of matais are men. This limited number of women matais hinders the opportunity for women to participate in politics. However, despite male domination of chief titles, women matai numbers in 1993 were reported as 1,261 which was considered to be an improvement from earlier years.
Male matais dominate most of the decision-making in village councils. A limited number of female matais are a part of the village councils and women are gradually entering the village councils. There are 240 villages in Samoa with an average of 56 matais per village. Pulenu'u (village mayors) are elected by the village councils and are remunerated by the government. In 2011, five pulenu'u were women which equated 3 per cent of the total pulenu'u population.
As for women in village councils, one woman out of 229 village council members was recorded in 1994. In 2011, an overall 10.5 per cent of chiefs were women and in the village councils, women made up the 36 per cent. Findings from research on women's participation in politics found that a low participation of women at the local level translates into the low population in national government.
Early evidence of women's representation in Parliament began in 1970 (see table below). Honorable Taulapapa Faimaala was the first woman Member of Parliament (MP) in Samoa and served two terms. She was a pioneer for Samoan women as she was also the first Deputy Speaker of the House in 1973 until 1976. Ten years later, her daughter Honorable Fiame Naomi Mata'afa was elected as a MP and is the longest standing woman in Parliament serving 30 years. In 1998, Fiame became the first female Cabinet Minister who has served as the Minister for Education, Women, Community and Social Development. At present, Fiame is the Minister of Justice and Courts Administration.
Over the years there has been a notable increase of female candidates.There were 22 candidates in 1996 where 3 women were selected as cabinet members. Most recently in March 2016 elections, a record breaking total of 24 candidates came forward in which 4 were elected. In adherence to the 10 per cent quota codified in the Constitutional Amendment Act 2013, an additional woman will be added to Parliament due to the results of the elections.
The following table indicates that despite the relatively low number of female matais, some women have been successful in national politics.
|Table 1: Women Political Development in Samoa
|Parliaments||No. of Candidates||No. of successful candidates||Success rate (%)||Members of Parliament (%)||Deputy Speaker||Cabinet Minister|
|Numbers include women who contested by-elections.
Note: 2016 elections a record of 24 candidates, 4 successful + 1 (using the quota) equating to 10 per cent of women representation in Parliament
Many academics have attempted to investigate the challenges women face entering politics at all levels. These include cultural and circumstantial barriers and lack of policy interventions which have been reported to bring hindrance to women obtaining support from the villages, traditional leadership knowledge, mentor assistance and political networking.
- Cultural barriers about a women's place in political spheres in both community and Parliament level are one of the major factors influencing women participation and public life. Their primary traditional role was restricted to enhance and uphold family status. The historic methods of upholding their customary role was through producing the ie toga (fine mats) which were the most valuable currency in Samoan social, economic and political sphere. More so, women are referred to as "o le pae ma le auli" or the shell and the iron referring to their role as peacemakers who resolve conflicts within their family which is still evident today. The traditional female roles and responsibilities to spouses and children were stated as barriers for many women to participate in politics.
- Social perceptions of villages in Samoa view women as supporters, organizers and campaign managers for their spouse or male relatives who are decision makers or political candidates.
- A need of education and training measures to challenge social attitudes about women and decision making are necessary remedies to assist women's perspectives. There is a lack of educational opportunities to help promote young women attitudes and self-belief as potential leaders or to introduce them to the concept of national politics. Women who are not exposed to the matai language and protocols during their upbringing will play a vital role into future roles in politics. In turn, does not provide women with the right resources and preparations to be involved in decision-making in matai council meetings. Such knowledge and meaningful contribution to village rules and governance acquires mentorship and education from active women politicians.
- A lack of policy to initiate positive change to the low numbers of female participation was stated by UNICEF as a fundamental contributing factor.
Promoting women's representation
Ratification of certain treaties, legislation and establishment of a Ministry for Women are among many efforts that Samoa has taken to promote women roles and rights in politics.
Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development
The Samoan government established the Ministry of Women's Affairs now referred to as the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD). Its purpose according to the Ministry of Women's Affairs Amendment Act 1998 was to empower women to fulfill their role in society and in the workplace. A division of women has been established under the governance of MWCSD, to act as the "focal point" for the CEDAW that works in partnership with NGOs and other government departments.
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
In September 1991, Samoa ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to provide a human rights framework based on gender equality. Samoa was the first Pacific Island Country to become a party to CEDAW. In execution of Samoa's commitment to CEDAW, it must submit a report on the legislative, judicial, administration or other measures which it has adapted to give effect to CEDAW. According to UNICEF, members and leaders of judicial, legal, management and community in Samoa society must understand CEDAW to better implement and adhere to this convention.
Relevant to women participation in politics, Article 7 of CEDAW imposes governments to grant women with the right to vote, participate in forming and implementing government policies and to join public an political organisations.
Constitution Amendment Act (2013)
In June 2013, in response to recommendations for policy interventions to address gender imbalance, the Samoan government ratified the Constitution Amendment Act (2013) (CAA). It established a 10 per cent quota system to reserve seats to women electoral candidates into the national legislative assembly. It guarantees women representation if there is less than five seats elected, up to five seats will be reserved for women and if there are only two, then the three women with the next highest amount of votes will be granted seats. In adaptation of such constitutional mandate for female Parliamentarian seats, Samoa has become the first independent country in the Pacific to do so. The Prime Minister Honorable Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi announced the Parliament's intention when seeking to implement the legislation:
"If we do not put in the necessary stipulation in our legislation one never knows whether in the next elections there [will] be absolutely no women in Parliament. So this is part of our intention to ensure that there shall always be women in Parliament."
The reception of the amendment has been both negative and positive. On the one hand, the amendment demonstrates a positive change for Samoa as it will improve women participation in Parliament. The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly referred to it as 'a new dawn for women'. However at the preliminary discussions before passing of the Bill, the opposition party Tautua Samoa contended that there was a need to gather a consensus and views from the villages because some villages have banned women from holding matai titles. The quota was described as being 'minimal' and 'not enough' to make a real difference. In response to the amendment, annterview with a MP before March 2016 elections stated that Samoan government are not actively executing their duty to address women's representation in politics despite their wish to do so. Another view argued that although the amendment is a good start to counter political involvement, intervention is more needed to address cultural and tangible barriers to women as political leaders.
In adherence to the new law, the results of the March 2016 elections activated 10 per cent quota system. Four candidates were elected and as such a fifth female candidate will be added to Parliament using the highest votes percentage ratio as required by the amendment.
Accurate statistics are difficult to obtain as often cases are not reported or recorded due to societal attitudes that discourage this. Altering such perspectives is identified as important in combating this problem. However, there has been a rise in the number of cases reported in recent years. This increase has been attributed to governmental departments and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) in implementing programmes that have created greater awareness of the issue and encouraged reporting.
Samoa has established measures to aid in combating this problem such as:
- A National Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women (2008–2012) which outlines a strategic approach for the advancement of women’s rights.
- The Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD) whose mandate focuses on the social and economic development of the community with an emphasis on the role of women. The ministry also undertakes awareness programmes on issues of domestic abuse.
- The finalisation of the Family Safety Bill 2009 is intended to give greater effect to CEDAW and CRC in relation to domestic violence issues. The enactment of the bill has been criticised as taking too long.
- The Domestic Violence Unit operates within the Ministry of Police and Prisons and handles issues of violence against women and children.
While women enjoy many of the same rights as men in terms of employment opportunities, there remain areas of discrimination. In 2007 it was reported that under national legislation women were restricted from undertaking night time work or manual labour that is deemed ‘unsuited to their physical capacity.’ This has been seen as inconsistent with article 11 of CEDAW which prohibits discrimination in employment.
The prison conditions in Samoa, most notably the main prison at Tafaigata, are of low quality and the Samoan government has recognised the need to remedy the situation. Prison facilities lack sufficient resources in regards to funding and the availability of trained personnel. SUNGO reported that a number of prisons failed to adequately provide a sufficient quantity of basic necessities such as water, food and basic sanitation. It has been noted that prison cells are holding large groups of prisoners beyond their capabilities.
While the Office of the Ombudsman is authorised to receive complaints from prisoners, this avenue has not yet been utilised. Under the Law and Justice Sector Plan, the government is reviewing the Prison Act 1967 and drafting legislation to move responsibility for the review of prisons away from the Ministry of Police and establish it within an independent authority.
Based on statistics from 2006, there are approximately 2100 persons living with disabilities in Samoa. There is no specific legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and nor is it a basis for freedom from discrimination in Samoa’s constitution. Samoa is not a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) yet has indicated that they would consider acceding to it.
Samoa has set up a National Disabilities Taskforce which constructs programmes that provide assistance to persons with disabilities. This is guided by the National Policy and National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities set up in 2009.
Rights of the child
The issue of child street vendors in Samoa has been acknowledged with growing concern. SUNGO submits that by allowing this issue to continue, Samoa is acting contrary its obligations under both the CRC in regards to the right to education and the convention of the ILO in regards to freedom from exploitative labour.
Reports suggest that issues of poverty and hardship contribute to the existence of child street vendors. Samoa has a National Policy for Children 2010-2015 which is aimed at alleviating poverty and providing protection to children through programmes and services.
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- Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Pacific Humanitarian Protection Cluster, Human Rights Monitoring of Persons Internally Displaced by the 2009 Tsunami in Samoa (2010) at p 8, 9
- These include Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87); Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98); Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29); Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105); Equal Remuneration Convention, 1950 (No. 100); Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111); Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) see
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