Political review: Vanuatu 2000

By Anita Jowitt [authors draft]

Subsequently published in Contemporary Pacific , Fall 2001.


2000 has been a generally stable year for the Vanuatu government, especially when compared to the governance situation in neighbouring Melanesian countries. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, given the previous instability in Vanuatu politics and the difficulty of successfully operating a coalition government, the five party coalition formed at the end of 1999 under the leadership of Barak Sope has remained in power. Although there were various rumours that ministerial posts would be reallocated in contravention of the coalition memorandum of agreement (V.W. 22 Jan 2000; T.P. 14 June 2000), one threatened no confidence action by the opposition (V.W. 7 Oct 2000) and an offer by the Vanuaku Pati (VP) to form a coalition with the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and thereby change the government (V.W. 2 Sept 2000) none of these actions resulted in any changes within Parliament. Although there was some factionalism and infighting within the major parties none of this wrangling has had any significant impact on Vanuatu’s political scene.


Although the government has been largely stable, progress on the comprehensive reform program (CRP) has been somewhat erratic. There has been action in some areas of the CRP agenda, with the establishment of a number of review boards in key areas, including decentralisation and land administration. The Decentralisation Review Commission, whose role is to “ensure that the fruit of CRP is shared down to the rural areas”, has been active in engaging in consultation throughout Vanuatu since July and is expected to make recommendations on decentralisation by mid-2001. (V.W. 22 July 2000) Land dispute administration has long been a problem due to inactive and inappropriate Island Courts and an appeal structure that brings customary disputes to the Supreme Court. After two months of consultations in mid 2000 the team responsible for reviewing the land dispute system has recommended the creation of a dispute resolution system that is more appropriate to custom than the current land dispute resolution system. Draft legislation has been written, and, if passed, will see the creation of village level Lands Tribunals, comprised of people who are recognised as being knowledgeable of custom, to resolve land disputes. (V.W. 28 Dec 2000)


A third area in which review commenced in 2000 is revenue collection. The Revenue Strategy Committee was established in November and will, in accordance with CRP, primarily consider options for widening the tax base. (V.W. 11 Nov 2000) It does, however, seem that this revenue review is being driven more by concern about Vanuatu’s tax haven status than by concern for achieving the targets established by the CRP. Recent OECD agitation on unfair competition from tax havens (a seemingly hypocritical attack on competition by countries who usually champion competition in the form of free trade) is creating considerable pressure on countries to reconsider their revenue bases. (P.I.R. 13 Mar 2000) Whilst Vanuatu’s tax base has not yet been modified in the face of OECD pressure, it is a member of a joint Commonwealth and OECD Working Group on cross border tax issues that has been set up because of concerns about tax havens. (Samoa Observer 30 Jan 2001) It remains to be seen whether the outcomes of Revenue Strategy Committee are in any way influenced by international anti-tax haven pressures.


These anti-tax haven pressures are at least in part driven by fears that small open economies such as Vanuatu’s may be used for money laundering. Vanuatu has responded to accusations that its open economy can be misused for money laundering by passing the Financial Transactions Reporting Act, which establishes a Financial Intelligence Unit. This Act requires that all suspicious transactions involving foreign currency be reported to the new Financial Intelligence Unit who can then investigate reports or share information with the relevant authorities. (V.W. 26 Aug 2000)


Other significant Acts to have been passed in 2000 include:

·         the Nurses Act, which requires the establishment of a Nurses Council to regulate the profession in Vanuatu;

·         the Judicial Services and Courts Act, which is aimed at improving the standards within Vanuatu’s judicial system by prescribing minimum qualification standards for justices;

·         the Interactive Gaming Act, which allows for the establishment of internet casinos in Vanuatu, an activity that will hopefully generate significant government revenue; and

·         the Copyright and Related Rights Act, which was introduced largely in order to meet WTO standards.


Although good governance reform has been promoted by the government in 2000 by the above activities there have also been a number of government created setbacks to the good governance agenda. In March Parliament passed the Leadership Entitlement Act, which provides the President, the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the National Council of Chiefs a pension of 20% of their salary when they leave their positions. Whilst the fiscal irresponsibility of this Act was opposed, Prime Minister Barak Sope justified the Act on the grounds of needing to reward and honour leaders for their work. At the time that the Act was passed Sope also stated that in the future Parliament intended to amend the Act so that it also applied to Members of Parliament and the judiciary. (V.W. 25 Mar 2000) The Parliament (Members Expenses and Allowances) Amendment Act was also passed during the same parliamentary session. This Act increased MPs’ salaries from 120,000 vatu per month to 166,000 vatu, backdated to January 1 2000. (T.P. 25 Mar 2000)


The second legislative action to shake the good governance agenda was the passage of two Private Members Bills introduced into Parliament in March by Tanna MP and government backbencher Iaris Naunun. The first of these pieces of legislation aimed to amend the Public Service Act 1998 by deleting provisions that prohibit political interference in the operation of the public service. In particular, the amendment would allow for Director Generals and other public servants to be removed by a directive of the Prime Minister. The second piece of legislation aimed to amend the Government Act 1998 by removing requirements that any submission to the Council of Ministers involving legal issues be first of all approved by the Attorney General before being appointed to the Council. Similarly, it removed the requirement that the Director General of Finance and Economic Management first of all approve any submissions to the Council of Ministers involving financial matters. (V.W. 1 Apr 2000) These Bills were approved by Parliament on 10 April then forwarded to the President of Vanuatu, Father John Bani, to ratify. Due to doubts about the constitutionality of the Bills Father Bani, refused to sign them, and instead referred them to the Supreme Court. (V.W. 13 May 2000) The alleged unconstitutionality of the Bills stemmed from article 60(4) of the Constitution, which reads “The [Public Service] Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or body in the exercise of its functions.” In August Acting Chief Justice Lunabeck ruled that giving the Prime Minister the right to fire public servants by issue of directives was in breach of Article 60(4). The remaining content of both of the Bills was ruled to be constitutional, and both have now been promulgated. (T.P. 2 Sept 2000)


Other notable incidents that negatively impacted on the government’s reputation include misbehaviour by the then Deputy Prime Minister Stanley Reginald, and the appointment of Amarendra Nand Ghosh as  Vanuatu’s Honorary Consul to Thailand. Reginald’s drunken behaviour attracted media attention twice in 2000. The first time in March Reginald assaulted two people and punched his hand through a glass door in a bar in Port Vila. (T.P. 1 Apr 2000) The second incident, which occurred in Luganville, involved threats to security guards and management when Reginald was asked to leave a club at closing time. It was alleged that one of Reginald’s guards assaulted a security officer and threatened him with a pistol during this incident. (V.W. 5 Aug 2000) These incidents resulted in an Ombudsman’s report that recommended to Prime Minister Sope to remove Reginald from any ministerial positions. This report also urged the police to investigate the complaints and lay charges as required. (T.P. 14 Oct 2000) Although no criminal charges have been laid against Reginald because of these actions, he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister at the end of August, and was replaced by James Bule. (T.P. 30 Aug 2000)


The appointment of Ghosh as Honorary Consul for Vanuatu in Thailand occurred in April, soon after he had given Vanuatu 10 million vatu for disaster relief. He was also awarded Honorary Citizenship, as one must hold citizenship in order to be able to be a Consul for Vanuatu. (V.W. 8 Apr 2000) The Opposition objected to this action as it felt that Ghosh had bought himself a diplomatic passport. Both the Leader of the Opposition, Edward Natapei, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Willie Jimmy, expressed concern that the actions of the government create an environment whereby people can ‘buy’ the government. This concern was expressed because of Ghosh’s steadily expanding business interests in Vanuatu, which include an offshore bank, and because of his allegedly close friendship with Dinh van Than, President of the National United Party (NUP). (V.W. 29 Apr 2000) The government, however, denied that Ghosh’s appointment was a political decision, stating that “Vanuatu, as a member of the Commonwealth, should have consulates in other member countries…” (V.W. 8 Apr 2000) In November further news stories about Ghosh surfaced, with the Trading Post running a headline that read “Ghosh Accused of US$12 Fraud in Singapore”. (T.P. 22 Nov 2000)  Ghosh immediately responded to these allegations by explaining that this Singapore incident involved a dispute between banks, and did not involve him personally. (T.P. 25 Nov 2000) Soon after, he presented the government with a ruby that is allegedly worth US $174 million. This ruby was stated to be a gift to Vanuatu “to help the country so that it could be used as collateral to get financial assistance.” (T.P. 6 Dec 2000) Subsequently questions were raised by a gem expert about the true worth of the stone. The question of what Mr Ghosh is receiving from the government in return for this gift has also been raised by skeptical observers. (T.P. 27 Dec 2000)


The relationship between Ghosh and the Vanuatu government becomes more disquieting when events of early 2001 are considered. On 19 January 2001, Marc Neil Jones, editor of the Trading Post, was deported from Vanuatu for publishing “negative and baseless” stories about the relationship between Ghosh and the government. (P.I.R. 20 Jan 2001)  Jones returned to Vanuatu after two days, following an interim order by Acting Chief Justice Lunabeck that allowed him back into the country until the legality of his deportation could be resolved in court.  After further threats by the government a customary reconciliation ceremony was performed between Jones and the government. This ceremony, which was prompted in part by a public outcry against the government’s actions, appears to have settled the dispute.


This attack on press freedom does not entirely come as a surprise however. At the end of 1999 Sope had made statements directed at opposition leaders, journalists and the public to the effect that conspiracy and treason are criminal offences with a life sentence, and news stories that show the government in a bad light can be considered treasonous.  (T.P. 15 Dec 1999)  Signals that media freedom in Vanuatu was under threat have continued to appear with regularity throughout 2000. In Policy 2000, Government of the Republic of Vanuatu Statement to the Nation it was stated that “the Government recognises and supports media freedoms as outlined in the Constitution and will promote these principles. However, the media must be a constructive contributor to Vanuatu society. Rumours in the media can be very counter-productive to the nation not only internally but internationally.” (my italics added) Shortly after this statement was released the Trading Post was warned by the Minister for Tourism and Ni-Vanuatu Business, John Alick, “not to publish any article relating to the MV Latua and its passengers.” The sinking of the MV Latua in 1999 had resulted in a Commission of Inquiry. This Commission released a public report that the Trading Post had quoted from in a front page article, and it is this action by the Trading Post that prompted Alick’s written warning to the newspaper. The Trading Post filed an official complaint to the Ombudsman over Alick’s actions. However, although the Ombudsman publicly agreed that Alick’s actions were in breach of Constitutional provisions on the freedom of expression, the Ombudsman declined to initiate an investigation into the matter. (V.W. 29 Jan 2000)


In April further government complaints about the Trading Post, this time relating to its reporting of the Private Members Bills issue, were raised. In this particular instance the Trading Post, quoting the former Prime Minister, Donald Kalpokas, ran a headline reading “Government Celebrate CRP’s Funeral.” (T.P. 12 Apr 2000) The Minister for CRP expressed concern that the media was misusing its privileges. The Minister for Energy, Mr Carlot Korman, was very outspoken on the allegedly misleading nature of the headline, stating that “we never made any celebration as stated by Trading Post. Now people overseas will say that in Vanuatu they make celebration whenever there is a funeral and we know that it is not true.” When the government had called for an urgent debate of the Trading Post report the Leader of the Opposition, Edward Natapei, questioned the need for such debate, saying that “I believe that the Trading Post front page headline touched you on the Government side.” (V.W. 15 Apr 2000) In this instance, although no warning to the Trading Post resulted, the current of government intention to limit press freedom was fairly apparent. Not long after this the government, in a press statement, gave a general warning to the media “to always maintain balanced reporting.” (V.W. 6 May 2000)


This government attack on freedom of expression has caused concern for proponents of the good governance agenda. It would appear, however, that the local and international outcry over the deportation of Jones may be a sufficient reminder to the government that constitutional rights cannot be breached without just cause.


Possibly the largest issue for the government in 2000 has been that of law and order. The first part of the year was dominated by Operesen Klinim Not 2000. This police operation was prompted by deteriorating order in Luganville, Santo. Although efforts had been made to use the customary authority of local chiefs to maintain order, over Christmas and New Year there were a number of violent and destabilising incidents such as the open display of guns and threats at gunpoint to businesspeople. This law and order problem has been growing in Luganville for some time and appears to be largely caused by unemployed and disaffected youth. After the incidents over the Christmas period the police decided to tackle Luganville’s law and order problem and mounted an operation which saw a number of people arrested and charged with various crimes, including theft, assault and unlawful entry. (V.W. 15 Jan 2000) Some, including the chiefs of the area, who have been losing authority in the existing atmosphere of lawlessness, applauded the police operation. However, very soon after the police campaign commenced a number of complaints about heavy handed police behaviour, such as using guns unnecessarily during arrests and keeping people in custody without charge for undue lengths of time were raised. (V.W. 5 Feb 2000; T.P. 26 Jan 2000) It is unclear how many of the approximately 200 people arrested in Operesen Klinim Not were charged with any offence or subsequently convicted, although a number of prosecutions were subsequently discharged due to errors in prosecution procedure. (T.P. 9 Feb 2000) A group of about 50 individuals arrested during the operation, who claim to have been badly beaten whilst in police custody, held for more than 24 hours without charge and/or held in unsanitary cells are seeking compensation from the police. It appears that the aggrieved individuals, may proceed to court with their complaint, and are filing for damages of 100 million vatu. (T.P. 27 May 2000)


The focus on problems within the police in Luganville continued when it was revealed that files relating to the prosecution of a rape incident went missing from the prosecutions office in the northern town. It was revealed that prisoners, including one who was a suspect in the rape case, had been taken to clean the office around the time that the files went missing. The Commissioner of Police, who described the incident as “a sign of total negligence”, revealed that other incidents of missing files resulting in no prosecution had occurred. (V.W. 4 Mar 2000)


The perception of a growing lack of respect for, and effectiveness of, law in Vanuatu was compounded by the Council of Ministers decision to release all prisoners, including people convicted for rape, serious assault and homicide, on New Years Eve 1999. Within two days two of the released prisoners were returned to jail for committing further crimes. (V.W. 15 Jan 2000) It was not until the middle of the year that the most serious ramification of the decision to release all prisoners was felt, however. In early June a businessman, Justin West, was killed by one of the released prisoners after breaking into West’s home to steal the keys to his shop.  He was rapidly apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 14 years imprisonment over this incident. West’s death renewed public calls for politicians to exercise restraint in decisions to release prisoners, a message that has so far been heeded. The death of Justin West also served to highlight the growing law and order problem in Port Vila. Police have mounted a number of operations in Port Vila aimed at clearing the backlog of incomplete investigations and reducing alcohol induced public disturbances. (V.W. 19 Aug 2000) Perhaps the most interesting response to the issue has been from the Vatveve Kaea Council of Chiefs in North Pentecost. This Council, because it “hates to see our people who are without jobs causing problems around [Port Vila]”, sent a paramount chief to Port Vila to order unemployed people from the Council’s area back to Pentecost. (V.W. 8 Jul 2000)


Increasingly politicians and the general public are becoming concerned about escalating crime. Patterns of behaviour which were notable in PNG at the beginning of its law and order problem are now being noted in Vanuatu. Increasing urban migration, youth unemployment and inadequate law enforcement leading to confidence amongst criminals are all becoming more apparent. (T.P. 28 Oct 2000) Ethnic tensions in Port Vila arising because of land use disputes amongst traditional owners also contribute to the budding law and order problem. (T.P. 24 Jun 2000) The increasing presence of guns in Vanuatu, which in part prompted Operesen Klinim Not, is another cause for concern. This issue was highlighted by police purchases of fifty berretta handguns through a gun dealer in Vanuatu in September, accompanied by rumours that the police were wanting to acquire an arsenal of M16 assault rifles. (T.P. 13 Sept 2000) This police action has led to public fears that, as in Solomon Islands and PNG, police weapons may be stolen by criminals and used in violent crime. Whilst this may seem to be an alarmist opinion, one cannot deny that the maintenance of law and order is becoming an increasingly significant issue for urban Vanuatu. From the experiences of our Melanesian neighbours, it would seem that, unless Vanuatu takes steps to address this issue now, the breakdown of law and order could become a defining issue in the development of Vanuatu in the future.





P.I.R., Pacific Islands Report http://pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu

Samoa Observer, Samoa, daily

T.P, The Trading Post, Port Vila, two editions per week

V.W. Vanuatu Weekly Hebdominaire, Port Vila, weekly