Tonga Receives Praise, Criticism Over Human Rights Progress

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UN group lauds political reforms, slams lack of women’s rights

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 6, 2013) – A United Nations review conducted on the state of human rights in Tonga was completed on 25 January 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland, when Tonga's Minister for Internal Affairs, Lord Vaea was questioned over women’s rights, police violence, establishing a national human rights institution, the living conditions of persons with disabilities and the reasons for Tonga's failure to accede to numerous core international human rights instruments.

The review was administered under the UN’s Human Rights Council’s "Universal Periodic Review Working Group (Working Group)."

The process involved member states reviewing and questioning the national reports.

Tonga’s national report on Human Rights was presented before the Working Group by Minister for Internal Affairs, Lord Vaea, with delegates Solicitor General 'Aminiasi Kefu, and the Charge d'Affaires, Tonga High Commission (London), Sonata Tupou.

According to a draft report from the Working Group, Lord Vaea greeted the Universal Periodic Review as an opportunity for Tonga "to showcase the fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1875 Tongan Constitution" and its aspirations to ratify new human rights conventions.

Questions frequently addressed to Lord Vaea concerned gender issues, women’s rights, police violence, establishing human rights institutions and the living conditions of persons with disabilities, and anti-corruption measures.

In response to questions about Tonga’s consideration of the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution, encouraged by Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he said Tonga was unable to establish such a human rights institute, due to a lack of resources but understood its importance and hoped that donor partners would consider providing assistance for this initiative.

In relation to establishing safeguards against police violence, Lord Vaea said that while "the use of police intimidation tactics is a regular occurrence, but police violence against suspects is rare." Training would be conducted under the new Tonga Police Act 2010, that provided modern police standards that respect human rights.

Women's rights

In response to questions about women’s rights and gender equality, he said that Tonga had taken steps at national and international levels to improve gender quality. He mentioned the number of women working in public and private institutions, and the prosecution of family violence without exception.

However, he said that the right of women to own land was still being considered because of Tongan Culture and the current land tenure system. He said that a Royal Commission of Inquiry made recommendations to amend the land laws to allow women more access to land.

Despite this, states including Italy, Slovenia and Mexico were critical of Tonga for not ratifying an international convention that advocated gender equality, CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).

Graft in public sector

Many other issues were also brought into the discussion including same-sex marriage, living standards of disabled persons, the death penalty, torture, abortion and corruption.

Canada in noting Tonga’s progress in combating corruption, asked what specific steps Tonga had taken to improve governance and what further steps are planned in this respect, and to eventually eliminate graft in the public sector. Canada welcomed the reforms introduced in 2010, which should be consolidated to eventually lead Tonga to become a fully representative democracy. They remained concerned that freedom of speech and the press are not always protected in practice in Tonga, and made recommendations.

Tongan response

A media release from the Office of the Minister of Internal Affairs, stated that there were difficult human rights issues that Tonga still needed to carefully consider against certain factors, "such as traditional cultural values, fundamental Christian beliefs, Government policy and the limited resources available to implement such human rights".

Lord Vaea said it was important that Tonga was able to explain the situation and circumstances it was facing in advancing human rights, and that the states "appreciate that Tonga needs time and technical assistance to fulfil its human rights obligations."Most of the human rights recommendations presented by states during the interactive dialogue were acceptable to Tonga, as they were currently pursued or already achieved by Government. These amounted to 56 recommendations. However, there were 28 recommendations that were sensitive to Tonga’s circumstances, and they needed further and careful consideration.

CEDAW

The four recommendations that were not accepted "were against Government policy and priorities."

The four recommendations that were rejected required that Tonga quickly ratify CEDAW. (made by Italy, The Maldives, Slovenia, Estonia, Uruguay, and Mexico).

Tonga received a mixture of concern and support from the various states. According to the Draft Report of the Working Group, France was dissatisfied that "very few" international human rights instruments had been ratified and that "no progress had been made". This was in contrast to China who "appreciated Tonga’s efforts to promote and protect human rights."

Japan welcomed Tonga's enactment of constitutional and electoral reform legislation and of the freedom of information policy. It welcomed the campaign to combat domestic violence and efforts made towards the ratification of the CEDAW. Japan noted that Tonga had not submitted its first report to CRC and hoped it would do so as soon as possible. It recommended that Tonga continue its efforts for the ratification of CEDAW and ratify the Convention at the earliest possible date.

The United States of America was concerned about Tonga’s failure to adequately combat domestic violence and discrimination against women. It commended the Police Force and Justice Ministry for adopting a "no drop" policy. Conversely, it was concerned that children born in wedlock cannot be legally and fully adopted and that consensual sex between same-gender adults is criminalized.

New Zealand noted that, despite Government efforts, there was not equal participation between men and women in various areas of contemporary life. It welcomed measures taken and progress made in drafting legislation to protect women from violence and remained committed to supporting Tonga in that area. It made recommendations that Tonga prioritize gender equality initiatives within its Tonga Strategic Development Framework and intensify its efforts to increase women’s participation at all formal decision-making levels.

Australia commended Tonga’s reforms since 2010. It considered that Tonga needed to extend its efforts to fully achieve Millennium Development Goal 3, despite its progress to meet gender equality in education. Australia commended Tonga’s efforts to promote gender equality and for progressing work on a Family Protection Bill. Nevertheless, rates of domestic violence remained high.

While noting Tonga's de facto moratorium on executions since 1982, several states called on Tonga to abolish the death penalty, including Australia, Chile, France, Italy, Norway, Slovakia, and Spain.

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