Vanuatu

Last Updated 21 May 2021

Vanuatu is small island nation in the South Pacific comprised of roughly 80 islands with a population estimate of 303,009. According to the most recent estimates (2009), 70% of the population belong to denominations of Protestantism, 12.4% are Roman Catholic, 3.7% hold customary beliefs, approximately 13% are followers of an estimated 88 other religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Muslims, and several newly formed groups, while 1.1% are non-religious.1https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/vanuatu/#people-and-society; https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, it was under joint British and French administration until it attained independence in the 1980s, joining the United Nations in 1981. Owing to its history of colonization, the small country is home to as many as 112 languages, however its official languages are French, English and Bismala.

 
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution of Vanuatu2https://www.gov.vu/index.php/about/constitution-of-vanuatu is largely secular, though its preamble might exclude non-believers –

“proclaim the establishment of the united and free Republic of Vanuatu founded on traditional Melanesian values, faith in God, and Christian principles”

The document recognizes “freedom of conscience and worship” as a fundamental right “t subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and to the legitimate public interest in defence, safety, public order, welfare and health”.  Government officials are allowed to choose between a religious oath and a non-religious affirmation.

The law requires religious groups to register; however, the government did not enforce this requirement. Registration allows the religious group to maintain a bank account. 3https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/

Official deference to religion

The government provides an annual grant to the interdenominational Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC) – a NGO made up of her seven member churches that runs development projects in the community all intertwined with religious activities, including managing public schools – amounting to some 10 million vatu (approx. US$88,700) in 2019. The Prime Minister is said to have called for greater transparency and accountability on spending following accusations of misuse of funds. 4https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/

In 2019, the Prime Minister of the Republic is reported to have “commended the churches for their prayers that helped to maintain government stability, allowing the current government to complete its four-year term successfully” while also citing concerns that the nation’s churches were not full on Sundays, encouraging the VCC to expand its outreach to the young.5https://dailypost.vu/news/pm-wants-vanuatu-christian-council-to-be-transparent-with-vt10-million-grant/article_5d588cb4-00e0-11ea-b2e4-db0db57abf24.html

In March, the Minister for Internal Affairs called on all churches to hold more “open-air crusades” – public preaching – as a way to combat crime around Port Vila.6https://dailypost.vu/news/to-preach-or-not-to-preach/article_ac004ecb-9e4c-5637-be0e-da27d98a0726.html

The Ministry of Health cooperates with six churches, including Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, the Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ, to provide health, educational, economic, and disaster response assistance to needy local communities.7https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/

Education and children’s rights

The government provides funding to religious schools and pays teacher’s salaries. These benefits are not available to the few non-Christian religious schools in the country. Religious education is also dominated by Christianity though pupils have the right to abstain from RE classes.8https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/

According to law, children may not be refused school admission or be treated unfavorably because of their religion.

Family, community and society

Gender discrimination

According to the US State Department, “[w]omen were slowly emerging from a traditional culture characterized by male dominance” where traditions preclude them from land ownership or property inheritance. In addition, “Customary bride-price payments continued and contributed to the perception of male ownership of women.”9https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/VANUATU-2020-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf

Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

Abortion remains illegal in Vanuatu with the penal code setting a sentence of two years for any women who “intentionally procure her own miscarriage”.10https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/88512/101229/F1616956608/VUT88512.pdf Under the law, the only exception is for the vaguely-worded “good medical reason.” In 2017, the World Health Organization raised concerns that the absence of “exceptions for cases of rape or incest and that this prohibition leads teenage girls into unsafe abortions with consequent risk for their life and health.”11https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/country/vanuatu/

LGBTI+ rights

In 2011, Vanuatu signed a statement at the UN to end ‘acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and identity’.12https://geneva.usmission.gov/2011/03/22/lgbtrights/ However, LGBTI+ people face legal challenges and discrimination.13https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020; https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/vanuatu/session_32_-_january_2019/kahrf_upr32_vut_e_main.pdf; https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/VANUATU-2020-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf Same-sex unions are not recognised in any form, mostly due to religious opposition.14https://www.equaldex.com/region/vanuatu There is no legal protection against forms of identity discrimination.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression, assembly and association are guaranteed under the Constitution and generally respected.15https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Vanuatu_2013.pdf?lang=en; https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020

Media freedom

Public officials have faced accusations of intimidation of journalists as a result of their critical reporting.16https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020

In November 2019, the government cancelled the residency visa and refused to renew a work permit for Dan McGarry, media director of the Daily Post – Vanuatu’s only daily newspaper. McGarry was reported to believe that the revocation of his visa and work permit were in retaliation for his publication of reports on the alleged growing influence of China in the country.17https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa44/1489/2019/en/ The Supreme Court revoked the travel ban in December, allowing McGarry to return to Vanuatu. 18https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020

“Insult” to religion

Under Article 88 of the Penal Code:19https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/88512/101229/F1616956608/VUT88512.pdf

“No person shall destroy, damage or defile any place of worship or any object which is held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of  persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion.”

Those convicted of the offence may face up to two years’ imprisonment. However, the law does not appear to be enforced.

 

References

1 https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/vanuatu/#people-and-society; https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/
2 https://www.gov.vu/index.php/about/constitution-of-vanuatu
3, 4, 7, 8 https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/vanuatu/
5 https://dailypost.vu/news/pm-wants-vanuatu-christian-council-to-be-transparent-with-vt10-million-grant/article_5d588cb4-00e0-11ea-b2e4-db0db57abf24.html
6 https://dailypost.vu/news/to-preach-or-not-to-preach/article_ac004ecb-9e4c-5637-be0e-da27d98a0726.html
9 https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/VANUATU-2020-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf
10, 19 https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/88512/101229/F1616956608/VUT88512.pdf
11 https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/country/vanuatu/
12 https://geneva.usmission.gov/2011/03/22/lgbtrights/
13 https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020; https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/vanuatu/session_32_-_january_2019/kahrf_upr32_vut_e_main.pdf; https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/VANUATU-2020-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf
14 https://www.equaldex.com/region/vanuatu
15 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Vanuatu_2013.pdf?lang=en; https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020
16, 18 https://freedomhouse.org/country/vanuatu/freedom-world/2020
17 https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa44/1489/2019/en/

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