Last Updated 10 November 2021

Tonga is a Constitutional monarchy, however, in a partial democratization of the system, a Prime Minister backed by a parliament was appointed in 2010.1 Tonga is an archipelago, spanning 800 kilometers and made up of 176 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The population is estimated to be 106,000 as of mid-2020. According to 2016 estimates, while most of the population belonged to different Christian churches, approximately 600 individuals breported no religious affiliation. Other minority religious groups include Muslims, Bahá’í and Buddhists.2

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The king retains the Constitutional power to veto legislation according to Article 68, dissolve the parliament according to Article 38, and appoint judicial officials according to Article 31A.3 King ’Aho’eitu Tupou VI came to power in 2012 and is known to be more conservative than his late brother and predecessor.4 The unicameral Legislative Assembly consists of 17 members elected by the general public, nine noble members elected by their peers, and up to four additional members whom the prime minister may appoint to the cabinet from outside the parliament.5

The monarchy, nobility, and the country’s churches exert considerable political influence, but this has not prevented majority support for pro-democracy candidates in recent elections.

The Constitution has been criticized to be in contradiction with democratic principles, mainly in regard to the independence of the judiciary.6 The Constitution was amended in 2020 by adding on Clause 89A to allow unwritten Tongan customary practices or “tradition” to be used in the power of courts and tribunals without applying rules of evidence. The amendment was made without public consultation and is concerning due to the Tongan tradition being unwritten or sufficiently defined, and allowing harmful practices to be protected as customs.

Clause 89 “The judges shall have power to direct the form of indictments to control the procedure of the lower Courts, and to make rules of procedure.”7

The amendments add 89a:

“Customs in Tonga comprises all reasonable and sufficiently certain customs, traditions, practices, values and usages of Tongans: and every court or tribunal in the kingdom, where relevant, shall have regard thereto when deciding any matter before them for decision. Custom requires to be established in evidence but in so doing a court or tribunal shall not apply technical rules of evidence but shall admit and consider such information as available. Tongan custom shall not be lost by reason of lack of recent usage.”8

Article 89a is reported to be awaiting the assent of the King before passing into law.

The Constitution in Article 5 protects the freedom of religion and worshiping god without expanding that protection and recognizing the freedom of nontheistic or non-religious beliefs.

Article 5 of the Constitution:

“All men are free to practise their religion and to worship God as they may deem fit in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences and to assemble for religious service in such places as they may appoint. But it shall not be lawful to use this freedom to commit evil and licentious acts or under the name of worship to do what is contrary to the law and peace of the land.”9

There is no state religion. However, the Constitution states in Article 6 that Sunday, as the Sabbath Day, is to be “kept holy” and that no business can be conducted “except according to law.” The government makes an exception for hotels and certain restaurants and retail stores but there are no exceptions for any other businesses, regardless of a business owner’s religion.10 Tonga does not require religious or faith groups to register but groups need to register to receive benefits such as tax exemptions.11

The Forum of Church Leaders is a forum for Christian leaders only. The forum meets to discuss social issues such as suicide, crime, drugs, healthy lifestyles, deportees, climate change issues, and teenage pregnancy. The forum’s government-run secretariat submitted reports to the government, which demonstrates undue influence.12

In a United Nations report by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the following issues were pointed out to be of concern:

“(a) Section 118 of the Criminal Offences Act, which recognizes only women and girls as potential victims of rape and related offences, and that the protection afforded under the section does not extend to boys
(b) Discriminatory provisions excluding girls from landownership and inheritance rights
(c) Discrimination against children born to unmarried parents, who are referred to by the stigmatizing adjective “illegitimate” and who cannot inherit land or title
(d) Discrimination against children with disabilities”.13

Education and children’s rights

Tonga has both public schools and schools run by Christian groups. Students in public schools are required to attend the program led by the representative of their belief group. The education ministry allows two private Christian organizations to provide Bible study and other activities for students of different faiths throughout the year for one hour per week. Students who did not wish to participate or whose belief group didn’t send a representative are allowed to study independently in school libraries.14

Family, community and society

Tonga is yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979.15;;

Marriage Rights

According to the law,16 only marriage ceremonies carried out by Christian clergy members are legally recognized, no other marriage is valid. Non-Christians unwilling to be married by a Christian minister have no legal options to marry.17;

Domestic violence and child marriages

Despite efforts by the state and civil society organizations, domestic violence remains a problem. The legal minimum age for marriage with parent permission is 15 years old. Girls of this age are sometimes compelled and pressured by their parents to marry, especially related to incidents of teenage pregnancy, rape or girls being seen with boys.18; A report by the UN states that Tonga had a very high rate of teenage pregnancy and a high rate of infant and child mortality.19

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern regarding:

“(a) The rate of teenage pregnancies is high and pregnant girls and young mothers are stigmatized
(b) Teenage girls have limited access to safe reproductive and sexual health services and education, especially in rural areas and on the outer islands, and to methods of birth control, also due to fear of stigmatization
(c) Abortion is a criminal offence, without any exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and that the prohibition leads teenage girls to have recourse to unsafe abortions, with consequent risks for their life and health”.20

Abortion and reproductive health

Abortion in Tonga is illegal, Sections 103-105 of the Criminal Offences Act21 criminalizes administering an abortion, individuals may face up to seven years in prison. Women or girls who choose to terminate their pregnancies can be punished with up to three years in prison.

“-103 Procuring miscarriage of woman or girl. Every person who with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman or girl — (a) administers to or causes to be taken by her any drug or other noxious thing; or (b) unlawfully uses any instrument or other means whatever, shall be liable to imprisonment for any period not exceeding 7 years.
-104 Woman or girl procuring her own miscarriage. Every woman or girl who whether with child or not administers to herself or permits to be administered to her any drug or other noxious thing or uses on herself or permits to be unlawfully used on her any instrument or other means whatsoever with intent to procure miscarriage shall be liable to imprisonment for any period not exceeding 3 years.
-105 Supplying means of miscarriage. Every person who supplies or procures any drug or other noxious thing or any instrument knowing that the same is to be unlawfully used for the purpose of procuring miscarriage of any woman or girl shall be liable to imprisonment for any period not exceeding 4 years.”22

Reports show a lack of reproductive health or sex education. Schools do not provide sex education, and neither is the home a place for teenagers to learn about reproductive health. Strong social, cultural, and religious barriers and stigma contribute to unplanned teenage pregnancies.23;

LGBTI+ community

Reports indicate increasing concerns of bullying of LGBTI+ children in schools and within their own families. The Ministry of Education was reportedly hesitant to implement any policy or measures to protect the human rights of LGBTI+ students.24

Same-sex relationships are illegal in the country: Section 136 of the Criminal Offense Act states that “Whoever shall be convicted of the crime of sodomy with another person or bestiality with any animal shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any period not exceeding 10 years.”25

There was no record of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults being punished in recent years. However, there is no legal safeguard to specifically prohibit discrimination against the LGBTI+ community.26

According to Phylesha Brown-Acton, executive director of F’ine Pasifika,27 Pacific Island nations were known for acceptance of the diversity of sexual identities present in the Pacific before Christian missionaries arrived in the South Pacific in the 18th century. Brown-Acton stated that religious institutions are today a fundamental cornerstone of life in the Pacific Islands.28

“We need to win the battle in front of the church before we can win in front of the law reformers, because if we win it in front of the clergy, they will stand in front of us. They will actually argue for us, for our inclusion.”29

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The threat of legal action forces journalists to self-censor due to potential financial liabilities. The government created new laws in 2015 that allow it to block websites without a judicial review or order. The 2017 election brought growing tension between the government and journalists.30

In early 2020, three journalists from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission were suspended over allegations they attempted to incite distrust in the government. The suspension was seen as a message to journalists at the public broadcasting institution that criticism of the government will not be tolerated.31

The Ministry of Communication introduced regulations in May 2020 that imposed fines for publishing or broadcasting “sensitive information,” without defining the term.32 Journalists criticized the government’s move to pressure and prevent media outlets and social media users from raising sensitive political issues and criticizing the government,33; noting that the newly introduced regulations would infringe on Article 7 of the Constitution which guarantees media freedom.34 King Tupou VI has a history of supporting media censorship, dating back to his time as prime minister.35

The government-owned Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) maintains policy guidelines regarding the broadcast of religious programming on TV Tonga and Radio Tonga. The TBC guidelines state that in view of “the character of the listening public,” those who preach on TV Tonga and Radio Tonga must confine their preaching “within the limits of the mainstream Christian tradition.”36

Higher education

Tonga has three higher education institutions. A regional campus of the University of the South Pacific as well as the ‘Atenisi Institute, founded by late Tongan scholar Futa Helu in 1975. The third is Christ’s University, which is owned by the Tokaikolo Church opened in 2015.37

The ‘Atenisi Institute has promoted democracy, secularism, and human rights, including the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and the LGBTI+ community. With a curriculum promoting freedom of thought based on critical analysis and a classical education – philosophy, mathematics, history, literature, and music, the ‘Atenisi Institute has achieved a high level of academic achievement and international recognition.38

Following the death of the university founder in 2010, the ‘Atensi Institute has struggled to secure the necessary reigstration from the Tongan National Qualifications and Accreditations Board (NQAB)39; /46469957 on several occasions affecting the institution’s ability to recruit new students and withdrawing recognition of ‘Atenisi qualifications. Decisions denying the registration of the ‘Atensi institute have been struck down in the courts,40;;; but have led to financial challenges and a weakening of the position of the university as a whole.41;;

Tensions between the ‘Atenisi Institute and the government are thought to have a religious component as the university has, since its establishment, sought to promote democracy and secularism in a highly religious monarchical state.42


1, 4, 5, 35, 37
2, 10, 11, 12, 14, 36
3, 7, 9
13, 20
21, 22, 25
28, 29
38, 42
39; /46469957

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