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Diplomacy in Action

Kiribati (04/08)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Kiribati

Area: 719 sq. km (266 sq. mi.) on 32 atolls and one island.
Cities: Capital--Tarawa (pop. 30,000).
Terrain: Archipelagos of low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive reefs.
Climate: Maritime equatorial or tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--I-Kiribati (for both singular and plural, pronounced "ee-keer-ah-bhass").
Population (2006): 93,706. Age structure (2006 est.)--36.5% under 15; 3.48% over 65.
Population growth rate (2006-2010 est.): 1.9%.
Ethnic groups: Micronesian 99%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 55%, Kiribati Protestant 36%, other 9%.
Languages: English (official), Gilbertese/I-Kiribati (de facto).
Education (2000): Literacy--95%
Health (2005): Life expectancy--62.82 years. Infant mortality rate (2005)--48/1,000.
Work force (2000): Majority engaged in subsistence activities; subsistence workers 30,712, cash workers 9,197.

Type: Republic.
Independence (from United Kingdom): July 12, 1979.
Constitution: July 12, 1979.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state and government), vice president, cabinet. Legislative--unicameral House of Assembly. Judicial--High Court, Court of Appeal, magistrates' courts.
Major political parties: Parties are only very loosely organized--Boutokanto Koaava (Pillars of Truth), Maneaban Te Mauri (Protect the Maneaba), Maurin Kiribati Pati.

Economy (all figures in U.S. $)
GDP (2006, estimate): $68.2 million.
GDP per capita (2006): $723.64.
GDP composition by sector (2006): Services 73.8%, agriculture 6.0%, industry 5.5%.
Industry: Types--tourism, copra, fish.
Trade (2006): Exports--$6.306 million: copra, pet fish, seaweed, shark fins. Export markets--Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, United States, Australia, Belgium, Denmark. Imports--$63.42 million: food, manufactured goods, machinery and transport equipment. Import sources--Australia, Fiji, Japan, France, New Zealand, United States, Korea, China, Thailand.
Currency: Australian dollar (A$).

Kiribati (pronounced "keer-ah-bhass") consists of 32 low-lying atolls and one raised island scattered over an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. The islands straddle the Equator and lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The three main groupings are the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands. In 1995 Kiribati unilaterally moved the International Date Line to include its easternmost islands, making it the same day throughout the country.

Kiribati includes Kiritimati (Christmas Island), the largest coral atoll in the world, and Banaba (Ocean Island), one of the three great phosphate islands in the Pacific. Except on Banaba, very little land is more than three meters above sea level.

The original inhabitants of Kiribati are Gilbertese, a Micronesian people. Approximately 90% of the population of Kiribati lives on the atolls of the Gilbert Islands. Although the Line Islands are about 2,000 miles east of the Gilbert Islands, most inhabitants of the Line Islands are also Gilbertese. Owing to severe overcrowding in the capital on South Tarawa, in the 1990s a program of directed migration moved nearly 5,000 inhabitants to outlying atolls, mainly in the Line Islands. The Phoenix Islands have never had any significant permanent population. A British effort to settle Gilbertese there in the 1930s lasted until the 1960s when it was determined the inhabitants could not be self-sustaining.

The I-Kiribati people settled what would become known as the Gilbert Islands between 1000 and 1300 AD. Subsequent invasions by Fijians and Tongans introduced Melanesian and Polynesian elements to the Micronesian culture, but extensive intermarriage has produced a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance and traditions.

European contact began in the 16th century. Whalers, slave traders, and merchant vessels arrived in great numbers in the 1800s, fomenting local tribal conflicts and introducing often-fatal European diseases. In an effort to restore a measure of order, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the Ellice Islands are now the independent country of Tuvalu) consented to becoming British protectorates in 1892. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1900 after the discovery of phosphate-rich guano deposits, and the entire group was made a British colony in 1916. The Line and Phoenix Islands were incorporated piecemeal over the next 20 years.

Japan seized some of the islands during World War II. In November 1943, U.S. forces assaulted heavily fortified Japanese positions on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The battle was a turning point for the war in the Central Pacific.

Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s. In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony and in 1978 declared their independence. The Gilberts obtained internal self-government in 1977, and became an independent nation on July 12, 1979, under the name of Kiribati.

Post-independence politics were initially dominated by Ieremia Tabai, Kiribati's first President, who served from 1979 to 1991, stepping down due to Kiribati's three-term limit for presidents. The tenure of Teburoro Tito, Kiribati's second-longest serving President, was from 1994 to 2003. His third term lasted only a matter of months before he lost a no confidence motion in Parliament. (See the next section for an explanation of Kiribati's unique presidential system.) In July 2003, Anote Tong defeated his elder brother, Harry Tong, who was backed by former President Tito and his allies. Tong was re-elected for a second term as president in October 2007.

The constitution promulgated at independence establishes Kiribati as a sovereign democratic republic and guarantees the fundamental rights of its citizens.

The unicameral House of Assembly (Maneaba) has 45 members: 43 elected representatives, one appointed member by the Banaban community on Rabi Island in Fiji, and the Attorney General on an ex officio basis. All of the members of the Maneaba serve 4-year terms. The speaker for the legislature is elected by the Maneaba from outside of its membership and is not a voting member of Parliament.

After each general election, the new Maneaba nominates at least three but not more than four of its members to stand as candidates for president. The voting public then elects the president from among these candidates. The president appoints a cabinet of up to 10 members from among the members of the Maneaba. Although popularly elected, the president can be deposed by a majority vote in Parliament. If a no confidence motion passes, a new election for President must be held. An individual can serve as president for only three terms, no matter how short each term is. As a result of this provision, former Presidents Tabai and Tito are constitutionally forbidden from serving as president again.

The judicial system consists of the High Court, a court of appeal, and magistrates' courts. The president makes all judicial appointments.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State/Government--President Anote Tong
Vice President--Teima Onorio
Ambassador to the United States--vacant

Political parties exist but are more similar to informal coalitions in behavior. Parties do not have official platforms or party structures. Most candidates formally present themselves as independents. Campaigning is by word of mouth and informal gatherings in traditional meetinghouses.

President Anote Tong won re-election by a comfortable margin in late 2007 and enjoys a comfortable majority in Parliament. The biggest political issue today is employment opportunities for a crowded and growing population.

Kiribati's per capita GDP, at approximately U.S. $720 in 2006, is one of the lowest in the world. Only 16% of the workforce participates in the formal wage economy and over 60% of all formal jobs are in South Tarawa. The monetary economy of Kiribati is dominated by the services sector, representing a GDP share of over 73%, and the public sector which provides 80% of monetary remuneration.

The end of phosphate revenue from Banaba in 1979 had a devastating impact on the economy. Receipts from phosphates had accounted for roughly 80% of export earnings and 50% of government revenue. Per capita GDP declined by more than half between 1979 and 1981. The Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund, a trust fund financed by phosphate earnings over the years, is still an important part of the government's assets and contained more than U.S. $554 million in 2006. Kiribati has prudently managed the reserve fund, which is vital for the long-term welfare of the country.

In one form or another, Kiribati gets a large portion of its income from abroad. Examples include fishing licenses, development assistance, tourism, and worker remittances. External sources of financing are crucial to Kiribati, given the limited domestic production ability and the need to import nearly all essential foodstuffs and manufactured items. Historically, the I-Kiribati were notable seafarers, and today about 1,400 I-Kiribati are trained, certified, and active as seafarers. Remittances from seafarers are a major source of income for families in the country, and there is a steady annual uptake of young I-Kiribati men to the Kiribati Maritime Training Institute.

Fishing fleets from South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and the United States pay licensing fees to operate in Kiribati's territorial waters. These licenses produce revenue worth U.S. $20 million to $35 million annually. Kiribati's exclusive economic zone comprises more than 3.55 million square kilometers (1.37 million square miles) and is very difficult to police given Kiribati's small land mass and limited means. Kiribati probably loses millions of dollars per year from illegal, unlicensed, and unreported fishing in its exclusive economic zone.

Official development assistance amounts to between U.S. $15 million and $20 million per year. The largest donors are Japan, the EC, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. U.S. assistance is provided through multilateral institutions. Remittances from Kiribati workers living abroad provide more than $11 million annually.

Tourism is a relatively small, but important domestic sector. Attractions include World War II battle sites, game fishing, and ecotourism. The vast majority of American tourists only visit Christmas Island in the Line Islands on fishing and diving vacations.

Most islanders engage in subsistence activities such as fishing and growing of food crops like bananas, breadfruit, and papaya. The leading export is the coconut product, copra, which accounts for about two-thirds of export revenue. Other exports include pet fish, shark fins, and seaweed. Kiribati's principal trading partners are Australia and Japan.

Transportation and communications are a challenge for Kiribati. Air Pacific, Air Marshall Islands, and the former Air Nauru, now known as Our Airline, provide international air links to the capital of Tarawa. Air Kiribati provides service to most of the populated atolls in the Gilberts using small planes flying from Tarawa. Small ships serve outlying islands, including in the Line Islands, with irregular schedules. A joint venture between Air Pacific and the government of Kiribati operates a flight linking Christmas Island to Fiji and Honolulu.

Telecommunications are expensive, and service is mediocre.

Kiribati maintains friendly relations with most countries and has particularly close ties to its Pacific neighbors--Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Cuba maintain resident diplomatic missions in Kiribati.

Relations between Kiribati and the United States are excellent. Kiribati signed a treaty of friendship with the United States after independence in 1979. The United States has no consular or diplomatic facilities in the country. Officers of the American Embassy in Suva, Fiji, are concurrently accredited to Kiribati and make periodic visits. The U.S. Peace Corps has maintained a program in Kiribati since 1967. Currently there are about 40 Peace Corps volunteers serving in the country.

Kiribati became a member of the United Nations in 1999, and in September 2003, President Tong requested authority from Parliament to establish a UN mission. Currently, however, Kiribati does not maintain a resident ambassador in New York, and its vote is typically cast by New Zealand in a proxy arrangement. Kiribati also is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth, International Monetary Fund, the Pacific Community, and the World Bank. Kiribati is particularly active in the Pacific Islands Forum. The only Kiribati diplomatic missions overseas are a high commission in Fiji and an honorary consulate in Honolulu.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Larry M. Dinger
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted A. Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Consul--Debra J. Towry
Management Officer--Ila S. Jurisson
Regional Environmental Officer--Joseph P. Murphy
Regional Security Officer--Jim T. Suor

The U.S. Embassy responsible for Kiribati is located in Suva, Republic of the Fiji Islands. Its location is 31 Loftus Street, Suva, Fiji. Mailing address: P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji. Tel: +679-331-4466, fax: +679 330-0081.

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