Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 8, 2006

The Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy stretching over 170 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and its population is approximately 110 thousand. Political life is dominated by the king, the nobility, and a few prominent commoners. The most recent election was held in March and was deemed generally free and fair. There is one registered political party. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

Although the government made some strides in protecting human rights during the year, its human rights record remained deficient. The following human rights problems were reported:

  • inability of citizens to change their government 
  • lack of government response to petitions and requests for a popularly elected parliament
  • restrictions on freedom of speech
  • unfair benefits for businesses associated with royal family members
  • domestic violence and discrimination against women
  • inability of women to own or inherit land
  • lack of regulations concerning the right of workers to form unions or to strike

Participation in government by popularly elected representatives increased. Two of the nine popularly elected people's representatives were given cabinet posts. In July the country's first official political party was allowed to register as an incorporated society. A New Zealand journalist who had been banned for nine years was allowed to enter the country. The government generally respected the rights of strikers during a six‑week civil servant strike, the first of its kind in the country.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions generally met international standards. There were reports that prisoners were collectively punished after the misbehavior or escape of any individual inmate. No nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to monitor prison conditions, and the permissibility of such visits did not arise. Church representatives and family members were permitted to visit prisoners.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

The security apparatus consists of the Tonga Defense Services (TDS) and a police force. The minister of defense controls the TDS force. The minister of police and prisons directs the police force of approximately 400 persons. Incidents of bribe‑taking and other forms of corruption in the police force reportedly occurred. Reports of corruption and other public complaints were referred to a specific police office that conducts internal investigations and, if necessary, convenes a police tribunal. Entry‑level police training included training on corruption and transparency.

Arrest and Detention

The law provides for the right to judicial determination of the legality of arrest, and this was observed in practice. Police have the right to arrest detainees without a warrant, but detainees must be brought before a local magistrate within 24 hours. This law was observed in practice. There are no statutory limits on the length of time a suspect may be held prior to being charged. In most cases magistrates set bail. There were no reports of preventive detention or other lengthy pretrial detention. The law permits unlimited access by counsel and family members to detained persons.

There were no reports of political detainees.


The king granted partial amnesty to a number of prisoners. At least six prisoners were released on probation during the year, and more than 30 had their terms reduced by approximately 25 percent.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected this provision in practice. The judiciary tended to provide citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. The judiciary, whose highest‑ranking judges historically have been foreign nationals, was generally independent. Judges hold office "during good behavior" and otherwise cannot be dismissed during their terms.

The court system consists of a Court of Appeal, a supreme court (which has original jurisdiction over all major cases), the police magistrates' court, a general court, a TDS court‑martial, a court tribunal for the police force, and a court of review for the Inland Revenue Department. The Court of Appeal is the highest court. The king's Privy Council presides over cases relating to disputes over titles of nobility and estate boundaries.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law applied to all citizens without exception. A court may not summon anyone without providing a written indictment stating the charges. Trials are public, and defendants have an option to request a seven‑member jury. Defendants are presumed innocent, may question witnesses against them, and have access to government‑held evidence. Lawyers have free access to defendants. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Public defenders are not provided, but local lawyers occasionally take pro bono cases. Defendants have the right of appeal.

The defense services and the police force both have tribunals. These tribunals cannot be used to try civilians.

Political Prisoners

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

Individuals generally were free to criticize the government without reprisal. However, in August the owners of a private television station alleged that the monopoly power company partially owned by the crown prince disrupted the electricity supply to the station prior to a planned broadcast on a nationwide civil servants strike and threatened to "bulldoze" the station if it did not stop broadcasting antigovernment views.

In March a former employee of the same power company made public allegations of high salaries and problems within the company. In late June he was arrested for having illegally retrieved information from the company's computers, and at year's end he was free on bail awaiting trial.

The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction.

On May 13, the government lifted a nine‑year ban on a New Zealand journalist entering the country.

Government‑controlled media outlets were criticized for exercising self‑censorship. While there was little editorializing in the government‑owned media, opposition opinion in the form of letters to the editor, along with government statements and letters, appeared regularly. From time to time the national media carried comments, including some by prominent citizens, critical of government practices and policies.

There were no government restrictions on the Internet or academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.
From July 21 until September 3, supporters of a civil servant strike gathered in a public meeting place. The government made one effort to displace them, which was halted two days later when the supreme court issued a temporary injunction against moving the gathered civil servants. Security forces handled the protesters in a peaceful and respectful manner.

In July the government allowed the first official political party in the country's history to register (see section 3).

c. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. However, the constitution states that Sunday, the Sabbath, is to be "kept holy" and that no business can be conducted "except according to law." Although an exception was made for bakeries, hotels, resorts, and restaurants that are part of the tourism industry, the Sabbath day prohibition was otherwise enforced strictly for all businesses, regardless of the business owner's religion.

Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) guidelines require that religious programming on Radio Tonga be confined "within the limits of the mainstream Christian tradition." The TBC did not allow members of the Baha'i Faith to discuss the tenets of their religion or refer to the founder, Baha'ullah, by name. Similarly, the TBC did not allow the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints (Mormons) to discuss its founder, Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon by name. However, members of the Baha'i Faith used a privately owned radio station for program activities and the announcement of functions, and Mormons and members of some other faiths were permitted to use Radio Tonga for the announcement of church activities. A government‑owned newspaper occasionally carried news articles about Baha'i activities or events, as well as those of other faiths.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

The relationships among religions generally were amicable. There was no known resident Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti‑Semitic acts.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2005 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law provides for these rights, and the government generally respected them in practice.

The law does not prohibit forced exile, but the government did not employ it in practice.

Protection of Refugees

The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. No person was known to have applied for refugee status. There were no reports of requests for temporary protection.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the ability to change their leaders or the system of government. The king and 33 hereditary nobles dominated political life. They asserted authority largely through control of substantial landholdings and their dominant numbers in parliament. While the constitution allows the monarch broad powers, many of which do not require parliament's endorsement, at times the king permitted parliament to operate without his guidance. The king appoints the prime minister, and he appoints and presides over the Privy Council (called the cabinet when the king or regent is not presiding), which makes major policy decisions. The cabinet is composed of as many as 13 ministers and two governors; it included both nobles and commoners, all serving at the king's pleasure. In March two cabinet ministers were appointed from the nine elected "people's representatives," marking the first time that elected representatives served as cabinet ministers. Two members of parliament elected by nobles also joined the cabinet. The king's son, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, served as prime minister.

The unicameral parliament consists of the cabinet members, nine nobles elected by their peers, and nine representatives elected by the general population. The king appoints the speaker from among the representatives of the nobles. Cabinet members and nobles often voted as a bloc.

Elections and Political Participation

Only citizens 21 years or older and resident in the country may vote. Parliamentary elections in March, deemed to be free and fair, resulted in a strong showing for prodemocracy candidates. Subsequent by‑elections also resulted in the election of prodemocracy candidates.

In July the country's first official political party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), was allowed to register as an incorporated society. The PDP was founded in April by a group of prodemocracy activists. Previously, most prodemocracy activists operated from within NGOs, such as the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement.

Prodemocracy groups staged a large demonstration in September and presented a petition to the king's representative that called for constitutional changes, including a popularly elected parliament. The king did not specifically respond to these calls for constitutional changes. However, on October 24, parliament commissioned a committee to ask citizens around the nation and abroad for recommendations to parliament about necessary political changes.

There was one woman in parliament. No woman has ever served as a government minister. A woman may become queen, but the constitution forbids a woman to inherit other noble titles or become a chief.

There was no minority participation in government.

Government Corruption and Transparency

There were reports of government corruption during the year. Officials working in the main port reportedly took bribes in exchange for not charging the full amount of port and duty tax. In addition the Privy Council promulgated certain policies that appeared to benefit unfairly businesses associated with members of the royal family.

The law does not specifically allow for public access to government information, and such access was a problem, especially when the government deemed the information sensitive.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no legal barriers to the formation of domestic human rights NGOs. Some domestic NGOs dealt with human rights issues, but none undertook investigations of alleged violations. There were no restrictions on operations by international human rights groups and no known requests for investigations.

Government offices include a commission on public relations that investigates and seeks to resolve complaints about the government.

Section 5 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The law confirms the special status of members of the royal family and the nobility. While social, cultural, and economic facilities were available to all citizens regardless of race and religion, members of the hereditary nobility had substantial advantages, including control over most land, and a generally privileged status.


Domestic violence against women seldom was publicized; however, according to local women's groups, it was very common. Domestic violence can be prosecuted under laws against physical assault, but in practice prosecutions were very rare. When abuse was reported to the police, victims were often encouraged to return to their homes. There were shelters for abused and troubled women, and the Free Wesleyan Church operated a hotline for women in trouble.

Rape is punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to 15 years. The law does not recognize spousal rape. Rape appeared to be rare, although there were no reliable statistics. There was one prosecution during the year, which was ongoing at year's end.

By law a woman is not permitted to undergo a tubal ligation without the consent of her husband or, in his absence, her male next of kin.

Prostitution is not illegal, but activities such as soliciting in a public place, procuring, operating a brothel, and trading in women are criminal offenses. There was an increase in prostitution for men from foreign fishing vessels, especially among women under the age of 18. Sexual harassment is not a crime, but physical sexual assault could be prosecuted as indecent assault.

Inheritance laws, especially those concerned with land, discriminate against women. Women can lease land but not own it. Under the inheritance laws, the claim to a father's estate by a male child born out of wedlock takes precedence over the claim of the deceased's widow or daughter. If there are no male relatives, a widow is entitled to remain on her husband's land as long as she does not remarry or engage in sexual intercourse.

The Office of Women, within the Prime Minister's Office, is not an active participant in pressing for women's rights.

Women held several significant government posts, including that of ambassador and permanent representative to the UN. For a woman to rise to a position of leadership, she usually needed the support of the nobility. Some female commoners held senior leadership positions in business.

The nongovernmental Center for Women and Children focused on domestic abuse and improving the economic and social conditions of women and also offered counseling to women in crisis. Several religiously affiliated women's groups also advocated for women's legal rights.


The government is committed to children's human rights and welfare, and it provides some funding for children's welfare. Education is compulsory from ages 6 to 14. Education was available for all children through high school, and almost all children attended school.

The government provided free basic medical care to children.

There were some reports of child abuse.

Trafficking in Persons

While the law does not specifically address trafficking in persons, violators could be prosecuted under antislavery statutes. There were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.

Persons with Disabilities

There are no mandated provisions for services for persons with disabilities. The Tonga Red Cross Society operated a school for children with disabilities and conducted occasional home visits. There were complaints of discrimination in employment, education, or provision of other government services. The education of children with special needs has been a longstanding priority of the queen. There were no programs to ensure access to buildings for persons with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

According to the Ministry of Labor, ownership and operation of food retail stores in the country has been legally restricted to citizens since the early 1980s. However, the retail sector in many towns has become increasingly dominated by foreigners, particularly Chinese nationals. The Immigration Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to enforce the restrictions in an effort to curb growing illegal immigration. Although some foreigners left as a result of the policy, others moved to nonrestricted sectors of the economy. There were reports of crime and discrimination targeted at members of the Chinese minority by members of the public.

Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Openly homosexual behavior faced societal discrimination.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers gained the right to form unions under the 1963 Trade Union Act, but regulations on the formation of unions were never promulgated, and there were no official unions. The Friendly Islands Teachers Association and the Tonga Nurses Association were incorporated under the Incorporated Societies Act; however, they had no formal bargaining rights under the act. The Public Servants Association acted as a de facto union representing all government employees during the six‑week, nationwide civil servant strike for a wage increase.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining is permitted by law, but there were no implementing regulations. During the year the government and public sector employees engaged in collective bargaining to resolve a strike by civil servants for higher wages. The government ultimately accepted the pay increase demands of the Public Servants Association and paid the increases beginning in September.

The 1963 act provides workers with the right to strike, but implementing regulations were never formulated. From July 22 to September 3, there was a nationwide strike of government employees. Marches and meetings were peaceful, and the government made no move to prevent citizens from organizing. On several occasions members of the government threatened that workers would lose their jobs if they did not return to work, but this did not occur.

Labor laws apply in all sectors of the economy, including the two small export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Although there is no legislation prohibiting child labor, the practice did not exist in the wage economy.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage law, although there are government guidelines for wage levels. According to the Asian Development Bank, 23 percent of 16 communities surveyed earned less than $15 (T$29) per person per week, which did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Labor laws and regulations, enforced by the Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industries, limited the workweek to 40 hours. The ministry enforced laws and regulations in the wage sector of the economy, particularly on the main island of Tongatapu, but enforcement in the agricultural sector and on the outer islands was less consistent.

Few industries exposed workers to significant danger, and industrial accidents were rare. The government seldom addressed industrial safety standards, including the right of workers to remove themselves from dangerous work situations.