by Cindy Trinh
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania
PORT VILA, Vanuatu – Since the 1990s, Vanuatu has been criticized by the international community for its reckless treatment of prison inmates and its disregard for human rights. After years of pressure from the international community, Vanuatu is finally taking steps to improve its prison conditions.
According to various reports in the years of 1995-1998, the prison conditions in Vanuatu were especially degrading, and posed serious international human rights violations. The Ombudsman of Vanuatu investigated the prison conditions during this time period, and found them severely unsatisfactory. The Ombudsman requested further inspection and new construction for the prisons. However, because of the severe lack of funding, Vanuatu disregarded many of the complaints.
These reports stated only some of the horrible incidents that were happening within the prisons of Vanuatu, such as overcrowding, earthquake damage and rain water seepage, leaks, and dangerous electrical wiring.
Amnesty International was also prompted to report on the severe prison conditions in 1998, and described it as “men held in conditions amounting to cruel inhuman and degrading treatment in decaying, overcrowded former colonial prison.” A delegate for Amnesty International visited one of the prisons and found that several hundred prisoners were held in a prison built for only 63 people.
During a mass arrest, military and police officers abused their powers and assaulted numerous prisoners. They faced criminal charges of international assault for beating and kicking the prisoners. Approximately 500 officers were arrested and faced prosecution. The effect of this event was massive. There was widespread rioting and looting. Amnesty International reported that the criminal prosecution of the human rights abusers sent “an important signal that ill-treatment of prisoners must not be tolerated, that police and prison officers are not above the law, and that national emergencies do not excuse officers’ taking the law into their own hands.”
In April 2006, a report from Marc Neil-Jones, a publisher of the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper, reported that human rights abuse was still present in the prisons of Vanuatu. Mr. Neil-Jones was jailed for five hours for a mere traffic offense, and witnessed other inmates chained in shackles. Some inmates told Mr. Neil-Jones that they had been chained for eight months.
However, recently this year in May 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review met with the Vice Chairperson of the Vanuatu UPR Committee to help work towards improving the conditions. Vanuatu invited the United Nations to assist it in meeting its human rights obligations, and also extended an open invitation to the international community to help continue its efforts in reaching its goals of realizing human rights.
Several recommendations were suggested to Vanuatu during the meeting. In general, these recommendations included: continually working on improving the structural conditions of prisons, conducting more investigations, taking measures to reduce discrimination, implementing more training for law enforcement officials, and combatting corruption.
More recently, on September 28, 2009 the UN Human Rights Council has been told that Vanuatu has taken further positive steps to improve conditions in prisons. Members of the international community and sponsors for Vanuatu, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Amnesty International, expressed their support for Vanuatu’s progress.
Specifically, Vanuatu has now enforced a separation of minors and adults in its correctional facilities. Vanuatu hopes that this small but important step will reduce not only the overcrowding of the facilities, but also reduce the conflict and tension between inmates.
For more information, please see:
Radio New Zealand International – Vanuatu improving prison conditions, UN told – 28 September, 2009
Amnesty International – Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcome on Vanuatu – 25 September, 2009
Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review – Universal Periodic Review for 12 May 2009 – 12 May, 2009
Radio New Zealand International – Amnesty urged to inspect Vanuatu prison conditions – 3 April, 2006
Amnesty International – Dangerous prison conditions prompt Amnesty International report – 28 September, 1998
Digested Reports of the Vanuatu Office of the Ombudsman – Report on prison conditions and mismanagement of prison budget – 16 September, 1999