Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Samoan, English
Main religions: Christianity
Minority groups include Niueans and Tokelauans.
Samoans are Polynesian and there are few other distinct ethnic groups comprising the country’s population. Some Samoans have part Chinese or European (especially German) ancestry, which tend to correlate with higher socio-economic stature. Most descendants of Chinese, Melanesian and Polynesian migrant groups live in the capital city, Apia, and have been absorbed into Samoan society, although relatively few own land.
Around half of all Samoans live abroad, mainly in American Samoa, the United States and New Zealand. In March 2003 there were large protest marches in both Samoa and New Zealand demanding the repeal of the 1982 New Zealand laws which ended Samoans’ automatic rights to New Zealand citizenship. Such efforts were unsuccessful and the quota system for migration to New Zealand remained in place.
Updated: May 2018
In May 2016, the Samoan Government received 129 recommendations from a UN Universal Periodic Review. Recommendations accepted by the government of Samoa included the need to strengthen the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) and pursue all recommendations made in the NHRI State of Human Rights Report 2015, including to protect land rights for indigenous communities, and to establish an inter-ministerial National Mechanism to coordinate all human rights implementation and reporting.
In early 2017, Samoa’s ruling HRPP party was considering separating the country’s Lands and Titles Court from the supervision of the criminal and civil courts. The Land and Titles Court takes customary resolutions into account and does not require its judges to have legal experience. The court is under the authority of a judiciary commission chaired by the Chief Justice; however, public complaints concerning judges’ lack of legal experience and qualifications have led to a parliamentary inquiry.
In June 2017 the parliament passed a bill that amended the country’s Constitution to declare that Samoa is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Disputes over national identity have surrounded the process leading up to this development, and opposition has been raised by various parties including Muslim leaders in Samoa who have expressed concerns about minority rights in a nation-state designated as Christian.
A key human rights concern in Samoa is violence against women. In 2017, the government launched its second Samoa Family Safety Study, which found that violence against women in the age group 20-49 years old had increased from 46 to 60 per cent since the first Study took place in 2000. Also in 2017, the UN Human Rights Council sent an expert delegation to review Samoa’s performance in tackling discrimination against women. While the delegation appreciated the steps being taken by the government, it underscored the need for public reflection and discussion about cultural preconceptions, especially with regard to the traditional roles assigned to women and girls. Initiatives to combat gender-based violence tend to be scattered, partly due to a lack of resources and also because there is as yet no coherent national strategy in place. The delegation also noted how corporal punishment against children is normalized in Samoan culture, and that men who were victims of violence as children are more likely to repeat the pattern as adults.
Updated: May 2018
Samoa (formerly Western Samoa until 1997) is one of the larger Polynesian states in terms of geography and population. It mainly consists of two volcanic islands, Upolu and Savai’i, both of which are prone to cyclones. The most significant environmental issue in Samoa is soil erosion. Approximately 70 per cent of Samoa’s population and key infrastructure are located in low-lying coastal areas. Sea level rise linked to climate change is expected to exacerbate coastal erosion and loss of land – threatening the dislocation of large numbers of Samoans. In 2017, the government along with UNDP announced a climate change adaptation scheme worth US$65 million specifically targeting the one in three Samoans at risk of flooding.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Samoan islands were first settled by Austronesian peoples at least 2,000 years ago. Frequent contacts and exchanges with Fiji and Tonga developed from the 13th century onwards. European settlement began in the early 18th century. In 1889, the United States, United Kingdom and Germany signed a treaty in Berlin establishing joint supervision over the Samoan government. The British relinquished their involvement shortly afterwards, while the two other governments split the archipelago between them with Germany annexing Western Samoa and the US taking control over Eastern Samoa (now American Samoa). In 1914, New Zealand military forces captured Western Samoa. After World War I, New Zealand was given a mandate by the League of Nations to administer the country. The post-war influenza pandemic badly affected Samoa, with 20 per cent of the population dying within a matter of weeks in 1918.
During the period when it was a German colony until World War I, Samoa was the first Pacific island state to experience significant labour immigration. This came in the form of Chinese and Melanesians working on German plantations established in the second half of the nineteenth century. There had also been historical migration from Tokelau, Niue and other Polynesian states.
During the inter-war years, a resistance movement emerged against New Zealand’s control. After World War II, Samoa became a UN trust territory, still administered by New Zealand but with a view to moving towards independence. Following a UN-administered plebiscite in 1961, Samoa was the first Pacific island state to gain independence (from New Zealand) in 1962.
The economy has been based on agriculture, including cash crops such as coconuts, and fishing. Particularly since the mid-1990s, there has been substantial growth in offshore fishing, using fish aggregating devices (buoys or floats which attract fish), and in fish farming. However, these activities are vulnerable to natural hazards such as cyclones, diseases and fluctuations in world commodity prices. Like its neighbour, Tonga, Samoa has become heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances.
Samoa has retained strong elements of fa’a Samoa (Samoan traditional culture) in its Constitution and political structure. For nearly three decades after independence, the national legislature was only elected by traditional chiefs (matai) and only matai are able to stand for election to 47 seats of the unicameral 49-seat Fono (parliament), while two seats are reserved for non-Samoans. Universal suffrage was not introduced until 1990, when women were given the right to vote for the first time. In 2013 the Constitution was amended to reserve five seats in parliament for women.
Since 1982 the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has formed the government. There is a hereditary chief of state, who is one of the two paramount chiefs. Christian churches, as elsewhere in Polynesia, also exercise enormous authority. Village meetings have increasingly exercised authority under the 1990 Village Fono Act.
Updated: May 2018