Nauru, a small island country in the South Pacific Ocean, underwent periodic review before the 17th Session of the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday.
In the review, delegates from various countries acknowledged that Nauru was working at amending national law to incorporate into it greater support for human rights. Much, if not all, of Nauru’s Criminal Code has remained unchanged since 1899. Many of these laws do not offer protection for minority groups in Nauruan society. Laws criminalizing sexual activity between members of the same sex are still on the books.
Though there is little evidence of discrimination against homosexuality in the small island nation, the Nauruan Criminal Code was a major source of contention with many governments at the Council. As a recommendation to the periodic review, Sweden stated that Nauru ought “to recognize the principle of non-discrimination, which prohibits discrimination on any ground, including sexual orientation, and to abolish the law that criminalises homosexuality without delay”.
Sweden has long advocated for human rights in regards to homosexuality. When the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 in Uganda was making its way through the Ugandan Parliament, Sweden was the first of many Western states to threaten to withdraw aid (in the amount of some US$ 50 million).
Slovenia and the United Kingdom offered similar recommendations to Nauru. Interestingly, there was no recommendation from the United States regarding Nauru’s buggery laws still on the books. Many NGOs at the Human Rights Council were happy to see Nauru accept the recommendations without hesitation. The government of Nauru is in the process of reviewing its legislation. It pledged to reform the criminal code and decriminalize consensual acts between members of the same sex.
Nauru recognized the need for a holistic approach to amending their current legislation. The human rights issues that Nauru is facing cannot be resolved solely by enacting laws. Nauru’s land area is roughly 8.1 square miles with 9,000 people inhabiting the island. People live fairly close to each other and resources are scarce. There are social and economic barriers that hinder full civil rights and that need to be addressed. These barriers were addressed in 2005 when Nauru implemented its National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS), a plan aimed at achieving a “partnership for a better qualify of life”. Widely accepted as a shared responsibility by the government, the business sector, and the people of Nauru, the plan had as its primary aim to ensure that NSDS would reflect the priorities of the Nauruan people.
As it stands, the reform resulting from the Nauruan government’s legislative review still must be approved by referendum. Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated, the assumption is that Australia, Nauru’s largest aid donor, could threaten to withdraw aid if the Criminal Code is not amended. Australia’s political and economic influence could deliver just the right thrust for Nauru to make good on its pledge.
In its recommendations, Brazil warned that a political stalemate could jeopardize the advancement of human rights. Ultimately, the amending of legislation lies in the hands of the Nauruan people. In closing, the human rights NGO ARC International requested that Nauru indicate the time frame for the amended legislation.