8 May 2023

Nations urge Tonga to give women land rights and improve LGBTQ record

1:03 pm on 8 May 2023
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (right) meets with Fekitamoeloa Katoa 'Utoikamanu,  Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Tourism of the Kingdom of Tonga. The Deputy Secretary-General is in Doha, Qatar, to attend the closing of the 5th United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5).

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (right) meets with Tonga's Foreign Affairs and Tourism Minister Fekitamoeloa Katoa 'Utoikamanu in Doha, Qatar Photo: UN

Tonga has received mixed reactions during its human rights evaluation at the 43rd Session of Universal Periodic Review in Geneva.

The Kingdom's Foreign Minister Fekitamoelo 'Utoikamanu heard mixed reviews by over 50 UN member states, with all of them commending Tonga's Government for continuing efforts to ratify international treaties.

"New Zealand... commends advancement in human rights," New Zealand's delegate Anna Louise Duncan said.

"We note with satisfaction the steps undertaken by the Kingdom to improve its human rights mechanisms," Russia's delegate Kristina Sukacheva said.

However, there were concerns expressed by a number of states about the rights of LGBTQ people, an existing law on capital punishment, the right of women to inherit land, the non-existence of a Human Rights Institution and the continuous non-ratification of various treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Canadian delegate Louise Blais commended Tonga for continuing programmes to address domestic violence.

"Canada commends Tonga for implementing a series of child abuse awareness programmes in schools through the women and children crisis centre ... and takes note of the increased presence of women parliamentarians," Blais said.

"We note the positive steps by the country to addressing discrimination against women and continued efforts to increase participation against women in all levels of social and political decision-making in government," Yevheniia Filipenko of Ukraine said.

However, delegates from all Western countries including New Zealand, Great Britain, the United States and Australia urged Tonga to give women the right to inherit land.

Currently, Tongan law and traditional custom forbids land ownership by women - only a son can inherit land with rights passed on to other male relatives if parents do not produce a male heir.

"Brazil recommends to Tonga to ratify the convention on legislation to remove all forms of discrimination against women ... in particular the right to own land and inherit it," the country's representative Tovar Nunes said.

Western states apart from the United States also called on Tonga to abolish the death penalty, although legislation on hanging those guilty of murder has been unenforced for decades.

"Switzerland is concerned that Tonga hasn't abolished the death penalty including for minors," the Swiss delegate Jürg Lauber said.

"We recommend Tonga ... totally and indefinitely ban capital punishment from law. Although we recognise that since 1982 it has not been carried in the country," Paraguyuan delegate Carmen Parquet Sosa said.

Universal healthcare and LGBTQ+ rights

Namibia and Samoa praised Tonga's continued policy of Universal Health Care.

"We commend Tonga on providing universal health," Samoa's delegate Marissa Noelani Toomata said.

"Among others, we commend Tonga for offering free dental and medical care to all persons," Namibia's delegate Jerry Mika said.

The rights of gay and transgender people was strongly emphasised throughout the reviews, citing unenforced laws forbidding homosexual relations, including from the United States.

"The Netherlands commends the Tongan govt for establishing family legal aid centre including for same sex people ... nonetheless we remained concerned about the challenges that prevent full inclusion in society and enjoyment of LGBTQ people in Tonga," the Dutch delegate Charlotte Marres said.

The British delegate noted the death of LGBTQ activist Polikalepo Kefu in 2021, widely believed to have been motivated by homophobia.

"Great Britain commends Tonga for taking steps to ending gender-based violence ... however we were saddened by the murder of Polikelpu Kefu," Charles Kent said.

"We encourage Tonga to concrete steps to repeal laws that sanction and discriminate against LGBTQ persons."

Tongan general elections

A number of countries congratulated the Kingdom for its conduct of the 2021 general election.

The US was among them, but recommends greater efforts to address corruption.

"We commend Tonga on a successful 2021 general election which international observers described as generally free and fair," the US delegate Kaitlin Sandin said.

"Address impunity against corruption by investigating corruption cases and by the office of the ombudsman, and the office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Ombudsman by increasing their political independence and funding."

Voters from Vava'u queue to enter the outer islands polling place, in the capital Nuku'alofa today, 18 November 2021. Tonga's General Election for 17 People's Representative seats in the Tonga Legislative Assembly.

Voters from Vava'u queue to enter the outer islands polling place, in the capital Nuku'alofa today, 18 November 2021. Tonga's General Election for 17 People's Representative seats in the Tonga Legislative Assembly. Photo: Mary Lyn Fonua

Australia, New Zealand and China

Reviews from Tonga's largest donors were generally positive.

"Australia commends launching a gender equality and national plan to improve the rights of women and the rights of disability policy," Australia's delegate Nina Pregellio said.

"We encourage Tonga to use robust data to inform decision-making, planning and service delivery, and to ensure funding to continue this," she added.

"Confronted by the difficulties and challenges posed by Covid-19 and natural disasters, Tonga has done its upmost to protect the wellbeing of its people," China's delegate Han Xincheng said.

"(Tonga) continues to protect people's cultural and economic rights," Han added.

"New Zealand... commends advancement in human rights," New Zealand's delegate Anna Louise Duncan said.

"We recommend that Tonga (1) ratifies the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, and the UN convention on torture and other cruel and other inhuman or degrading punishment, (2) elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, (3) amend existing legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people," Duncan added.