At a glance: The situation in Nauru

Baron Divavesi Waqa, President of the Republic of Nauru (Reuters)
Baron Divavesi Waqa, President of the Republic of Nauru (Reuters)

Nauru - a small country in the Pacific that many people had never heard of - has been in the news the last couple of weeks.

But the news isn't good: there are concerns the country's fragile democracy is under threat.

Here's a brief rundown of what's happening.

In a nutshell, the country's president, Baron Waqa, is cracking down on freedom of speech, movement and expression, says Professor Steven Ratuva, director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury.

"Historically Nauru has had its share of political instability and ways in which the government has tried to contain the opposition but this is probably the most extreme," says Prof Ratuva.

The New Zealand Law Society has also criticised the country, saying "democracy is quickly vanishing" in the poor Pacific nation.

“Nauru has expelled five of seven opposition MPs from its parliament. The government has unashamedly admitted this action was for speaking to foreign media. Three of the MPs are now facing criminal charges for their involvement in a protest. One, Roland Kun, was taken off a flight bound for New Zealand and his passport has been cancelled," says Law Society Rule of Law Convenor Austin Forbes QC.

The country has also restricted access to Facebook, sacked and deported a magistrate and refused to allow its chief justice to return to the country from an overseas holiday, Mr Forbes says.

"This cannot continue. Nauru has to restore human rights."

Fees for journalist visas have also been hiked to $7000, restricting freedom of press and contributing "to a dismantling of a previously democratic system," says Labour MP David Shearer.

New Zealand gives around $2.3 million in aid per year to Nauru; $1.2m of that going to the justice sector with the rest going towards education, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Prof Ratuva says as part of the Pacific Islands Forum New Zealand has a responsibility to ensure democratic principles are upheld in the region.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully has admitted he's "concerned about reports" coming out of the country and requested a meeting with President Waqa during the Pacific Islands Forum in Sydney this week.

"We take our responsibilities as a donor to the justice sector seriously, and we will be discussing our contribution with the Nauru government in light of recent events," says Mr McCully.

Prof Ratuva likens the situation to the 2006 coup in Fiji, saying New Zealand was quick to condemn that country and should do the same now.

"Basically the same sort of things which were happening in Fiji around the early days of the coup are happening now, so I think it's important for Australia and New Zealand to adhere to the principles they have been using against others."

Although geographically closer to Nauru, Australia has vested interests in keeping on good terms with the country and has so far only given a vague, diplomatic response to the situation.

"It's quite a complicated situation because Australia relies on Nauru as its procession centre for its refugees," says Prof Ratuva.

"They both benefit from it. Nauru is terms of cash and Australia in terms of getting rid of its humanitarian burden, so Nauru becomes the bearer of Australia's human deterrent responsibility.

"Australia has not been raising any voice fundamentally because it wants to maintain a good friendship with the government of Nauru."

Independent since 1968, and for a short time enjoying the highest GDP per capita in the world thanks to an economic boon based on phosphate mining, the country failed to invest in a future for when the phosphate was exhausted and "everything collapsed", says Prof Ratuva.

The country now has very few other resources and is "highly dependent on aid" after failing to capitalise on its time of prosperity.

"At the time when they had a lot of money they did not bother to provide education for their people and now they don't have the professional personnel to run the country that's why they have to look elsewhere, to their neighbours," says Prof Ratuva.

With the country already having lost precious resources and the chance to educate future generations neighbouring countries are hoping democracy won’t be the next causality in Nauru.

"What is needed is fundamental political reform in the country."

3 News