The Vanuatu Police Force

The police force has two wings: the Vanuatu Police Force (VPF) and the paramilitary wing, the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF).[64] There are 547 police officers organised into two main police commands: one in Port Vila and one in Luganville. Within these there are four main police stations[65] and eight police posts.[66] This means that there are many islands with no police presence and many parts of islands where getting to a police post can take several days.

The condition of the police today

The VPF today suffers from a negative public image and a negative self-image. In regard to the latter, a report into the state of the VPF in 2003 finds that the police ‘do not generally feel positive about the job that the force is doing’ and are concerned that they ‘do not receive sufficient training, that resources were not managed appropriately and that they were being underpaid and their general welfare neglected’.[67] An analysis by Penama Province paints a typical picture of the situation of police outside the two urban centres:

Penama Police service is severely affected by budgetary constraints and low moral[e]. This constraint seems to be exacerbated by an ineffective system of administration, which affects proper distribution of resources allocated to the Provincial Police Services. Resources budgeted for the Penama police services do not seem to be appropriated to the Provincial police station at Saratamata but rather used up elsewhere by other provinces or municipalities.[68]

During this study, police regularly complained that they were unsupported by the government and hampered in carrying out their duties. In rural areas in particular, the lack of resources such as vehicles or boats means that the police are significantly hindered in carrying out investigations and arresting and summonsing people to attend court.[69] For example, the sole police officer on the island of Ambrym discussed a murder investigation he was conducting, complaining that not only did he not have a vehicle to travel to the murder scene and to interview witnesses, he did not even have a notebook, and was required to pay for phone cards out of his own salary to call headquarters in Port Vila to try to obtain more funding. A statement made by the Acting Commander of the Central Investigation Unit in the local newspaper illustrates the feeling of frustration with the system: ‘We are helpless. We can’t even detect and apprehend the suspects which is our mandate. We are helpless in managing the crime trend because we lack vital resources in terms of transport facilities, proper telecommunication systems and manpower and human resources.’[70]

It must also be noted, however, that a lot of people are cynical about police claims that they do not have sufficient manpower or resources, especially in urban areas, commenting that police officers are often seen just hanging around and that police trucks are often seen in front of kava bars.[71] The negative self-image of the VMF leads to problems of discipline, to low morale and to a generally lax attitude towards the work of policing. Lawyers and other actors in the state system therefore complain about the lack of proper investigation of cases and care in drafting charges.[72]

The police force’s low self-image is also reflected in its public image. Newton Cain found that ‘[t]here are generally very low levels of [public] confidence in the capacity of the police to address issues that are important to groups within the community’ and that ‘[t]here is a growing belief within the community that there is very little point in seeking recourse to the police, as their response is either non-existent or inadequate’.[73] The two biggest complaints made about the police are that they will not assist when requested and that they have a culture of employing unnecessary violence. Complaints about the police not going to assist victims of crime are legendary throughout Vanuatu. When I asked a group of young people what happened if you went to make a complaint with the police, the reaction was instantaneous: half of them made a gesture of tearing up paper and throwing it away, explaining that the police threw the complaint away as soon as the complainant left the room. In rural areas, people complain that the police are so remote they cannot contact them, and when they do, the police ask them to pay for them to come, as they cannot afford the cost of fuel. In 2007, the Vanuatu Daily Post reported, ‘There is a general perception of the Luganville Police that they will rarely do anything’.[74] Despite these negative views, people are generally of the view that the police are needed in all areas of Vanuatu and that their presence does help to control crime.

Police brutality has been widely documented.[75] Rousseau comments that ‘[t]he level of violence employed by the police seems to be an “open secret” in Vanuatu—known, but infrequently acted upon’.[76] One senior bureaucrat stated that in urban areas police brutality was common, with the police regularly forcing people to confess by punching and slapping them.[77] In many cases, the victims of this violence accept it,[78] but increasingly there have been complaints and demands for compensation. The most public of these arose from Operesen Klinim-Not (Operation Clean-Up the North) in Santo, which resulted in a number of court cases relating to police brutality. In one, the parties complained that they had been ‘subjected to verbal abuses, physical assaults extending from undressing in an open field, dancing naked in pairs, pinching of private parts with pliers, kicking with boots, hitting with rifle butts and truncheons, licking boots and toilet brush’.[79]

There are mixed views regarding the way the police deal with women. Some women perceived the police to be more powerful than the chiefs in dealing with problems such as domestic violence, incest, teenage pregnancies and underage sex. There is, however, a culture of domestic violence in the VPF itself, which undermines the confidence of victims in the police.[80] For example, one woman who was married to a police officer told me that he regularly beat her so the women in her area knew that there was no point complaining to him about domestic violence. A study conducted by the legal officer at the Vanuatu Women’s Centre between 1995 and 1996 found that ‘[g]enerally speaking domestic assault is treated [by the state criminal justice system] as a matter less likely to require outside intervention, and when intervention is undertaken, the punishment tends to be less severe than if it had not been domestic violence’.

It further found that ‘when women seek the intervention of the legal system the statistics show a significant failure on the part of the police to impose bail conditions to protect them from further assault and pressure to withdraw their complaint’.[81] The study concluded that, although the formal legal system in Vanuatu offered some significant protection to women and had a constitutional guarantee of their equal status with men, it often failed to enforce women’s rights.[82] The amendments to the law since this study, primarily the development of Domestic Violence Protection Orders[83] by the Supreme Court, have alleviated this situation to an extent, allowing women to apply directly to the court for an order of protection. Women are, however, still dependent on the police for the enforcement of these orders and sometimes police tell them that it is not their work, that it is the woman’s fault or that the woman must serve the order herself. Many police take the view that violence against women is a private matter and they will not interfere. This attitude was illustrated by a senior police officer, who commented that cases that were ‘merely domestic issues’—for example, where a husband hit his wife because she had been with another man—were sent back to the chiefs.[84] Police also often send women complainants to the Vanuatu Women’s Centre instead of taking their statement and prosecuting the offender. The physical inaccessibility of police posts, especially in rural areas, also means that police are not an option for many women in dealing with criminal activities.[85]

The relationship between the police and the kastom system

The relationship between the police and the kastom system is complex and varies considerably throughout the country. The official VPF policy since 2000 has been that chiefs should be encouraged to work with the police and to manage ‘minor’ offences themselves, leaving the police to the work of resolving the ‘serious’ crimes. This policy has not been reduced to written form in any detail and is very much a pragmatic one; the police rely on the chiefs to keep law and order to a great extent in practice, and officially recognising this fact might be seen as an attempt to control the nature of that reliance. A senior police officer summed up the situation by stating that the police and the chiefs worked together, but there was no continuous link between them—no ‘hotline’—so at times they worked together and at other times they did their own thing.[86]

There is enormous variation in the implementation of this policy throughout the country. To an extent, these differences are created by the different individuals involved in each system, but also by variations such as the size of the community compared with the number of police officers servicing the area, the resources of the particular police post[87] and the strength or weakness of the kastom system in the area. An example of an area where the police and the kastom system have a very close relationship is Tanna. The officer in charge of the police station on Tanna spoke in glowing terms about the fact that in kastomdei afta tomorrow tufala save fren’ (the next day the two are friends), whereas in the state system ‘wan mas lose and wan mas win’ (one has to lose and one has to win). He said that because his officers were fed up with people lodging complaints and then withdrawing them after the matter had been resolved in kastom, he made it a rule that people had to discuss the matter with their chief first. If they still want to lodge a complaint they have to come with their chief or with an elder certifying it has passed through the chief’s hands first. If they do not, they are sent to read a notice, which provides that if they lodge a complaint and then wish to withdraw it, they have to pay a fee of vt1000 (about half a term’s school fees). Apparently, since this new rule came into effect no-one has lodged a complaint with the police.[88] In contrast, in Erromango, there is no police post and the police come only a few times a year, if that. The chiefs are very dismissive of the work of the police, saying they come and take statements but then do nothing and the cases just ‘go to sleep’. A third level of relationship occurs in Ambrym, where there is only one police officer. That police officer said that sometimes when he had completed his investigations into minor cases it was too hard to send the files back to Vila or Santo so he called the chiefs together and presented them with the findings of his investigations and told them to ‘judge the case in kastom’.[89] A final situation is Santo, where there is quite an antagonistic relationship between the chiefs and the police. The chiefs complain that the police do not help them, but the police say they do not assist the chiefs because there is no law to allow them to do so.

Ways the police assist the kastom system

The police assist with the kastom system in a variety of ways. On occasions, chiefs ask the police to come to kastom meetings to ‘keep the peace’. Generally, police will be requested to do this only when the meetings involve people from different communities, as this is when tensions are highest, or else very serious cases, such as those concerning allegations of black magic. An example of this was a meeting held in Vila in 2005 to deal with disputes between people from different parts of Tanna. The Vanuatu Daily Post reported:

Police and VMF quickly calmed a raging fire by cooling down the dreaded fury of approximately 400 Tannese from attacking Chief Koro’s men as soon as the opening prayer ended with an ‘amen’. Scores of young men fuelled by instinct for revenge surged forward only to be stopped by the Police and VMF.[90]

Occasionally, police are also asked to bring people to meetings. At times, this merely involves bringing people who would be willing to come anyway but do not have transport or else are not aware of the meeting. It may, however, also involve bringing people who do not wish to attend the meeting. Generally, the police do not use force, relying on their position as authority figures to convince people to go with them. On occasions, however, police do forcibly pick up people, as occurred in Public Prosecutor vs Kota and Others (1989–94, 2 VLR 661):

The police were consulted at the Police Station, and 2 police in a police truck, together with Mathias Teku, went to the house where Marie Kota was living, and forced Marie to go to the meeting. I find it most astonishing and abhorrent that Vanuatu Police had anything to do with this matter. And had it not been for the fact that they were firstly requested, and secondly agreed to go, this matter would not be where it is today. The Vanuatu Police had no authority in the legislation of this country to act as they did in this case, to bully and force a person to attend a meeting, and I propose to take this matter up to the Chief Commissioner of Police.

The police are sometimes also involved in the enforcement of orders made by the kastom system. In most instances, this simply involves the police going to people who have refused to make their kastom payments and telling them that they should pay. At other times, the police write letters directing people to pay. It appears that for the most part force is not used to compel people to pay fines, although I was told reasonably often by the chiefs that sometimes they requested the police to take an offender to the police holding cell and to beat him or detain him for the night as punishment.[91] It is difficult to assess how much this really occurs in practice, and how much it is merely the unfulfilled desire of the chiefs, as only a few police officers admit to doing it. The cases in which the police are most often said to use force involve the enforcement of decisions by the chiefs to send people living in the urban areas back to their home islands. Despite the case of Kota,[92] it appears that some police continue to assist chiefs, generally those from their community, in forcibly putting people onto boats to send them back to their home islands.

Ways the kastom system assists the police

There are also a number of ways in which the kastom system assists the state system. First, the chiefs help the police with locating defendants and witnesses. For example, a senior police officer stated that when the police went to look for a suspect in a village they must first see the chief of the village and he would then tell them where to find the suspect.[93] As the concept of an address is relatively foreign in Vanuatu, such assistance is invaluable. For example, in a recent murder case in Ambrym, a chief was sent to the village of the suspects to ask them to voluntarily surrender.[94] The chiefs also assist by maintaining peace in their communities and dealing with conflicts ‘on the level of kastom’ before the police arrive, thereby often stopping situations from getting out of hand. This is particularly important in communities that can take the police several days to reach. The kastom system also relieves the burden on the police to an enormous extent by dealing with a large percentage of criminal cases—minor and serious. It is clear that if the kastom system stopped operating, the VPF, stretched as it already is, could not possibly meet the law and order needs of the community.

On a number of occasions since independence there have been riots of one kind or another and the police have relied heavily on the chiefs to restore law and order. For example, during the 1998 riots, sparked by political instability and concerns over the management of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, order was restored only with the assistance of the chiefs. The Commissioner of Police at the time stated that ‘[d]evelopments in recent days have proved that the traditional ways of maintaining our society and people is [sic] still very much alive’.[95] Similarly, in 2002, the chiefs also assisted the police to restore calm in the tensions arising from the appointment of a new police commissioner. In contrast with those earlier occasions, two recent breakdowns in law and order—one in Santo at the end of 2006 and the other in Vila in March 2007—involved failure on behalf of the police and the chiefs to manage group violence.[96] These two situations illustrate the weak state of both systems of law and order and also point to failures in the relationship between them, as will be discussed in the next chapter.

View of stakeholders about the relationship

The views of the chiefs concerning the police vary considerably. The general view is that the police perform a valuable function, but that they should be more responsive to the needs of the chiefs. This point was made prominently during the March riots in 2007, when the police had allegedly been informed by chiefs before the violence that trouble was brewing and their help was needed, but the police refused to provide any assistance, even after the riots started and people were killed and houses burnt down.[97]

The police and others involved in the enforcement of law and order in a government capacity are for the most part extremely complimentary about the kastom system, pointing out its many benefits and explaining how it does a lot of the work of maintaining peace in the communities. For example, a state official commented that in reality it was not the police that solved problems, it was the chiefs.[98] The police legal advisor similarly stated, ‘[W]hen we have a problem then we look at police work but also look at traditional way, because once a fire is lit then it is necessary to use kastom to kilim daon fia [put out the fire].’[99] The former Commissioner of Police, Robert Deniro, stated that their partnership with the chiefs up to now had been informal, but very effective and fruitful. Another important finding concerning the relationship between the police and the kastom system was that all the actors were concerned that the relationship between the two systems should be clearer to avoid disputes over which cases each should deal with and to clarify what demands the chiefs could legitimately make of the police.[100] For example, the police legal advisor suggested that there should be some legal framework to give recognition to the role played by chiefs and police, and if the chiefs and police could work together as part of a restorative justice system this would reduce disputes.[101]

The police are also often outspoken about their belief that the chiefs have a responsibility to maintain law and order in their communities, and often blame the chiefs for ‘not doing their work properly’ when situations of conflict arise. For example, in 2004, the Police Chief of Staff called on the Port Vila Town Council of Chiefs to send their unemployed young people back to their islands. He is reported to have said: ‘There is no need [for] the chiefs to wait for a law to order the unemployed to go home because…common sense dictates that people without jobs in Port Vila immediately become a burden on their friends and relatives and the state.’[102]

The problems generated by such disagreements between the police and the chiefs over the responsibility to deal with certain situations are discussed further in the next chapter.

A final point emerging from the research is the difference between the views of the chiefs and the police about which party should control the relationship. The police are clearly of the view that they should be the ones telling the chiefs what matters to resolve and when they will give them assistance, whereas the chiefs generally view the police as being primarily there to assist them, and hence become frustrated when they fail to do so.

[64] There have been considerable tensions between the two wings that have been played out in the saga involving the appointment of a new Commissioner of Police in 2002, resulting in the arrest of the Police Services Commission, including the Attorney-General, the Secretary to the President and the Ombudsman.

[65] In Port Vila, Luganville, Malekula and Tanna.

[66] One in Sola, two in Ambae, one in Pentecost (which is not currently operational), one in Aneitym, one in south Malekula, one in Epi and one in Tongoa.

[67] Newton Cain, Tess 2003, Final Report Base Line Survey Organisational Climate Survey, AusAID.

[68] Penama Province 1994, Penama Social Development Plan.

[69] The Secretary-General of Torba Province further explained that this lack of resources placed significant limits on the ability of the police to deal effectively with crime because if an officer wanted to go to another island he must apply for an impress from headquarters and this could take a month. Consequently, if there is an emergency the police cannot react quickly.

[70] Joy, Shirley 2003, ‘Police plead for government support to fight crime’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 22 October 2003.

[71] In fact, most recently, when I hailed a police truck for assistance, the two people driving told me that they were not, in fact, police officers, but that they could drive me to the police station if I wanted them to!

[72] Interview with a lawyer (Santo, 18 November 2004). I experienced this also during my year as a prosecutor.

[73] Newton Cain, Final Report Base Line Survey Organisational Climate Survey.

[74] Lini, ‘Law and order situation in Luganville questioned’.

[75] See Super, A Needs Assessment of Juvenile Justice Issues in Fiji and Vanuatu; Mitchell, Young People Speak; Morgan, Conference Report of the Governance for the Future; Rousseau, The Report of the Juvenile Justice Project; Ombudsman of Vanuatu 2002, Public report on the unlawful arrest and detention of Mrs Aspin Jack, VUOM 11,; Ombudsman of Vanuatu 2003b, Public report on police brutality during operation on Central Pentecost, VUOM 16, <>

[76] Rousseau, The achievement of simultaneity, p. 202.

[77] Interview with the Director of Youth and Sports (Port Vila, 11 June 2004).

[78] A youth representative in a rural community reported that the police often gave very severe beatings, sometimes requiring hospitalisation, but the youth believed it was the policeman’s right to do this if the person did not surrender.

[79] Working Group for Justice vs Government of the Republic of Vanuatu, 2002, VUSC 55,

[80] Mason, Merrin 2000, ‘Domestic violence in Vanuatu’, in Sinclair Dinnen and Ley Allison (eds), Reflections on Violence in Melanesia, p. 119.

[81] Ibid., p. 128.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Civil Procedure Rules (2002, Part 16, Division 4).

[84] Interview with a senior police officer (Port Vila, 29 July 2003).

[85] Interview with the Director of the Vanuatu Women’s Centre (Port Vila, 7 May 2004).

[86] Interview with a senior police officer (Port Vila, 6 April 2004).

[87] For example, a police post without a vehicle or Magistrate’s Court will rely more heavily on the chiefs than one with these resources.

[88] I was there only three weeks after the new policy.

[89] Interview with a police officer (Port Vila, 8 November 2004).

[90] Garae, Len 2005, ‘Chiefs diffuse Tanna fight’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 8 August 2005, p. 1.

[91] See also Rousseau, The achievement of simultaneity, pp. 207–8.

[92] Public Prosecutor vs Kota and Others (1989–94, 2 VLR 661).

[93] Interview with a senior police officer (Port Vila, 29 July 2003). Examples of the benefits of the chiefs and police working together are regularly reported in the local newspapers. For example, in 2004, the police launched an operation in Malekula to deal with outstanding criminal cases dating back to 1999 that had not been dealt with due to a shortage of manpower at the police post. The police worked closely with the chiefs, who delivered the suspects to the police station and the police then decided which cases to put before the court and which to refer back to the chiefs to solve. See Walter, Matthew 2004b, ‘Forty suspects netted in Malekula operation’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 26 November 2004, p. 2.

[94] Garae, Len 2005, ‘Tension high after Ambrym killing’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 11 October 2005, p. 3. After the 3 March riots in 2007, the Vanuatu Daily Post also reported the Minister of Internal Affairs saying, ‘[T]he chiefs of the two communities of Tanna and Ambrym have already been informed to get those that are involved in the problem to surrender by sunset yesterday afternoon’ (‘Two confirmed dead in Ambrym and Tanna clash’, Vanuatu Daily Post [Port Vila], 5 March 2007, p. 1).

[95] Wittersheim, Eric 2005, Melanesian elites and modern politics in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, Discussion Paper 1998/3, State Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper Series, The Australian National University, <> See also Amnesty International 1998, No Safe Place for Prisoners.

[96] These two incidents are discussed in further detail in Chapter 4 under ‘Chiefly misbehaviour’ and Chapter 6 under ‘Dispute and confusion over jurisdiction’.

[97] ‘Two confirmed dead in Ambrym and Tanna clash’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 5 March 2007, p. 1; ‘West Ambrym chiefs willing to supply local food to victims’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 10 March 2007, p. 3; ‘The roots of the man Tanna/man Ambrym row’, The Independent (Port Vila), 11 March 2007, p. 3; Regenvanu, State of emergency.

[98] Interview with a secretary-general (Ambae, 3 October 2003).

[99] Interview with a police officer (Port Vila, 14 April 2004).

[100] See also the discussion on this issue at the Vanuatu Judiciary Conference in 2006. Forsyth, Report on the Vanuatu Judiciary Conference 2006.

[101] Interview with police legal advisor (Port Vila, 14 April 2004).

[102] Garae, Len 2004, ‘Police want unemployed sent home’, Vanuatu Daily Post (Port Vila), 25 November 2004, p. 3.