Kiribati will put another three New Zealand judges before a tribunal for misconduct, as New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta warns of “constitutional issues” in the Pacific nation.
The Kiribati government has been waging a campaign against the country’s judiciary after attempting to prevent High Court judge David Lambourne – the husband of the country’s opposition leader – from entering the country, and trying to set an end-date to his term as a judge.
New Zealand judges appear to have been caught in the crossfire. The country’s chief justice, Bill Hastings, a New Zealand appointee, was suspended in July after ruling in favour of Lambourne. Hastings has faced a tribunal reviewing unspecified claims of misconduct.
Three retired New Zealand judges working for Kiribati’s appeals court Peter Blanchard, Rodney Hansen, KC, and Paul Heath, were suspended in September after also ruling in favour of Lambourne. NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed the three will also face a tribunal.
The suspension of all but the country’s magistrates court has come as Kiribati has shunned relations with Pacific neighbours and the United States while building its relationship with China. Kiribati removed itself from the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this year, and did not attend a Pacific summit at the White House last week.
Dr Tess Newton Cain, project lead for the Pacific hub at Griffith University in Queensland, said it was hard to see the Kiribati government’s actions as motivated by anything other than getting rid of Lambourne, in hope of convincing his wife to stand aside from politics.
“It seems to me just very unlikely that these three particular court of appeal judges have somehow found themselves behaving in ways that are not commensurate with the way judges behave.”
Tessie Lambourne, the opposition leader, had been a “thorn in the side” of the government. She was the country’s Ambassador to Taiwan in 2019 when Kiribati switched its recognition to China.
Newton Cain said the suspension of the judges would likely only be resolved by a change of government.
The opposition had been “thwarted” in a recent attempt to bring a motion of no confidence against the government, but was still pursuing this. If successful, a general election could take place and bring the opposition into power.
“Given what we’ve heard so far from members of the opposition, then I think we would expect to see some significant changes, including rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum, and no doubt, putting right this situation about lack of access to judicial services in the country.”
Mahuta said New Zealand took “seriously” the suspending of the judges, and wanted Kiribati to resolve the issue.
“There are constitutional issues in question with the actions that they’ve taken, and those concerns have been conveyed at an officials’ level to Kiribati,” she said.
“In order to resolve this, we need to ensure that the matter can be addressed with Kiribati directly, and we hope to do that.”
Mahuta said she hoped Kiribati’s actions would not mark the end of New Zealand providing judges for the country.
New Zealand Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann said she was “deeply concerned” by the suspensions.
“All are highly respected judges with distinguished judicial careers in New Zealand,” she said, in a statement.
Hastings remained a district court judge in New Zealand but was not working while in New Zealand, “in keeping with the terms of his appointment as chief justice of Kiribati”.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) spokesperson said, in a statement, that concern had been raised at the “highest level” of Kiribati, including with its foreign minister, and it was “closely monitoring” the tribunal into allegations made against Hastings.
“MFAT understands the question of the removal of three court of appeal judges suspended by the president of Kiribati has been referred to a tribunal established under the Kiribati constitution.”
Hastings’ appointment was partly funded by a New Zealand aid programme; the appeal judges were not funded by New Zealand, the MFAT spokesperson said.