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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belize

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belize, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3a34.html [accessed 26 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
 

 

Belize is a parliamentary democracy with a Constitution enacted in 1981 upon independence from the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, a Cabinet of Ministers, and a Legislative Assembly govern the country. The Governor General represents Queen Elizabeth II in the largely ceremonial role of Head of State. Both local and national elections are scheduled on a constitutionally prescribed basis.

The Police Department is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. It is responsible to and controlled by civilian authorities, but there were occasional credible reports of police abuse and mistreatment.

The economy is primarily agricultural. The Government favors free enterprise and generally encourages investment, both foreign and domestic. Preliminary estimates put 1994 gross domestic product growth at 1.5 percent in real terms.

The Constitution provides for, and citizens enjoy in practice, a wide range of fundamental rights and freedoms. Principal human rights abuses include occasional reports of police use of excessive force when making arrests, prolonged incarceration without trial, discrimination and domestic violence against women, and employer mistreatment of immigrant workers in the banana industry.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of such killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution expressly forbids torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Nonetheless, there were occasional credible reports of mistreatment and abuse by police. For example, during the Government's well-publicized anticrime campaign against urban gangs, several of those arrested alleged police abuse. The Police Department, the Police Complaints Board, and on occasion, special independent commissions appointed by the Prime Minister investigate any such allegations. No police or prison officer was charged with or convicted of such an offense in 1994.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, and the authorities respect these provisions in practice. The law requires the police to inform a detainee of the cause of detention within 48 hours of arrest and to bring the person before a court within 72 hours. In practice, the authorities normally inform detainees immediately of the charges against them. Bail is granted in all but the most serious cases. However, many detainees cannot make bail, and backlogs in the judicial system often cause considerable delays and postponements of hearings, resulting in overcrowded prisons and prolonged incarceration without trial.

The Constitution forbids exile, and it does not occur.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Persons accused of civil or criminal offenses have constitutional rights to presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, defense by counsel, a public trial, and appeal. Trial by jury is mandatory in capital cases. Those convicted by either a magistrate's court or the Supreme Court may appeal to the Court of Appeal. In some cases, including those resulting in a capital sentence, the convicted party may make a final appeal to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. In December the Privy Council agreed to hear three such appeals, thereby suspending the government-imposed death sentences.

The authorities respect these constitutional guarantees in practice, although observers question the judiciary's independence from the executive branch, noting that judges and the Chief Prosecutor must negotiate renewal of their employment contracts with the Government and thus may be vulnerable to political interference. Some observers opined publicly that the Chief Prosecutor's decision in December to drop a case against two suspected major drug criminals might have been influenced by such considerations. The Supreme Court and magistrate courts suffer backlogs aggravated by the inability to maintain a full complement of judges.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the protection of personal property, privacy of home and person, and recognition of human dignity, and the Government generally honors these provisions. The law requires police to obtain judicial warrants before searching private property, except when they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed and do not have time to obtain a warrant. The police observe this requirement in practice. Customs officers do not need a warrant to search private property.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution and local custom protect freedom of speech and the press. In practice, all viewpoints are publicly presented without government interference. Six privately owned weekly newspapers, several of them fiercely partisan, engage in lively debate. The opposition press is a frequent critic of government officials and policies. All newspapers are subject to the constraints of libel laws. In 1994 the Prime Minister won a libel suit against the opposition newspaper and was awarded $12,500 in damages.

Belize's first privately owned commercial radio station began broadcasts in 1990. Since then, broadcast media have become considerably more open. The popular radio call-in programs are lively and feature open criticism of and comment on government and political matters. Continuing indirect government influence over the autonomous Broadcasting Corporation of Belize, a former government monopoly which depends on government financial support, sometimes affects its editorial decisions regarding news and feature reporting.

There are 18 privately owned television broadcasting stations, including several cable networks. The Government's Belize Information Service and the independent television station channels 5 and 7 produce local news and feature programs. The Belize Broadcasting Authority (BBA) regulates broadcasting and asserts its right to preview certain broadcasts, such as those with political content, and to delete any defamatory or personally libelous material from the political broadcasts of both parties. As far as is known, the BBA did not exercise this authority during 1994.

The law provides for academic freedom and the Government respects it in practice.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and the authorities honor it in practice. Political parties and other groups with political objectives freely hold rallies and mass meetings. The organizers of public meetings must obtain a permit 36 hours in advance of the meetings; such permits are not denied for political reasons. The Constitution permits citizens to form and join associations of their choice, both political and nonpolitical.

c. Freedom of Religion

There is no state religion. All groups may worship as they choose, and all groups and churches may establish places of worship, train clergy, and maintain contact with coreligionists abroad.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no restrictions on freedom of movement within the country. Foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation are unrestricted.

As many as 40,000 Central Americans from neighboring countries have taken up residence in Belize since 1980, many of them entering illegally and living in the country without documentation. Successive governments conferred refugee status on nearly one-fourth of the new arrivals and provided them with assistance. However, the sheer number of refugees and other immigrants strained government social services, while the highly visible presence of recent immigrants in the labor force and the marketplace has provoked widespread resentment among native-born Belizeans.

Occasionally over the past few years, the Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB) and others have complained that immigration and law enforcement authorities abused suspected illegal immigrants and in a few cases deported persons who in fact were legal residents or bona fide refugees. In response to complaints, the Government promised to investigate all charges of unfair treatment, discourtesy, or abuse. The Government claims that no specific evidence of these allegations has been presented. To facilitate greater understanding between Belizean officials and the Spanish-speaking people with whom they increasingly must work, the Government instituted mandatory Spanish language training for field officers in the Customs Service and Immigration and Nationality Department.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Belize is a democracy governed by a Legislative Assembly, with executive direction from a Cabinet of Ministers headed by Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel. The law requires national elections at least every 5 years.

All elections are by secret ballot, and suffrage is universal for citizens 18 years and older. National political parties include the People's United Party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR). The nation's ethnic diversity is reflected in each party's membership. The Government changed hands (for the third time since independence in 1981) in 1993 when a coalition of the UDP and NABR won 16 of 29 seats in the House of Representatives.

Women hold a number of appointive offices, including three of nine Senate seats. One member of the House of Representatives is a woman, but women in elective office are the exception rather than the rule. None hold senior positions in the political parties. No laws impede participation of women in politics; their scarcity in Belizean electoral politics can be attributed to tradition and socioeconomic factors.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The HRCB, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliated with regional human rights organizations, operates free of government restriction on a range of issues, including refugee and agricultural workers' rights, cases of alleged police abuse, and cases of alleged illegal deportations of Central American nationals. The HRCB publicizes, and urges police and other government bodies to act upon, complaints it receives. Local and international human rights groups operate freely, and the Government cooperates with independent investigations of human rights conditions.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Belize is a multiracial, multiethnic country, and the Government actively promotes tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds is illegal and not common, although ethnic tension, particularly resentment of recently arrived Central American immigrants, continued to be a problem.

Women

Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women face social and economic prejudices. For example, women find it more difficult than men to obtain business and agricultural financing and other resources. Most employed women are concentrated in female-dominated occupations with traditionally low status and wages. A Women's Bureau in the Ministry of Labor and Social Services is charged with developing programs to improve the status of women. A number of officially registered women's groups work closely with various government ministries in promoting social awareness programs. Women have access to education and are active in all spheres of national life, but relatively few are found in top managerial positions. While the law mandates that women receive equal pay for equal work, women wage earners often earn less than men in similar jobs. Women are not impeded from owning or managing land or other real property.

Domestic violence against women is a chronic problem. The Government took several steps to address domestic violence, including a public education campaign conducted by the Women's Services Office in the Ministry of Human Resources, as well as the introduction in Parliament of a sexual harassment bill. Women Against Violence (WAV), an NGO with branches throughout the country, runs a shelter for battered women and a hotline for rape victims. WAV and other women's organizations successfully lobbied the Government to secure passage of a domestic violence law in 1992. The law appears to have had an effect in at least one instance. In a much publicized case in December, in which a court convicted Lorna James of murdering her husband, the charge was later reduced to manslaughter because Ms. James had been the victim of domestic violence inflicted by her husband.

Children

The Government formed a Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Resources devoted primarily to children's issues. The division coordinates programs for children who are victims of domestic violence, advocates remedies in specific cases before the Family Court, conducts a public education campaign, and works with NGO's and the U.N. Children's Fund to promote children's welfare. The Government also created a National Committee for Families and Children, chaired by the Minister of Human Resources.

People with Disabilities

The law does not mandate specifically the provision of accessibility for disabled persons nor prohibit job discrimination against them. The Government's Disability Services Unit, as well as a number of NGO's such as the Belize Association of and for Persons with Disabilities and the Belize Center for the Visually Impaired, provide assistance to physically disabled persons. Disabled children have access to government special education facilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

By statute and in practice, workers are free to establish and join trade unions. Thirteen independent unions, with an estimated 9.8 percent of the labor force, represent a cross-section of white-collar, blue-collar, and professional workers, including most civil service employees. Several of the unions, however, are moribund and inactive. The Ministry of Labor recognizes unions after they file with the Office of Registry. The law empowers members to draft the bylaws and constitutions of their unions, and they are free to elect officers from among the membership at large. Unions which choose not to hold elections may act as representatives for their membership, but the National Trade Union Congress permits only unions which hold free and annual elections of officers to join its ranks. Both law and precedent effectively protect unions against dissolution or suspension by administrative authority. Although no unions are officially affiliated with political parties, several are sympathetic to one or the other of the two main parties. Unions freely exercise the right to form federations and confederations and affiliate with international organizations. The law permits unions to strike, but unions representing essential services may strike only after giving 21 days' notice to the ministry concerned. The Public Service Union, which is the bargaining unit for some 1,400 civil servants, staged a 3-day wildcat strike after talks with the Government broke down over increased wages, but the strike was not well-supported.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides for collective bargaining and unions freely practice it throughout the country. Employers and unions set wages in free negotiations, or, more commonly, employers simply establish them. The Labor Commissioner acts as a conciliator in deadlocked collective bargaining negotiations between labor and management, offering nonbinding counsel to both sides. Historically, the Commissioner's guidance has been voluntarily accepted. However, should either union or management choose not to accept the conciliator's decision, both are entitled to a legal hearing of the case, provided that it is linked to some provision of civil or criminal law.

The Constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination both before and after a union is registered. Unions may freely organize, but the law does not require employers to recognize a union as a bargaining agent. Some employers have been known to block union organization by terminating the employment of key union sympathizers, usually on grounds purportedly unrelated to union activities. Effective redress is extremely difficult in such situations. Technically, a worker may file a complaint with the Labor Department, but it has been virtually impossible to prove that a termination was due to union activity. The Labor Code applies in the country's two export processing zones (EPZ's). There are no unions in the EPZ's, however, reflecting the general weakness of organized labor in the country, as noted above.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution forbids forced labor, and it is not known to occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 14 years, or 17 years for employment near hazardous machinery. Inspectors from the Ministries of Labor and Education enforce this regulation, although in recent years school truancy officers, who have historically borne the brunt of the enforcement burden, have been less active. The law requires children between the ages of 5 and 14 to attend school, but there are many truants and dropouts.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage is $1.12 (B$2.25) per hour, except in export industries where it is $1.00 (B$2.00) per hour. For domestic workers and shop assistants in stores where liquor is not consumed, the rate is $0.87 (B$1.75) per hour. The minimum wage law does not cover workers paid on a piecework basis. The Ministry of Labor is charged with enforcing the legal minimum wage, which is generally respected in practice. The minimum wage as a sole source of income is inadequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Most salaried workers receive more than the minimum wage.

The law sets the normal workweek at no more than 6 days or 45 hours. It requires payment for overtime work and an annual paid vacation of 2 weeks. A patchwork of health and safety regulations covers numerous industries, and the Ministries of Labor and Public Health enforce these regulations in varying degrees. Enforcement is not universal countrywide, and the ministries commit their limited inspection and investigative resources principally to urban and more accessible rural areas where labor, health, and safety complaints have been registered. Workers have the legal right to remove themselves from a dangerous workplace situation without jeopardy to continued employment.

The exploitation of undocumented foreign workers, particularly young service workers and workers in the banana industry, continues to be a major concern of the HRCB and other concerned citizens. Undocumented immigrants working in the Stann Creek area banana industry have complained of poor working and living conditions and routine nonpayment of wages. In 1992 a government labor inspector was assigned to the area to help resolve wage disputes and promote improved conditions, but after more than 2 years, little progress has been made.

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