Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2014, 15:45 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Belize

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Belize, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa451c.html [accessed 26 November 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. It is governed by a Prime Minister, a Cabinet of Ministers, and a Legislative Assembly. A 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 Belize Defence Force (BDF) consists of regular and reserve infantry and small air and maritime wings. The 750-member Police Department is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. It is responsible to and controlled by civilian authorities.

Belize is a developing nation with an economy dependent primarily on agriculture. The Government favors free enterprise and actively encourages investment, both foreign and domestic. In 1992 the gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 5.3 percent in real terms, and the per capita GDP was $2,170.

Constitutional protections for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, including women and all ethnic groups, are upheld by the judiciary. An active press and increasingly independent radio and television stations buttress the people's civil and political rights. However, there were a number of credible reports of police abuse and mistreatment, and at least one allegation of police killing an unarmed suspect during the year. The Government promised to investigate complaints and punish those officers guilty of wrongdoing. However, none were charged or punished for human rights abuses in 1993. Domestic violence against women is a chronic problem; in addition, there continued to be credible reports of 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 politically motivated killings. There were several allegations of misuse of lethal force by police officers in 1993, constituting extrajudicial killings. In each of three such cases reported and investigated during the year in which excessive force was alleged to have been used in the course of hot pursuit or arrest of criminal suspects, the Director of Public Prosecutions determined that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. However, charges were filed against a police officer following a 1991 incident in which a prisoner was killed in police custody when the officer apparently tried to break up a fight between prisoners. That case had ended in a hung jury in early 1993; the prosecutor filed charges again and a new trial is pending.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

Torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are expressly forbidden by the Constitution. Nonetheless, there are occasional credible reports of mistreatment and abuse by police. Such allegations are investigated by the Police Department, the Police Complaints Board, and on occasion, by special independent commissions appointed by the Prime Minister. No police or prison officer was charged with or convicted of such an offense in 1993.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, and these provisions are respected in practice. A detainee must be informed of the cause of detention within 48 hours of arrest and must be brought before a court within 72 hours. In practice, detainees are normally informed 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.

Exile is forbidden by the Constitution and 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, 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.

These constitutional guarantees are respected in practice, although the judiciary's independence from the executive branch has been questioned by observers who note that judges must negotiate renewal of their employment contracts with the Government and may thus be vulnerable to political interference. The Supreme Court and magistrate courts suffer backlogs aggravated by the inability to maintain a full complement of judges.

There are no political prisoners.

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

Constitutional provisions for the protection of personal property, privacy of home and person, and recognition of human dignity are generally honored by the Government. Police are required 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. This requirement is obeyed in practice. Customs officers do not require a warrant to search private property.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and the press are protected under the Constitution and by local custom. In practice, all viewpoints are publicly presented without government interference. Five privately owned weekly newspapers, two of them fiercely partisan, engage in lively debate of the issues. The opposition press is a frequent critic of government officials and policies.All newspapers are subject to the constraints of libel laws.

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.

Fifteen privately owned television broadcasting stations, including several cable networks, operate in Belize. The Government's Belize Information Service and the independent Channel 5 television station produce local news and feature programs. Broadcasting is regulated by the Belize Broadcasting Authority (BBA), which 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 before these are aired. As far as is known, the BBA did not exercise this authority during 1993.

Academic freedom is provided for by law and respected in practice.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of assembly is constitutionally assured and honored 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. Under the Constitution, Belizeans are free 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. There is an active missionary presence. In church publications and from the pulpit, church leaders comment on government and political policies as these affect the social welfare of the country.

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 Belize without documentation. The Government conferred refugee status on many 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.

The Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB) and others complained that immigration and law enforcement authorities abused suspected illegal immigrants and on occasion 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.

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

Belize is a functioning democracy governed by a Legislative Assembly, with executive direction from a Cabinet of Ministers headed by Prime Minister George Price. National elections must be held at least once every 5 years. Municipal and town board officials are elected in local contests at 3-year intervals.

All elections are by secret ballot, and suffrage is universal for Belizean citizens 18 years and older. National political parties include the People's United Party (PUP), 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) when a coalition of the UDP and NABR won 16 of 29 seats in the House of Representatives in the general elections of June 30.

Allegations that large numbers of Central American immigrants were illegally naturalized in order to pad voter rolls before the June general elections were investigated by an independent consortium of nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). The consortium discovered a pattern of irregularities which lent credence to the charges, and the new Government promised to study and act on the group's recommendations to prevent such abuses from occurring in the future.

Women hold a number of appointive offices – the Governor General and three of nine Senators are women – but women in elective office are rare. No laws or practices impede participation of women in politics. One of four women who contested June's general election was elected to the House of Representatives.

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

Local and international human rights groups operate freely, and the Government cooperates with independent investigations of human rights conditions in Belize.

The HRCB, a nongovernmental organization that is affiliated with regional human rights organizations, was active in 1993 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 which the HRCB receives. It lacks the resources to conduct independent investigations, but it does participate in joint projects such as the NGO consortium investigation discussed above.

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 is not common, although ethnic tension, particularly resentment of Central American immigrants, continued to be a problem.

Women

Despite constitutional provisions for equality, Belizean women face social and economic prejudices. For example, women can 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. 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 November 1992.

Children

In 1990 Belize became the fifth nation worldwide to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. With support from the United Nations Children's Fund, the Government and various NGO's are currently studying legislative changes which will be required to bring national law into conformity with the Convention. Several NGO's are active in the field of child welfare and the prevention of child abuse. The Government has sponsored a series of public service television announcements to sensitize the public to the issue of child abuse.

People with Disabilities

Assistance to physically disabled persons is provided by the Government's Disability Services Unit as well as by a number of NGO's such as the Belize Association of and for Persons with Disabilities and the Belize Center for the Visually Impaired. Disabled children have access to government special education facilities. Belizean law does not specifically prohibit job discrimination against disabled persons. The provision of accessibility for disabled persons is not mandated legislatively or otherwise.

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. Unions are recognized by the Ministry of Labor after they file with the Office of Registry. Members are empowered 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 (NTUC) of Belize permits only unions which hold free and annual elections of officers to join its ranks. By both law and precedent, unions are effectively protected 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. Unions are legally permitted to strike, but unions representing essential services may strike only after giving 21 days' notice to the Ministry concerned. A wildcat strike by nonunion women textile workers occurred in 1993 following the failure of the employer to meet his payroll. The Government suspended the offending company's development concession in October and the company's management promised to pay the workers' back wages as soon as possible.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining is protected in law and freely practiced throughout the country. Wages are set in free negotiations between employers and unions or, more commonly, simply offered by employers. In practice, 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 valid provision of civil or criminal law.

The Constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination both before and after the union is registered. Theoretically, unions may freely organize. In practice, however, employers are not legally required to recognize a union as a bargaining agent, and 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.

Belize's two export processing zones (EPZ's) are not exempt from the Labor Code. 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

Forced labor is forbidden by the Constitution and is not known to occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age of 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. Children between the ages of 5 and 14 are required to attend school. In practice, 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. Workers paid on a piecework basis are not covered by the minimum wage law. 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.

No worker is obliged to work more than 6 days or 45 hours per week. Payment for overtime work is obligatory, as is an annual paid vacation of 2 weeks. A patchwork of health and safety regulations covers numerous industries, and these regulations are enforced in varying degrees by the Ministries of Labor and Public Health. Enforcement is not universal countrywide, and in 1993 the limited inspection and investigative resources were committed principally to urban and more accessible rural areas where labor, health, and safety complaints had been registered.

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 a year, little progress was made.

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