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

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 - Djibouti, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 25 November 2015]
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.


Despite 1992 constitutional changes that permitted the creation of four political parties, President Hassan Gouled Aptidon and the People's Rally for Progress (RPP), in power since independence in 1977, continued to rule the country. Djibouti's two main ethnic groups are the politically predominant Issa (the tribe of the President, which is of Somali origin) and the Afar (who are also numerous in Ethiopia and Eritrea). The Afar comprise the largest single tribe in Djibouti but are outnumbered by the Issa and other Somali clans (Issak and Gadabursi) taken together.

On December 26, 1994, the Government signed an agreement that recognized the Afar-led Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) as a legitimate political party. The Government is expected to name a number of FRUD members to key posts during 1995. The FRUD had been engaged in insurgency actions against the Government since 1991. Neither of the two officially recognized opposition parties, the Party for Democratic Renewal (PRD) or the National Democratic Party (PND), hold parliamentary seats. The PND boycotted the December 1992 legislative elections, and the FRUD persuaded most Afars not to participate. As a result, the RPP won all 65 parliamentary seats and, with the managed reelection of President Gouled in May 1993, now holds all significant government posts as well. The next legislative elections are scheduled for 1997.

Under the Ministry of Defense, the Djiboutian National Armed Forces (composed of the army, the national security forces, and the gendarmerie) are responsible for internal and external security. There is a small uniformed police force.

Since the FRUD insurgency began in the Afar-dominated north, the armed forces have tripled in size, placing an enormous burden on the economy. Even though the insurgency diminished greatly during the year--consisting largely of scattered FRUD attacks on government troops--the Government moved slowly on demobilization, in part because adult male unemployment in the capital was already around 60 percent. In March the Government began negotiations with the main faction of the FRUD and signed a peace agreement at the end of the year. Both sides were responsible for the death of noncombatants before the fighting ended.

Djibouti has no industry; services and commerce provide most of the national income based on the large foreign expatriate community of 12,000, including 3,800 French soldiers, and the state-controlled maritime and commercial activities of the Port of Djibouti, the airport, and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad. Only a few mineral deposits exist in the country, and the arid soil is unproductive--only 10 percent is pasture and 1 percent is forested. People are free to pursue private business interests and to hold personal and real property.

Human rights remained restricted despite the introduction of a new Constitution in 1992 and a limited multiparty political system. The judiciary is still not independent of the executive. While reports of military abuses of civilians in the north ended in March, there were several new reports of security force brutality against Afar civilians, including extrajudicial killings, both in the north and in putting down demonstrations in Djiboutiville. The Government prosecuted, but subsequently released, four political opponents who had signed a FRUD declaration calling for continued armed struggle. At the same time, the Government permitted somewhat increased freedoms of speech and the press and eased restrictions on freedom of movement in the north. The Government permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), U.N. representatives, and diplomatic missions resident in Djibouti access to prisoners and insurgent areas. The traditional practice of female genital mutilation continued to be a prolem.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no known instances of politically motivated extrajudicial killings. However, there were credible reports that security forces might have killed civilians in skirmishes with FRUD insurgents and used excessive force in quelling Afar-led demonstrations. The most important incidents included, in January, the alleged killing by government forces of 7 FRUD supporters in retaliation for an earlier ambush on government forces. In March there were unconfirmed reports that government forces killed 36 FRUD supporters, including civilians during fighting. It was impossible to verify the number of casualties or to determine whether the reported victims were civilians or antigovernment insurgents.

In June police used excessive force in a violent clash with Afar demonstrators, killing as many as 7 persons and wounding 15 others, after the authorities moved to destroy makeshift homes and a community run school in an Afar squatter neighborhood (see Section 2.d.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances. An investigation launched by the authorities in 1991 to determine culpability in an old disappearance case yielded no concrete results.

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

The Constitution states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to other inhuman, cruel, degrading, or humiliating punishments. Under the new Penal Code adopted in October, torture is punishable by 15 years in prison. Senior government officials pressed for and generally succeeded in bringing about an improvement from the situation in 1993, particularly after peace discussions began with the FRUD in the spring. Nevertheless, especially during the first 3 months of 1994, credible reports indicated that security forces abused detainees, particularly Afars in the northern region and persons suspected of links with the FRUD. There were credible reports of the involvement of government forces in the rape of at least one dozen Afar women and girls in the Mabla and Oueima regions in March.

Prison conditions are harsh. There were no reports of abuses leading to the deaths of prisoners or rape of female prisoners. The Government permitted representatives of the ICRC regular access to all prisoners, whether civilian or military.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The 1994 Penal Code stipulates that the State may not detain a person beyond 48 hours without an examining magistrate's formal charge. Another 48-hour detention can be accorded to the police assuming the prior approval of Djibouti's public prosecutor. Persons charged with political or national security offenses can be detained as long as an investigation is underway. Nevertheless, the police often disregarded these procedures, normally arresting persons without warrants and sometimes detaining persons for lengthy periods (see Section 1.e.).

As far as known, the Government held no political or security detainees at the end of the year. The security forces captured about 30 FRUD combatants during the previous 2 years. Most of these persons gained release during an ICRC-arranged exchange at the end of 1993 or early in 1994. The agreement signed with the FRUD in December grants amnesty to all FRUD militants.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The legal system comprises legislation and executive decrees, French codified law adopted at independence, Shari'a (Islamic) law, and traditions of the native nomadic peoples. Crimes committed in urban centers are dealt with in accordance with French-inspired law and judicial practice in the regular courts. Civil actions may be brought in these courts or in the traditional courts. Shari'a law is restricted to civil and family matters.

A special State Security Court hears cases of espionage, treason, and acts threatening the public order or "the interest of the Republic." This Court tries people accused of political crimes and persons judged to be a danger to national security. The Court normally meets in closed session but not always; any decision may be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Constitution states that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, has the right to legal counsel, and the right to be examined by a doctor if imprisoned. Legal counsel is available to the indigent in criminal and civil matters. Court cases are heard in public before a presiding judge and two accompanying judges. The latter receive assistance from two persons--"assessors"--who are not members of the bench, but who possess enough sophistication to comprehend legal proceedings. While the Government selects the assessors from the public at large, human rights groups have claimed that political and ethnic affiliations played a role in determining who was selected. The constitutional provisions for a fair trial are generally respected in regular nonpolitical criminal cases. Theoretically, imprisonment can legally occur only if an arrest warrant is confirmed by a judicial magistrate. However, in practice, security forces arrest people without warrants.

The judiciary is not independent of the executive. The State Security Court tries people accused of political crimes and persons judged by the President to be a danger to national security. In recent years, a number of legal proceedings commanded public attention as not meeting international standards of fair trial. Some members of the State Security Court as well as investigating magistrates do not have a legal education. Although State Security Court decisions may be appealed to the Supreme Court, lower court sentences are usually sustained.

There were no known political prisoners. The trial of the four political opponents, who in January had signed a document which called for continued armed struggle against the Government, took place in early May. The defendants were represented by counsel and released after the trial at Djibouti's Palais de Justice, while supporters of the four demonstrated outside. Human rights activist Mohamed Houmed Souleh, a male nurse and former parliamentarian, was detained in September 1993 for alleging official involvement in a politically motivated killing. After being sentenced to 3 months' imprisonment and a fine in October, the Appeals Court ordered a reduction in the sentence in January 1994 to 1 month's imprisonment. The Supreme Court affirmed this ruling, and Souleh was permitted to regain his freedom.

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

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the family, home, correspondence, and communications. However, the Government monitors the communications of regime opponents, including opposition party and Afar leaders. Warrants are required for the authorities to conduct searches on private property.

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts

The conflict between the armed forces and the Afar-led insurgents resulted in the excessive use of force and violations of humanitarian law concerning treatment of civilians. Most of these abuses occurred early in the year and ended by April after the start of negotiations between the Government and the FRUD. After denying the ICRC and foreign embassies access to the north during the second half of 1993, the Government allowed controlled access to most areas in the spring. Complete access became available after the signing of the peace accord in December.

Low-level fighting took place between the security forces and insurgents during the first months of the year. Following a period of calm, the Government and the FRUD signed a peace agreement in December. The French continued to provide humanitarian assistance to Djibouti. French troops delivered relief supplies or were present in limited numbers in towns like Tadjourah.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government owns the electronic media, the most important medium for reaching the public, as well as the principal weekly newspaper. The official media do not criticize the President or the Government. However, there are several opposition-run weeklies which circulate freely with open criticism of the Government. The Government permitted television coverage of the annual congress of one of the two legal opposition parties, during which the party leader sharply criticized the authorities. In contrast to 1993, when the authorities interrogated, arrested, detained, or tried persons who publicly criticized the Government or the President, the Government did not commit such abuses in 1994. The improvement appears to reflect the ending of the insurgency and outside pressure.

The Government also did not interfere with foreign broadcasts or prevent the distribution of foreign publications.

There are no specific laws or other criminal sanctions that threaten academic freedom. In general, teachers may speak and conduct research without restriction as long as they do not violate the laws on sedition. There were several student demonstrations in 1994. The chief cause was the late payment of government subsidies. However, the demonstrations were largely a manifestation of despair about the parlous state of the economy.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The right to free assembly is provided for in the Constitution, and the Government generally respected this right. The Ministry of Interior requires permits for peaceful assembly, and the Government sometimes used the absence of a permit as the legal basis for action against demonstrators. In 1994 the authorities denied a permit to Aden Roblem Awaleh's National Democratic Party (PND) on grounds that it would lead to violence. Some opposition leaders effectively practiced self-censorship. Rather than provoke a government crackdown, they refrained from organizing popular demonstrations. Security forces used excessive force in putting down spontaneous demonstrations, such as in an incident in the Afar squatter community (see Section 2.d.).

The Constitution sanctions four political parties, but the ruling party, the RPP, reserves the right to determine the criteria and the circumstances under which the other parties may be recognized as legal entities. The Government recognized the PND and the PRD throughout the year, and formally recognized the FRUD in December. Nonpolitical associations must register with the Ministry of the Interior in accordance with a law enacted at the turn of the century.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion. Virtually the entire population is Sunni Muslim. The Government imposes no sanctions on those who choose to ignore Islamic teachings on such matters as diet, alcoholic consumption, and religious fasting.

The foreign community supports Roman Catholic, French Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. Foreign clergy and missionaries may perform charitable works but proselytizing, while not illegal, is discouraged.

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

The civil war seriously restricted movement between north and south until spring, when the insurgency declined, except in one or two enclaves. Djiboutians may travel or emigrate to foreign countries without restriction or interference. In October the Government lifted passport restrictions for travel to Israel.

On at least two occasion during the year, the Government razed squatter settlements built on public land by Afars displaced by the civil conflict and others, including illegal immigrants from Somalia and Ethiopia. In one "clean up" early in the year, the Government moved some of the displaced Afar to an alternative site 12 kilometers from Djibouti and rounded up non-Djiboutians and sent them to refugee camps. In June the Government, in attempting to raze an Afar neighborhood, destroyed makeshift homes and a community run school. Security forces used massive force against the subsequent, spontaneous protest, killing 7 persons and wounding 15. The authorities claimed that they responded to attacks on police by residents with stones, clubs, and knives.

Since 1991 about 9,000 civilians, largely Afar, have fled the civil conflict, mainly to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Despite the much improved security situation in 1994, very few Afar returned in 1994.

Djibouti hosts almost 120,000 refugees, according to government sources, approximately a fifth of the total population. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges only the presence of some 45,000 refugees, largely from Somalia and Ethiopia resident in four main refugee camps. There are several thousand others living and working illegally in Djiboutiville. The UNHCR figures are based entirely on the number of people living in recognized camps and not on the larger population pool counted as refugees by the authorities. Late in 1994 the Government began in cooperation with UNHCR to move illegal residents to refugee camps for repatriation to Ethiopia.

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

Although the 1992 Constitution provides for the right of citizens to change their government in theory, in practice citizens have not yet been allowed to exercise this right. The RPP has carefully controlled the implementation of the new four-party system, and with the opposition largely refusing to participate, easily ensured total RPP control of the legislature in 1992 and President Gouled's reelection to a fourth term in 1993. Many Afars, particularly supporters of the FRUD, claim that the Constitution was crafted to ensure the President's domination of virtually all aspects of the Government, including the legislature and judiciary.

The Government signed a peace agreement with the FRUD in December 1994. The agreement set the stage for the inclusion of FRUD members in senior government posts, although this anticipated development had not taken place by the end of the year. As negotiations took place during the year, the security situation improved markedly.

Although legally entitled to participate in the political process, women are largely excluded from senior positions in government and in the political parties. There are no women in the Cabinet or in Parliament. The highest ranking woman in the country is Mrs. Khadija Abebe, President of the Court of Appeals. At least three other women serve as judges, while several are school administrators. The director of multilateral organizations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also is a woman.

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

The Government has been hostile to the formation of local human rights groups. In the case of the Association for the Respect for Human Rights and Liberties (ADDHL), in 1993 the Government imprisoned its Association leader, Mohamed Houmed Soulleh, after he criticized military abuses in the civil conflict, and in 1994 continued to deny the ADDHL recognition (see Section 1.e.). The ADDHL continued to function during 1994, however, with Soulleh as its head. No other known human rights groups exist. No international human rights group visited the country in 1994.

The Government cooperated with some international human rights organizations, including the ICRC which in 1993 played a large role in the exchange of prisoners in the civil conflict.

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

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of language, race, sex, or religion, but discrimination against women and ethnic minorities is widespread.


Women legally possess full civil rights, but in practice, due to traditional societal discrimination in education and other areas, play a secondary role in public life and do not have the same employment opportunities as men. With only a few women in the professions, women are largely confined to wage employment in small trade as well as in the clerical and secretarial fields. Customary law discriminates against women in such areas as inheritance, divorce, property ownership, and travel. The French Legal Code does not, prompting many educated women to seek to defend their interests through the Western legal framework.

Violence against women does not appear to be a major problem. When violence against women does occur, it normally is dealt with within the family or clan structure rather than in the courts. The police rarely interfere in domestic violence cases, and the media cover only the most extreme cases, such as murder. The Government has been increasingly concerned about the growing problem of rape, and included in the new 1994 Penal Code stiff sentences for rape ranging up to 20 years in prison. No cases were tried under the new Code before the end of the year.


Although there are a few charitable organizations working with children, the Government devotes virtually no public resources to the advancement of children's rights and welfare.

According to an independent expert, as many as 98 percent of Djiboutian females have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), which international health experts widely condemn as physically and psychologically damaging. In Djibouti FGM is generally performed on girls between the ages of 7 and 10. In 1988 the Djiboutian National Women's Union began an educational campaign against FGM, particularly infibulation, the most extensive and dangerous form of sexual mutilation. The campaign has had only marginal impact on this pervasive custom. Judicial reforms enacted in 1991 stipulate that anyone found guilty of genital mutilation of young girls can face a heavy fine and 5 years in prison. However, the Government has not convicted anyone under this statute.

The Government has not specifically addressed other forms of child abuse, which are often lightly punished. For example, when a child is raped or otherwise abused, the perpetrator is usually fined an amount sufficient to cover medical care given to the injured child. The Government has not as yet used provisions of the new Penal Code to deal more stiffly with domestic violence and child abuse.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government continued to discriminate against citizens on the basis of ethnicity in terms of employment and advancement. The Issa (the dominant Somali clan in Djibouti) control the ruling party, the civil and security services, and the military. The President's subclan, the Mamassan, is particularly strong and wields disproportionate power in the affairs of state.

People with Disabilities

The Government does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for people with disabilities. Although disabled persons have access to education and public health facilities, there is no specific legislation that addresses their needs, and there are no laws or regulations which prevent job discrimination against disabled people, who find it difficult to find employment in an economy where approximately 60 percent of the able-bodied male adult population is underemployed or jobless.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Under the Constitution, workers are free to join unions and to strike provided they comply with legally prescribed requirements. In the small wage economy, about 70 percent of workers are union members, concentrated in individual private or state-owned enterprises. Previously, the Government exerted control over individual unions by making membership mandatory in the state-organized labor confederation, the General Union of Djiboutian Workers (UGTD). Since 1992 unions are free to join or form other confederations. While the UGTD is now nominally independent of the Government, it still has close ties to the RPP. However, the Democratic Labor Union (UDT) has gained increasing union support.

The prescribed legal requirement for initiating a strike calls for the representatives of employees who plan to do so to contact the Interior Ministry 48 hours in advance. Most of the strikes in 1994 were legal. In May elementary school teachers struck over nonpayment of salaries. The Education Minister attempted to declare the strike illegal and dissolve the union. When secondary school teachers struck in support of their colleagues, the Minister backed down. The Labor Law prohibits employer retribution against strikers and is generally enforced.

Unions are free to maintain relations and exchanges with labor organizations in other countries. The UGTD is affiliated with the Organization of African Trade Union Unity. The UDT applied for affiliation with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in early 1994.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Although labor has the right to organize and bargain collectively, collective bargaining rarely occurs. Relations between employers and workers are informal and paternalistic. Wages are generally established unilaterally by employers on the basis of Ministry of Labor guidelines. When disputes about wages or health and safety issues arise, the Ministry of Labor encourages direct, ad hoc resolution by labor representatives and employers. Workers or employers may request formal administrative hearings before the Ministry of Labor's inspection service. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination against employees, and employers guilty of such discrimination are legally required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The Ministry generally enforces the law.

An export processing zones was established in December.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and while this is generally observed, security forces sometimes compel illegal immigrants to work for them in lieu of deportation.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The legal minimum age for the employment of children is 14 years, and the law is generally respected. However, the shortage of labor inspectors makes it unlikely that investigations are ever carried out, according to union sources. Children are generally not employed under hazardous conditions. Children may and do work in family-owned businesses, such as restaurants and small shops, at all hours. Many street beggars are young children whose parents have forced them to beg to help support the family.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Only a small minority of the population is engaged in wage employment. The Government sets administratively minimum wage rates according to occupational categories, and the Ministry of Labor is charged with enforcement. Last raised in 1982, the minimum monthly wage rate is approximately $200 (35,900 Djiboutian francs) for a 12-hour day of unskilled labor. Many workers also receive housing and transportation allowances. Even with these fringe benefits, however, the minimum wage does not provide adequate compensation for a worker and family to maintain a decent standard of living.

By law, the workweek is 40 hours, often spread over 6 days. Workers are guaranteed daily and weekly rest periods and paid annual vacations. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing occupational health and safety standards, wages, and work hours. Because enforcement is ineffective, workers sometimes face hazardous working conditions, particularly at the port. Workers rarely protest as they fear replacement by others willing to accept the risks. There are no laws or regulations permitting workers to refuse to carry out dangerous work assignments without jeopardy to continued employment.

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