Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

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

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 - Djibouti, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
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.

Djibouti remained at year's end a de facto one-party State ruled, since independence in 1977, by President Hassan Gouled Aptidon and the People's Rally for Progress (RPP). Djibouti is composed of two main ethnic groups, the politically predominant Issa (the tribe of the President, who is of Somali origin) and the Afar (who are also numerous in Ethiopia and Eritrea). The Afars comprise the largest single tribe in Djibouti, but they are outnumbered by the Issa and other Somali clans (Issak and Gadabursi) taken together.

The Constitution permits four political parties. Of the two opposition parties recognized by the Government, only one, the Party for Democratic Renewal (PRD), participated in the December 1992 legislative elections. The National Democratic Party (PND) boycotted them on the grounds that President Gouled did not consult the opposition on the "democratization" process and hence that safeguards did not exist for free and fair elections. The Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), essentially an ethnic Afar organization, persuaded most Afars also to boycott the elections. Consequently, the RPP won all 65 parliamentary seats and, with the managed reelection of President Gouled in May, holds all significant government posts as well.

In late 1991 the FRUD began a large-scale Afar insurgency in the northern part of the country; its unmet demands include the formation of a transitional government and regional autonomy for the Afars in Djibouti. A government counteroffensive which checked the FRUD advance in July resulted in the capture of most rebel bases in northern Djibouti.

As a result of the conflict, the Government more than tripled the size of the combined Djiboutian national armed forces (comprised of the army, the national security forces, and the gendarmerie) to nearly 20,000 persons. This mobilization had a devastating effect on Djibouti's economy. By year's end, the total costs of maintaining the armed forces on a war footing accounted for about 35 percent of central government budgetary expenditures, a percentage so high as to be the principal cause of the economic crisis gripping the nation. The armed forces, especially those of Somali origin, committed serious abuses of human rights during this period.

Demobilizing the armed forces remains a challenge for the Government since adult male unemployment in the capital hovers around 60 percent. Djibouti's soil is unproductive. Pastoralists who have not settled in Djiboutiville eke out a living from their livestock. There is virtually no industry. The State is the largest employer. Commerce and services for the 12,000 expatriate residents (mostly French, including 3,800 military personnel) and the operation of the seaport and airport account for most of the gross domestic product. 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 and a limited multiparty political system. Although freedom of the press has expanded since the Government allowed the publication of opposition newspapers and tracts, many of the other rights provided for in the Constitution were not respected. The Government orchestrated constitutional changes to enhance its political power and dashed the opposition's hopes for a peaceful settlement of the civil conflict by manipulation of the May presidential elections. Its military offensive and the virtual occupation of the north by national defense forces essentially of Somali origin, along with the attendant abuse of the Afar civilians living there, moved Djiboutians perilously close to open ethnic conflict. The authorities also continued to detain arbitrarily political opponents and to abuse detainees, reportedly including by the use of torture. Violence against women and children continued to be a problem; rape was on the rise in 1993. It often goes unpunished.

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no known instances of deliberately targeted political killings, but fighting between the army and the FRUD led to many civilian casualties (see Section 1.g.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reported disappearances or abductions, yet the Government again failed to investigate the disappearance of 12 Afars on December 18, 1991. These 12 are presumed dead and are listed among the 59 victims of the massacre on that date of Afar civilians in Arhiba, Djiboutiville. Gendarmerie officers implicated in the massacre have not been punished. Nor did the Djiboutian army try the soldiers who tortured and killed Hasna Mohamed Ali in 1992. There is reason to believe that high-level officials condoned their action after the fact.

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

The Constitution affirms that no one shall be subjected to torture, nor to other inhuman, cruel, degrading, or humiliating punishments. However, security forces continued to abuse detainees, mainly Afars and criminal suspects. In this connection, the Movement for Solidarity with Civilian Victims of the North affirmed that at least 12 Afar women were raped by government forces during a September 5 attack on rebel strongholds.

In 1993 credible witnesses reported seeing police officials beating two British nationals with fists and a broken bottle and dragging them by their hair into a police station for interrogation following a dispute in a local bar.

President Gouled's Chief of Staff, Ismael Omar Guelleh, heads the secret police. Many of his critics assert that he has orchestrated the torture of opponents to Gouled's regime. Interrogation techniques have included use of "the swing" by which victims are tied by their wrists and ankles to a horizontal pole and beaten all over. In general, the Government has taken no action to pursue or prosecute persons accused of torture.

In the overcrowded central prison, former prime minister Ali Aref Bourhan and his fellow inmates staged a brief hunger strike in June to protest the curtailment of family visits. Subsequently, family visits resumed, but Ali Aref's relatives maintained that he had no access to medical care for chronic skin and prostate ailments.

The Government permits representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to have regular access to all prisoners whether civilian or military.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Ministry of Interior regularly disregards the criminal procedures which stipulate that the State may not detain a person beyond 48 hours without an examining magistrate's formal charge. In particular, people who express views critical of the Government and the President are often subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. The national police briefly arrested Ibrahim Warsama Myreh, "Douneh", a nephew of the President and a member of the ruling party, after he criticized government-sanctioned fraud during the May 7 presidential elections. On September 15, police detained Mohamed Houmed Souleh, the President of the Djiboutian Association for the Respect of Human Rights and Liberties; he was subsequently released. Another victim of arbitrary detention and interrogation was Dabale Ahmed Kassim, editor of the weekly paper, The Combat, who was accused of offending institutions of the State, a charge which government authorities typically use to keep political opponents in line.

With the ICRC acting as intermediary in the exchange, and with the cooperation of the Ethiopian Government, the Djibouti Government and the FRUD exchanged detainees on December 1: The Government released 68 detainees, and the FRUD released 26 members of the armed forces.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The legal system comprises legislation and executive decrees, French codified law adopted at independence, Shari'a (Islamic law), traditions of the native nomadic peoples, and a Constitution modeled on the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic. 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.

The Constitution states that all persons have the right to life, liberty, and the security and integrity of the person. It also declares that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, has the right to legal counsel, and has the right to be examined by a doctor if imprisoned. Theoretically, imprisonment can occur only if an arrest decree is confirmed by a judicial magistrate. In practice, security forces arrest people without warrants, and constitutional provisions for a fair trial are often not respected.

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. Some members of the State Security Court as well as investigating magistrates do not have a legal education. Political trials, such as the trial of Ali Aref Bourhan in July 1992, may be appealed to the Supreme Court, but the judgments of the lower courts are usually sustained. On June 20, the Supreme Court rejected Ali Aref's appeal of the State Security Court's guilty verdict.

A general amnesty for 213 criminals in September did not apply to Ali Aref Bourhan, Mohamed Houmed Souleh, and other detainees considered political prisoners by human rights monitors. However, a December 15 presidential pardon released Ali Aref and 13 associates.

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

Although the Constitution provides for the inviolability of the family, home, correspondence, and communications, telephone service to opponents of the regime, including opposition party and Afar leaders, is believed to be tapped by the security services.

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

The conflict between the armed forces and the Afar-led insurgency resulted in excessive use of force and violations of humanitarian law concerning the treatment of civilians.

On September 5, FRUD combatants ambushed an army convoy 15 kilometers outside Assa Gueyla, killing four soldiers and wounding seven. The rebels kidnaped and raped a woman member of the convoy. Afar leaders asserted that the convoy had been sent to resupply government troops. Retaliation by government forces left a reported 51 dead in the vicinity of Randa and Tadjoura, according to FRUD and other Afar sources. A northern traditional leader confirmed 21 civilian dead near Tadjoura alone. Despite credible reports to the contrary, the Government denied that its security forces perpetrated a massacre of civilians.

The Djiboutian Association for the Respect of Human Rights and Liberties, an organization whose credibility remains to be established, claimed that innocent Afar civilians were often killed indiscriminately by government military and paramilitary forces in northern Djibouti. In one such instance in July, soldiers reportedly killed a father and son, Mola Omar and Mohamed Mola, in the vicinity of the town of Lahassa.

During the first 6 months of 1993, the ICRC maintained medical clinics at some 10 locations in the north, including the towns of Assa Gueyla and Dorra. After the government offensive of July, independent organizations such as the ICRC and Doctors Without Borders no longer had access to northern Djibouti. For this reason, FRUD reports of atrocities and government reports of ambushes have not been independently confirmed. The Government continues to deny access to the north to embassies, international organizations, and other observers. All these organizations continue to receive reports of human rights violations which cumulatively strengthen the circumstantial case against the Government.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government continued to exercise control of the national media. During the Presidential campaign, which was confined to the 4 to 6 weeks preceding the May 7 elections, it permitted political debate and made available equal television and radio time to the five presidential candidates to express their views. However, the official media devoted disproportionate coverage to the activities of the ruling party.

The Government employed economic coercion to stifle freedom of speech, firing public sector employees who supported opposition candidates or unwelcome political ideas. Since President Gouled's reelection, persons who have publicly expressed views critical of the Government or caused offense to the President have been interrogated, arrested, or detained – occasionally for a long period – before being tried for defamation, as in the case of Mohamed Houmed Souleh (see Section 1.d.).

The Government Information Secretariat censors the official press, which presents the views of the ruling party. Djibouti's radio and television stations and one newspaper, La Nation, a French-language weekly, are government owned and operated. The official media do not criticize the Government. The newspapers of the two legal opposition parties circulate freely and openly criticize the Government.

The Government neither interferes with foreign broadcasts nor prevents the distribution of foreign publications or detains persons in possession of such publications.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government effectively bans political protest by selective enforcement of public assembly laws, in spite of the freedom of assembly provisions of the new Constitution. Permits are required for peaceful assembly from the Ministry of Interior. The PRD and the PND have applied for and been granted such permits for rallies in the past.

The Government permitted independent presidential candidates and the two authorized political parties to hold rallies before the election, but let it be known that public protest of the results would not be tolerated. As the Government had harshly repressed an opposition political rally in the aftermath of the legislative elections of December 18, 1992, the PND and the PRD, fearing further government repression, refrained from demonstrating against the Government's manipulation of the election process.

The Constitution sanctions four political parties. The ruling party, the RPP, reserved for itself the right to determine the criteria and the circumstances under which the other three parties could be recognized as legal entities. At year's end, the Government had recognized just two opposition parties, the PND and the PRD.

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

Travel within Djibouti has been disrupted by civil war so movement between the north and south is severely restricted. In principle, Djiboutians may travel or emigrate to foreign countries,without restriction or interference, except to Israel.

In June the Government refused to issue travel documents to the President of the Association for the Respect of Human Rights and Liberties, Mohamed Houmed Souleh, and to Samira Ali Hugo, wife of FRUD spokesman Abbo Abbatte, who had hoped to travel to the Vienna International Conference on Human Rights.

Djibouti hosts almost 100,000 refugees, according to government sources. This would be approximately a fifth of the total population. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges the presence of some 45,000 refugees, a more credible figure. Most refugees come from Somalia although some are from Ethiopia. About 20,000 are in four refugee camps. Most of the other refugees live in Djiboutiville, where they have no refugee status.

Some 4,000 Afar civilians fleeing civil conflict sought refuge in Ethiopia and Eritrea. As many as 9,000 may have fled to those countries since the end of 1991.

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

The right of citizens to change their government, while theoretically possible, remains unrealizable. The Government permits multiparty democracy as long as it poses no credible threat to it, i.e., as long as the elite which has held power since independence in 1977 can retain it. The Constitution, voted into law on September 4, 1992, lays down fundamental rights, almost all of which are circumscribed or controlled in their implementation by the ruling regime.

President Gouled was reelected to a fourth term on May 7 in a tightly controlled multiparty presidential election. He was endorsed by about 60 percent of the 50 percent of the registered voters who went to the polls. The President secured only 53 percent of the votes in the capital where, by all accounts, the balloting was fair, but he claimed more than 80 percent of the votes in the rebellious Afar-inhabited northern districts where international observers detected widespread fraud. The Afars, who compose at least one-third of the population, heeded admonitions from the FRUD to boycott the election. President Gouled's four electoral opponents, all fellow Issas, issued a joint communique characterizing the election as a "massive fraud," and the FRUD dismissed the exercise as a sham.

The Afars, a large segment of the body politic, boycotted all three occasions when the Djiboutians were called upon to vote. They also boycotted the constitutional referendum in September 1992, on the grounds that it was a creation of President Gouled's regime and not a text upon which the disaffected members of the community were consulted. They claimed the Constitution was tailored in such a way as to ensure the President's domination of virtually all aspects of the government – including the legislature and judiciary. Having rejected the Constitution, the Afars boycotted the subsequent elections for fear of legitimizing the process initiated by the President and his supporters.

Women are poorly represented in government and in the political process. There are no women in the Cabinet or in Parliament.

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

The Government was disdainful of a domestic human rights group. It refused to recognize the Association for the Respect of Human Rights and Liberties and imprisoned its leader, who had criticized government suppression in the north. Government officials viewed the human rights Association as a political body and treated it as an opposition group.

The Government cooperated with some international and nongovernmental organizations, notably the ICRC, which had access to the central prison and interceded on behalf of detainees in the conflict between the Government and the FRUD. On December 1, the ICRC arranged the exchange of 68 FRUD detainees held by the Government for 26 held by the FRUD in Ethiopia.

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. They traditionally play a secondary role in public life and do not have the same professional opportunities as men. Women are active in small trade as well as in the clerical and secretarial fields. There are only a few women in the professions (civil service, judiciary, teaching and medicine) and the security services.

According to medical personnel, all forms of violence against women increased in 1993. The Government has not specifically addressed violence against women or children. Very few perpetrators of crimes against women, including rape, are punished. When punished, they are often pardoned or serve short sentences. Most domestic and community violence is considered a family or clan affair. Occurrences of gang rape indicate that violence against women is no longer controllable by traditional authorities.


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.

In 1988 the Djiboutian National Women's Union began an educational campaign against female genital mutilation, particularly infibulation, the most extensive and dangerous form of sexual mutilation in Djibouti, which is generally performed on girls between the ages of 7 and 10. The campaign has had only marginal impact on this pervasive custom, which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to physical and mental health. According to an independent expert, as many as 90 percent of Djiboutian females have undergone this operation. 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. No one has been convicted under this statute.

The Government has not specifically addressed other forms of child abuse which are often lightly punished. 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.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government continued with its discriminatory ethnic policy. Because of the President's policy of assigning key positions of authority to members of his tribal group, in particular to powerful advisers in his Cabinet, the Issa (the dominant Somali clan in Djibouti) control the ruling RPP, the civil service, and the military. The President's subclan, the Mammasane, is particularly strong and wields disproportionate power in the affairs of state.

People with Disabilities

There is no specific legislation concerning the handicapped.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The organized labor movement is in its infancy. Fewer than 20 percent of workers in the very small wage economy are union members. Many unions represent employees of individual private or state-owned enterprises. Under the Constitution, workers are free to join unions and to strike provided they comply with legally prescribed requirements. Previously, the Government exerted control over individual unions through the state organized labor confederation, the General Union of Djiboutian Workers (UGTD). The UGTD has been in eclipse since the establishment of the independently organized Democratic Labor Union (UDT) in 1992.

In May secondary school teachers successfully organized an independent labor union, SYNESED. After its members struck and refused to grade end-of-year exams, the union was recognized by the Government.

Unions are free to maintain relations and exchanges with labor organizations in other countries. The UGTD is affiliated with the pan-African trade union body, the Organization of African Trade Union Unity.

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. Employees 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.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. This prohibition is generally observed, but 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, 14 years, is generally respected. The paucity of labor inspectors makes it unlikely that investigations are ever carried out, according to union sources. Children may and do work in family owned businesses, such as restaurants and small shops, at all hours. Children are generally not employed under hazardous conditions. Many of the beggars in the streets are young children whose parents have forced them to beg for a living.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Only a tiny minority of the population is gainfully employed. Minimum wage rates are specified by government regulation, according to occupational categories, and are enforced by the Ministry of Labor. Last raised in 1980, the minimum monthly wage rate of approximately $200 for a 12-hour day of unskilled labor does not provide adequate compensation for a worker and his family to maintain a decent standard of living. Many workers receive housing and transportation allowances.

By law the workweek is 40 hours, often spread over 6 days. Overtime pay and mandatory seniority bonuses are provided. Workers are guaranteed daily and weekly rest periods and paid annual vacations. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for occupational health and safety standards, wages, and work hours. Because enforcement is ineffective, workers face hazardous working conditions, particularly at the port. Workers rarely protest as they fear replacement by others willing to accept the risks.

Search Refworld