Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2014, 08:39 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Gabon

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 25 February 2000
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Gabon , 25 February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa6f4.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.

Gabon

Gabon is a republic dominated by a strong Presidency. Although opposition parties have been legal since 1990, a single party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has remained in power since 1968 and has circumscribed political choice. Elections for the presidency and the National Assembly generally have not been free and fair but have varied widely in quality; some suffered chiefly from poor organization, while others were fraudulent. PDG leader El Hadj Omar Bongo has been President since 1967 and was reelected for another 7-year term in a December 1998 election marred by irregularities that generally favored the incumbent, including incomplete and inaccurate electoral lists and the use of false documents to cast votes. In July 1998, following opposition victories in 1996 elections for local government offices that recently had been made elective, the Government transferred key electoral functions to the Interior Ministry from an independent National Electoral Commission that had been established pursuant to a 1995 constitutional referendum. Members of the PDG and allied parties hold large majorities of seats in both chambers of the national legislature: The directly elected National Assembly, for which the most recent elections, held in December 1996, were poorly run and fraudulent; and the Senate, members of which are chosen by municipal and regional government officials. The judiciary is independent but remains vulnerable to government manipulation.

The national police, which are subordinate to the Interior Ministry, and the gendarmerie, which is subordinate to the Defense Ministry, are primarily responsible for domestic law enforcement and public security. In addition elements of the armed forces and the "Republican Guard," an elite, heavily armed unit that protects the President, sometimes have performed internal security functions; both the armed forces and the Republican Guard are subordinate to the Defense Ministry. Members of the security forces occasionally committed human rights abuses.

The country's economy is underdiversified and heavily dependent upon external trade. The State dominates much of the economy through telecommunications, timber export, and oil refinery parastatals; however, the production of wood, oil, and other minerals is largely private, and the water, electric, railroad, and sugar parastatals have been privatized. Government financial mismanagement and corruption have contributed to significant arrears in domestic and external debt payments. Since the discovery of offshore oil in the late 1970's, the oil industry has generated nearly half of recorded gross national product; oil export earnings have allowed the country's approximately 1 million citizens to enjoy a relatively high material standard of living based on imports of consumer goods and have drawn to the country's capital, Libreville, a third of the country's citizens and many immigrants from poorer African countries who work chiefly in the informal and service sectors. Average annual per capita GDP was approximately $4,500, although income distribution remained badly skewed in favor of urban dwellers and a small economic elite, while the rural population continued to receive relatively few social services. However, the depletion of proven reserves of oil and timber contributed to declining export earnings and state revenues during the year.

The Government generally respected the rights of its citizens in some areas; however, longstanding human rights abuses continued. Members of the security forces committed isolated extrajudicial killings, the security forces beat and tortured prisoners and detainees, prison conditions remained harsh and life threatening, arbitary arrest and detention continued, the judiciary remained subject to government influence, and authorities routinely infringed on citizens' privacy rights. The Government continued to restrict freedom of the press. The ability of citizens to change their government remained limited. Violence and societal discrimination against women and forced labor by foreign children as domestic and agricultural workers remained problems.

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 extrajudicial killings; however, members of the security forces committed isolated extrajudicial killings.

In April an off-duty member of the Republican Guard shot and killed a taxi driver who had refused to lend his taxi to the soldier. Despite demands from the media to prosecute the alleged assailant, police had not charged the suspect by year's end.

In July a group of off-duty policemen reportedly killed 2 persons and wounded 11 in a discotheque in Libreville. This reportedly was in retaliation for the killing of a policeman at the same discotheque several nights earlier. There were no arrests in this case by year's end.

Although there were no confirmed reports of attempted killings that appeared to be politically motivated, Pierre Mamboundou, who contested the December 1998 presidential election as the candidate of the opposition High Council of the Resistance Party, and to whom official results assigned the second-largest number of votes cast in that election, stated in December 1998 that armed commandos attempted to kill him on December 12, 1998, 1 day before the official results of that election were announced. Mamboundou stated that he believed that the the Government was responsible for the alleged attack, but no evidence supporting this allegation was known.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits torture or cruel and inhuman punishment; however, security forces often beat or physically mistreat prisoners and detainees as punishment and to exact confessions.

In February police used force to disperse student demonstrators (see Section 2.a.).

There were occasional incidents of violence in which practitioners of some traditional indigenous religions (see Section 5) inflicted bodily harm on other persons. However, the details of these incidents are uncertain. The Ministry of the Interior maintained that violence and bodily harm to others in the practice of a traditional religion is a criminal offense and is prosecuted vigorously. Media reports suggested that this was true; however, little information about such prosecutions or their results is available.

Conditions in most prisons are harsh and life threatening. Sanitation and ventilation are poor, and medical care is almost nonexistent. Prisons provide inadequate food for inmates. There were no known visits by human rights monitors to prisons during the year, although the Government was not known to have impeded such visits.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Arbitrary arrest and detention are problems. The law provides for up to 48 hours of initial preventive detention, during which time police must charge a detainee before a judge. However, in practice police rarely respect this provision. Charges often are not filed expeditiously and persons often are detained arbitrarily for long periods. Bail may be set if there is to be a further investigation. Pretrial detainees have the right to free access to their attorneys, and this right is respected in practice. Detainees have the right to an expeditious trial, as defined by the law. Pretrial detention is limited to 6 months for a misdemeanor and to 1 year for a felony charge. These periods may be extended for 6 months by the examining magistrate. Prolonged pretrial detention is common. The Attorney General's office estimates that roughly 40 percent of persons in custody are pretrial detainees.

The Government does not use forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, while the judiciary is generally independent in principle, it remains vulnerable to government manipulation.

The judicial system includes the regular courts, a military tribunal, and a civilian State Security Court. The regular court system includes trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court is a separate body charged with examining constitutional questions, including the certification of elections. There are no traditional or customary courts. In some areas, minor disputes may be taken to a local chief, but the State does not recognize such decisions. The State Security Court, last convened in 1990, is constituted by the Government as required to consider matters of state security.

There were systemic resource and personnel shortages in the judiciary, which often contributed to prolonged pretrial detention (see Section 1.d.).

The Constitution provides for the right to a public trial and the right to legal counsel. These rights are generally respected in criminal cases. Nevertheless, procedural safeguards are lacking, particularly in state security trials. A judge may thus deliver an immediate verdict of guilty at the initial hearing if sufficient evidence is presented by the State.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for protection from surveillance, from searches without warrant, and from interference with private telecommunications or correspondence. As part of criminal investigations, police may request search warrants from judges, which they obtain easily, sometimes after the fact. The Government has used them in the past to gain access to the homes of opposition figures and their families.

Government authorities also routinely monitor private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movements of citizens.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press and, although citizens generally continued to speak freely and criticize the Government, the Government continued to restrict press freedom. Legislators in the National Assembly openly criticize government policies, Ministers, and other officials.

The only daily newspaper was the state-affiliated L'Union. About 10 privately owned weekly or monthly publications in newspaper format, representing independent views and those of various political parties, appeared during the year; however, most appeared irregularly due to financial constraints and, in some instances, to government suspensions of their publication licenses. All newspapers – including L'Union – actively criticized the Government and political leaders of all parties. Most also criticized the President.

Journalists are subject to the Communication Code, a law which specifies their rights and responsibilities. Libel can be a either criminal offense or a civil matter. The law authorizes the State to initiate criminal libel prosecution against persons for libeling elected government officials; it also authorizes the State to criminalize civil libel suits.

In April the National Communication Council (CNC), a government agency subordinate to the Communications Ministry, released its draft of a proposed new Communications Code that would further restrict press freedom by expanding the scope of criminal libel laws in the name of protecting "dignity of the person," but would shift the penalties for libel away from imprisonment and toward monetary fines; it would reduce prison sentences for journalists convicted of criminal libel while increasing fines that could be imposed on such journalists and on the newspaper firms that employ them. The new Communications Code was pending in the National Assembly at year's end.

In recent years, the Government repeatedly has suspended the publication licenses of some pro-opposition newspapers. For example, the publication license of Le Bucheron, a Libreville-based weekly affiliated with the National Rally of Lumberjacks (RNB) the country's largest opposition party, was suspended by the Ministry of Communications in 1993, by the Ministry of Interior in 1995, and twice by the CNC during 1997. In each instance, the grounds for suspension were the contents of articles or cartoons critical of President Bongo or his Government. The most recent suspension, for 3 months starting in October 1997, resulted from the newspaper's publications of allegations that President Bongo stifled dissent by practicing withcraft.

In April the CNC suspended the publication license of La Griffe, a Libreville-based satirical weekly newspaper, on the grounds that its was publishing anonymous editorials in contravention of a legal requirement, necessary for the enforcement of criminal libel laws, that publications indicate the authors of everything they publish. The Ministry of Communications previously had suspended the same newspaper's license from August 1998 through March after the Government successfully prosecuted members of the newspaper's staff for criminal libel. La Griffe's publication license remained suspended at year's end.

The Government did not prosecute any journalists for criminal libel during the year. However, in recent years, the Government increasingly has used criminal libel prosecutions to restrict freedom of expression, especially criticism of the Government. Two private print media journalists, convicted of criminal libel in August 1998, fled the country early in the year while their appeals were pending and remained outside the country at year's end: Michel Ongoudou Loundah, editor-in-chief of La Griffe, and La Griffe reporter Pulcherie Beaumiel, both of whom the Government had prosecuted and whom a court had convicted and sentenced to 8 months' imprisonment for reporting that the director general of the state-owned airline had used the airline to smuggle ivory internationally. In August 1998, Charles Moussavou Mabika, a journalist at Gabonese Radio and Televison (RTG) and president of the national journalists' union, was convicted of libel and sentenced to a fine and 1 month's incarceration with no opportunity to appeal, for alleging that the Minister of Communications had embezzled a sum equivalent to $3.5 million; Mabika served his sentence and was released in late 1998. In January 1998, Pierre-Andre Kombila, publisher of Le Bucheron, was convicted of libeling the President by printing accusations that President Bongo practices witchcraft and was fined the equivalent of $1,800 and given a suspended sentence of 4 months' imprisonment.

The State owns and operates two radio stations, RTG-1 and RTG-2, which broadcast to all areas of the country. Much of their news coverage concerns the activities of government officials. However, RTG editorials sometimes are critical of specific government policies and even specific Ministers of government. The CNC issues and sometimes has suspended the broadcasting licenses of private radio and television stations. During the year, license suspensions by the CNC reduced the number of privately owned radio and television stations. At year's end, only six privately owned radio stations operated in the country: Africa No. 1, Radio Nostalgie, Radio Generation Nouvelle, Radio Unite, Radio Mandarine, and Radio Soleil. Radio Soleil is affiliated with the opposition RNB party and is highly critical of the Government. The other privately owned radio stations were apolitical. The State owned and operated two television stations, RTG-1 and RTG-2; an apolitical station, TV Plus, was the only privately owned television station still broadcasting in the country at year's end.

In December 1998, while the Government was tabulating the results of the presidential election, domestic broadcasts of Radio Soleil were jammed, and the station's telephone lines were cut.

In February the CNC suspended a live call-in program from Radio Soleil. The CNC maintained that the program, Feedback, violated an ordinance in the communications code. Specifically, the CNC claimed that a caller, on a live broadcast that subsequently was rebroadcast, had insulted President Bongo.

On October 11, the CNC suspended the broadcasting licenses of two privately owned radio stations, Note Dame de Perpetuel Secours and Radio Liberte, and of two privately owned television stations, TV 11 and Woleu Vision.

The Government did not interfere with domestic reception of broadcasts of international radio stations, including Radio France 1 and the Voice of America. Foreign newspapers and magazines were widely available.

The Government did not restrict access to or use of the Internet. At year's end there were two Internet service providers in the country, one state-owned and the other privately owned. In urban areas there were cybercafes that provided relatively affordable access to the Internet.

There are no restrictions on academic freedom, including research.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the Government generally respected this right in practice for citizens and recognized organizations. The law requires that groups obtain permits for public gatherings in advance, and the Government usually grants them.

In February police used force to disperse demonstrations by high school and university students who had been on strike since November 1998 to protest shortages of school buses and other facilities; some such demonstrations had become destructive of property and disruptive of traffic.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, and the Government respected this right in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. There is no state religion, and authorities do not engage in religious persecution or favoritism. A 1983 decree banning Jehovah's Witnesses, which the government promulgated on the grounds that Jehovah's Witnesses allegedly do not adequately protect individuals who might dissent from the group's views, remained in effect throughout the year. However, the Government did not enforce the ban; in practice, Jehovah's Witnesses in the country worshipped free from any known hindrance by the State. Interior Ministry officials reportedly have met with representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses to discuss lifting the ban; as a condition of lifting the ban, the Government reportedly seeks a written commitment from the denomination that it would respect individual rights.

The Ministry of the Interior maintains an official registry of some religious groups; however, it does not register traditional indigenous religious groups. The Government does not require religious groups to register but recommends that they do so in order to assemble with full constitutional protection. No financial or tax benefit is conferred by registration. The Government has refused to register about 10 religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses.

In October the Government suspended the broadcasting license of a privately owned radio station affiliated with the Catholic Church (see Section 2.a).

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

The Constitution provides for these rights. There are no legally mandated restrictions on internal movement. Police and gendarmes continued frequently to stop travelers to check identity, residence, or registration documents, and members of the security forces regularly harassed expatriate Africans working legally as merchants, service sector employees, and manual laborers. They extorted bribes and demanded services with the threat of confiscation of residence documents or imprisonment. Residence permits cost up to $1,000. An unevenly enforced law requires married women to have their husbands' permission to travel abroad. An exit visa is no longer required for citizens to travel abroad. Aliens resident in the country must obtain a visa in order to leave and return.

In July 1,500 security force members including army soldiers were deployed in the capital to round up illegal immigrants and bandits; according to a Defense Ministry statement, they were instructed "to search systematically the maximum number of vehicles."

The law contains provisions for granting refugee status in accordance with the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Government strictly controls the process of refugee adjudication. Coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is generally adequate. During the year, an estimated 15,000 refugees from the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) entered the country; many of them were fleeing offensives against Congolese rebels by forces supporting the Congo's government. The Government cooperated with the UNHCR and international nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) that provided assistance to these refugees.

During the year there were no reports that the Government forcibly returned persons to a country were they feared persecution. However, in 1997 the Government handed over two refugees from Equatorial Guinea to members of the Equatoguinean security forces who accompanied the President of Equatorial Guinea on a visit to the country; they were repatriated forcibly on the visiting President's plane, subsequently were imprisoned in Equatorial Guinea, and remained in prison at year's end.Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The 1991 Constitution explicitly provides this right, but mismanagement and serious irregularities in both the 1990 and 1996 legislative elections and the 1993 and 1998 presidential elections called into serious doubt the extent to which this right exists in practice. A single party, the PDG, has remained in power since its creation by President Bongo in 1968, and political choice has remained limited in practice despite the legalization of opposition parties since 1990.

In a July 1995 constitutional referendum, citizens approved by a 96 percent majority reforms, including most significantly the establishment of an independent National Electoral Commission (NEC). The referendum was carried out under arrangements that assured that all political parties could monitor voting and vote counting.

The Republic is dominated by a strong Presidency. The President can veto legislation, dissolve the national legislature, call new elections, and issue decrees that have the force of law while the legislature is not in session. The legislature generally has approved legislation presented to it by the President, but occasionally has not done so. The President appoints and can dismiss judges through the Ministry of Justice, to which the judiciary is responsible. The President appoints ministers of government, provincial governors, prefects and subprefects, and the heads of parastatal firms.

PDG leader El Hadj Omar Bongo has been President since 1967, when the former president died while Bongo was Vice President. He was reelected for another 7-year term in a December 1998 election marred by irregularities that generally favored the incumbent, including incomplete and inaccurate electoral lists and the use of false documents to cast multiple votes. In July 1998, the Government transferred key electoral functions, including the maintenance of voter registration lists, from the NEC to the Interior Ministry. In October 1998, the representatives of three major opposition parties withdrew from the NEC to protest their inability to verify the accuracy of voter registration lists. Official results showed Bongo winning about two-thirds of the votes cast.

The most recent elections for the National Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral national legislature, held in 1996, were poorly run and fraudulent. Candidates belonging to the PDG and other parties supporting President Bongo won more than 80 of the 120 seats, including 8 of 10 seats in the capital, where the opposition recently had won fairer local government elections. The military and NEC magistrates fraudulently ensured victory for parties supporting the President by arbitrarily altering vote counts, particularly in the capital.

The ability of citizens to choose their subnational governments remains limited in practice. Among subnational officials, provincial governors, prefects, and subprefects are officers of the central Government, responsible to the President. Mayors and municipal councils are elected; however, municipal governments have limited financial autonomy and depend heavily on funding from the central Government. During the year, the Mayor of Libreville, a member of the RNB opposition party, complained that the central Government was not disbursing funds allocated to Libreville's municipal government.

Local elections for mayors and municipal councils held in 1996 were poorly organized and later were repeated in key districts. In both sets of elections, opposition parties won most of the municipal council seats in the capital, Libreville, where the RNB candidate was elected mayor.

The Senate, the upper house of the bicameral national legislature, was created in 1996. The first elections for Senators were held in 1997. Municipal and regional government officials elect all 91 Senators.

Major opposition parties include the RNB and the Gabonese Progressive Party (PGP). The RNB's political base is in the northern province of Woleu-Ntem, which is inhabited chiefly by members of the Fang ethnic group, and in Libreville neighborhoods with many Fang residents, although the party attracts some support from other regions and ethnic groups. In 1998, before the presidential election, the RNB spit into two factions. The PGP enjoys strong support in Port Gentil, the country's economic center, and among the Myene ethnic group. Ideological splits and rivalries between Libreville and Port Gentil have reduced the effectiveness of the PGP.

There are no restrictions on the participation of women and minorities in politics. At year's end, 6 of the 120 National Assembly representatives, 9 of the 91 senators, and 4 of the 41 cabinet members were women. Indigenous Pygmies rarely participate in the political process, and the Government has made only limited efforts to include them (see Section 5).

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

The Government officially allows the existence of independent human rights groups, although none are active. No domestic nongovernmental associations (NGO's) actively investigate, report on, or work to mitigate human rights abuses. The largest and best-financed domestic NGO's are government-associated and financed; the president of one such NGO, GERDDES-Gabon, is a senior official of the ruling party. In October the Government announced its intention to set up a National Human Rights Commission; it had not yet done so by year's end.

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

The Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, race, gender, or opinion. The Government does not uniformly enforce these constitutional provisions and tolerates a substantial degree of discrimination against women, especially in domestic affairs. It has also provided a lower level of health care and educational services to children of families of other African nationalities than it provided to citizens.

Women

Violence against women is common and is especially prevalent in rural areas. While medical authorities have not specifically identified rape to be a chronic problem, religious workers and hospital staff report that evidence of beatings of women is common. Police rarely intervene in such cases, and women virtually never file complaints with civil authorities. Only limited medical and legal assistance is available.

The law provides that women have rights to equal access in education, business, and investment. Women own businesses and property, participate in politics, and work throughout the government and the private sector. Women nevertheless continue to face considerable societal and legal discrimination, especially in rural areas. According to a U.N. agency, only 52 percent of women were literate in 1994, compared with 74 percent of men.

By law couples must stipulate at the time of marriage whether they intend to adhere to a monogynous or a polygynous relationship. For monogynous married couples, a common property law provides for the equal distribution of assets after divorce. Wives who leave polygynous husbands suffer severe reductions in their property rights. In inheritance cases, the husband's family must issue a written authorization before his widow can inherit property. Common law marriage, which is socially accepted and widely practiced, affords a woman no property rights.

The law still requires that a woman obtain her husband's permission to travel abroad; however, this requirement is not consistently enforced.

Children

The Government has used oil revenue to build schools, to pay adequate teacher salaries, and to promote education, even in rural areas. The country has a relatively high infant mortality rate, and not all children have access to vaccination. Traditional beliefs and practices provide numerous safeguards for children, but children remain the responsibility of the extended family – including aunts, grandmothers, and older siblings. There is little evidence of physical abuse of children. Protection for children's rights is not codified in law.

There is concern about the problems facing the large community of children of African noncitizens. Almost all enjoy far less access to education and health care than do children of Gabonese and are sometimes victims of child labor abuses (see Section 6.d.). Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, occurs among the resident population of expatriate Africans. There are no laws against FGM, but according to local women's groups, it is not practiced on Gabonese children.

People with Disabilities

There are no laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities, or that provide for access to buildings or services.

Indigenous People

The Baka people (Pygmies) are the earliest known human inhabitants of the country. Several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in the country, most in large tracts of still-intact rain forest in the northeast. Domestic law grants them the same civil rights as other citizens. Pygmies are largely independent of formal authority, keeping their own traditions, independent communities, and local decisionmaking structures. Pygmies did not participate in government-instituted programs that integrated many small rural villages into larger ones along major roads. As a result, their access to government-funded health and sanitation facilities was limited. There are no specific government programs or policies to assist or hinder Pygmies.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The country's citizen population includes several ethnic groups, each of which generally speaks a distinct primary language and is concentrated in an identifiable area of the country. There is no majority ethnic group; the largest ethnic group is the Fang, which makes up over 30 percent of the population and is concentrated in the north. Other major ethnic groups include the Myene, the Bapunu, the Bateke, the Obamba, and the Nzebi. Urban neighborhoods are not ethnically segregated; interethnic marriage is common.

There was some correlation between ethnic and political cleavages. Support for the ruling party is stronger among persons from southern ethnic groups, including President Bongo's Bateke ethnic group, than among the northern Fang group or the coastal Myene group (see Section 3).

The Government generally fostered ethnic balance in the public sector, throughout which persons from all major ethnic groups continued to occupy prominent positions. However, there was evidence that members of the President's Bateke ethnic group and other ethnic southerners held a disproportionately large number of key positions throughout the military and security forces (see Section 3).

Section 6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution places no restrictions on the right of association and recognizes the right of citizens to form trade and labor unions. Virtually the entire formal private sector work force is unionized. Unions must register with the Government in order to be recognized officially. Public sector employees may unionize although their right to strike is limited if it could jeopardize public safety. Until 1990 there was only one recognized labor organization, the Gabonese Labor Confederation (COSYGA), to which all unionized workers contributed a mandatory percentage of their salaries. In 1992 the Government accepted the establishment of independent unions and abolished the mandatory contribution to COSYGA. Since 1993, many independent unions have emerged, including powerful unions of teachers, civil servants, transport workers, and communications workers. Some independent unions have associated to form the Gabonese Confederation of Free Unions (CGSL). COSYGA has continued to be affiliated with the Government but has publicly criticized some government policies it perceived as contrary to labor interests.

In 1994 the National Assembly passed an extensively revised version of the Labor Code, which was published and implemented in early 1995. The code provides extensive protection of worker rights.

Strikes are legal if they are held after an 8-day notice advising that outside arbitration has failed. The Labor Code prohibits direct government action against individual strikers who abide by the arbitration and notification provisions. It also provides that the Government cannot press charges against a group for criminal activities committed by individuals.

The country's largest union, which represents public sector employees, went on strike in November 1998 to demand higher wages and remained on strike until February. On January 26, the Prime Minister issued a public statement threatening criminal penalties against public sector workers who continued to strike.

In October the employees of the Chamber of Commerce went on strike to protest the state-owned Chamber's failure to pay their salaries, which in turn resulted from its failure to receive funds from the Government.

Unions and confederations are free to affiliate with international labor bodies and participate in their activities. COSYGA is affiliated with the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, while the CGSL is affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Both COSYGA and CGSL have ties with numerous other international labor organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Code provides for collective bargaining by industry, not by firm; collectively bargained agreements set wages for whole industries. Labor and management meet to negotiate differences, and the Ministry of Labor provides an observer. This observer does not take an active part in negotiations over pay scales, working conditions, or benefits. Agreements also apply to nonunion workers. While no laws specifically prohibit antiunion discrimination, the court may require employers who are found guilty by civil courts of having engaged in such discrimination to compensate employees.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced labor, and there are no reports that it exists in the adult community. The Government also specifically prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, but does not enforce this prohibition effectively. However, children and in particular immigrant children are forced to working as domestic or agricultural help. The Government is cooperating actively with the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) to combat this abuse; however, UNICEF has reported that some government officials privately use forced labor by immigrant children (see Section 6.d.).

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Children below the age of 16 may not work without the express consent of the Ministries of Labor, Education, and Public Health. These ministries rigorously enforce this law with respect to Gabonese children, and there are few Gabonese under the age of 18 working in the modern wage sector. A significant number of children work in marketplaces or perform domestic duties. UNICEF and other concerned organizations have reported that government officials often privately use foreign child labor, mainly as domestic or agricultural help. These children do not go to school, have only limited means of acquiring medical attention, and are often victims of exploitation by employers or foster families. Laws forbidding child labor theoretically extend protection to foreign children as well, but abuses often are not reported. Education is compulsory until age 16. However, there is evidence that fewer than half of all secondary-school-age children attended school as of 1996; secondary school attendance rates for immigrant children appear likely to be lower, although public schools accept immigrant children, and the Government encourages them to attend.

On January 23, the Minister of Education announced the indefinite closure of all public primary and secondary schools, following a strike by some public school teachers and most university students (see Sections 2.a and 6.a); however, all affected schools reopened in February following the resolution of the strike, and remained open throughout the rest of the year.

The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children but does not enforce this prohibition effectively (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code governs working conditions and benefits for all sectors and provides a broad range of protection to workers. The Code stipulates a 40-hour workweek with a minimum rest period of 48 consecutive hours. Employers must compensate workers for overtime work. All companies in the modern wage sector pay competitive wages and grant generous fringe benefits required by law, including maternity leave and 6 weeks of annual paid vacation.

Traditionally, representatives of labor, management, and the Government met annually to examine economic and labor conditions and to recommend a minimum wage rate within government guidelines to the President, who then issued an annual decree. This procedure has not been followed since 1994, in part because the Government was pursuing a policy of wage austerity recommended by international financial institutions. The monthly minimum wage was kept at its 1994 level of about $110 (cfa 64,000). Wages provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.

The Ministry of Health has established occupational health and safety standards but does not enforce or regulate them effectively. The application of labor standards varies greatly from company to company and between industries. The Government reportedly does not enforce Labor Code provisions in sectors where the bulk of the labor force is non-Gabonese. Foreigners, both documented and undocumented, may be obliged to work under substandard conditions; may be dismissed without notice or recourse; or may be mistreated physically, especially in the case of illegal aliens. Employers frequently require longer hours of work from noncitizen Africans and pay them less, often hiring on a short-term, casual basis in order to avoid paying taxes, social security contributions, and other benefits. In the formal sector, workers may remove themselves from dangerous work situations without fear of retribution.

f. Trafficking in Persons

No law specifically prohibits trafficking in persons; however, authorities have indicated that a provision of the Constitution that prohibits endangering the physical well-being of a person authorizes the State to prosecute persons who commit this abuse.

There were no reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country during the year.

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