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

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 - Guyana, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa441c.html [accessed 18 April 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.
 

 

The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Caribbean Community (Caricom), is a small, multiracial developing nation with a unicameral Parliament chosen by direct election in a multiparty political system. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, leader of the majority party in Parliament, is Executive President. He appoints the Prime Minister and other ministers. Local and international observers generally agreed that the 1992 general elections and the 1994 municipal elections were free and fair.

The Guyana Defence Force (GDF) and the Guyana Police Force (GPF) comprise the security forces. The GPF has primary responsibility for maintaining law and order throughout Guyana. The police and security forces are subordinate to the Government. Low pay and a high vacancy rate undermined the ability of the police force to carry out its functions, and the Guyana Human Rights Association charged GPF members with brutality and shootings.

Although the economy is largely agricultural, with sugar and rice important export earners, gold mining and timber production are fast-growing industries. Despite 4 straight years of annual economic growth between 6.0 and 8.3 percent, the per capita gross domestic product was only about $640. The economy suffers from high external debt, shortages of skilled labor, and a deteriorating infrastructure.

Human rights problems continued to include police abuse of detainees and prisoners, severe delays in the inefficient judicial system, societal violence against women and children, and discrimination against the indigenous Amerindians. Police abuses were often committed with impunity, and the Police Complaints Authority is largely ineffective because it lacks independent power. There are still some limitations on worker rights, but political control of union activity has diminished.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings.

There was one extrajudicial killing by a member of a community police group (private citizens patrolling their neighborhoods). Rural Police Sergeant Lall (an Indo-Guyanese) shot and killed Kenny France (an Afro-Guyanese). Police said that France was shot when he and others attempted to prevent Lall and three others from arresting France's stepson. As a result, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) charged that the community policing concept was "out of control" and deplored the "untrained citizens" groups' increasing access to firearms. According to the Minister of Home Affairs, the GPF provides some training and equipment to community police groups and often conducts joint patrols with them.

An alleged extrajudicial killing involved the death of Shivnarine Dalchand, who died while in police custody. Police claim Dalchand drowned while attempting to escape but subsequently said he was rescued but died later. GHRA said this version of his death was "challenged by family and eyewitnesses." A post mortem showed cause of death to be pulmonary edema, and no additional evidence confirmed this to be an extrajudicial killing.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

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

Although the Constitution prohibits torture, the GHRA and the press reported a rise in the number of reports of police brutality, including beatings and deliberate shootings during arrest and detention. The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) sent 131 complaints to the Police Commissioner; however, this figure includes complaints of corruption as well as brutality.

For example, in August police arrested Sean Austin on a charge of armed robbery. The police claimed they shot Austin after he attempted to attack a police officer with a knife. Newspapers cited eyewitnesses as saying the police shot Austin in the thigh without provocation, and them shot him twice more in the shoulder and stomach. Austin survived the shooting and is awaiting trial on a charge of armed robbery. There apparently was no further investigation into the shooting.

In September principal magistrate Paul Fung-a-fat dismissed charges of stealing ammunition against GDF soldier Sean Goodluck, saying he had seen a letter which confirmed that Goodluck was beaten while in GDF custody. Goodluck suffered a broken arm. The authorities presented no evidence against Goodluck in court, except confessions made by three other defendants, all unrepresented by legal counsel. Although the magistrate dismissed the charges, the GDF found Goodluck "unsuitable for continued military service" and discharged him. They also discharged the GDF member who beat him. This was the only allegation of human rights abuse against the Guyana Defence Force in recent years.

Also in September, four police officers were accused of raping a woman who went to the police mounted branch in Georgetown seeking police assistance. The authorities subsequently charged and remanded for trial two of these officers.

The GHRA alleged that police severely beat Leroy Marshall during the 5 days he was in custody before being charged with stealing two gold chains. The police deny that Marshall was beaten.

As in previous years, confessions were occasionally thrown out of court on the grounds that they were coerced. The GHRA announced on September 1 that in the preceding week it had received 17 complaints of police brutality and shootings from various parts of the country, more than in any other single week in its 15-year history. The body charged with looking into complaints of police brutality or abuse, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), has no power to interview police officers or witnesses, and must rely on material submitted by the police. The government Ombudsman lacks the authority to look into allegations of police misconduct.

In 1993 the Government reported that it charged and placed before the courts 18 members of the Police Force for criminal offenses including murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and corruption. (No figures were yet available for 1994.) When they bring charges against officers as a result of complaints to the PCA or through other means, the authorities routinely suspend them for a few days. If convicted, the courts sometimes fine them and order dismissal from their jobs, but rarely impose jail sentences for their offenses. In essence, the police force is responsible for investigating itself and failed to do so effectively, with the result that members of the police force commit abuses with impunity. The PCA reported that in 1993 the Commissioner of Police did not respond to 69 of the 131 complaints (which include corruption and other allegations apart from brutality) which it sent for investigation.

The prison in Georgetown is severely overcrowded and houses only men. Poor diet, inadequate medical attention, and underpaid and poorly trained staff characterize the prison system. After sentencing, all women prisoners are held in the sole women's prison in New Amsterdam. The facility's isolated location and lack of adequate staff make it difficult for family members from other parts of the country to visit. Except for the prison at New Amsterdam, prison visiting committees, which check on conditions in prisons, were inactive in 1994. Prison authorities continued to show receptivity to suggestions for improvement in the prisons and cooperated with the GHRA in projects to provide occupational training for some prisoners. The GHRA participated in training courses for new prison officers, continuing education programs for veteran officers, and discussions on civic education topics with prisoners.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides that no person may be deprived of personal liberty except as authorized by law and requires judicial determination of the legality of detention. The authorities generally respected this mandate in practice.

The law does not require that a court official issue an arrest warrant; a police officer may make an arrest based upon an assessment of guilt. The law requires that a person arrested and held for more than 48 hours be brought before a court to be charged. In practice, the authorities sometimes hold prisoners more than 48 hours without bringing charges.

Forced exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides that anyone charged with a criminal offense has the right to a hearing by a court of law, and the authorities respect this right in practice. Guyana has a functioning bail system, except in murder cases. Defendants are granted public trials, and appeal may be made to higher courts.

However, the inefficiency of the judicial system is so great as to undermine due process. Shortages of trained court administrative personnel and magistrates, inadequate resources, low salary levels, and the slowness of police in getting cases ready for trial cause extensive delays in judicial proceedings. As a result, the authorities often detained prisoners for 3 or 4 years while awaiting trial.

Although the law recognizes the right to legal counsel, in practice, with the exception of capital crimes, it has been limited to those who can afford to pay. The court assigns an attorney to defendants in murder cases. Otherwise, virtually no lawyers work pro bono in criminal cases. A small group of lawyers set up a legal aid clinic in 1994, but it focuses mainly on civil cases. The Guyana Association of Women Lawyers also provides free legal services for civil cases only.

There are no political prisoners or special courts for political security cases.

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

The Government generally respects the right to privacy, although some opposition politicians have claimed instances of government surveillance of political meetings and rallies. (Uniformed police officers are routinely present at such rallies.) Police generally respected the laws requiring judicially issued search warrants.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The authorities generally respected the constitutional provision for freedom of speech, and Guyanese freely criticize their government and its policies.

The Government's role in the media declined greatly due to the increased availability of nongovernment-owned newspapers and the rapid growth of independent television. Independent and opposition newspapers frequently criticized the Government in editorials and satirized it in cartoons.

The government-owned Guyana Television and the two radio stations controlled by the government-owned Guyana Broadcasting Corporation offer relatively evenhanded reporting of local events. Guyana has no private radio stations, but there are seven private television stations in Georgetown, and several more in outlying towns. Two of the private television stations produce independent newscasts, and a third station offers frequent public affairs programming which is often critical of the Government.

There were no restrictions on academic freedom in 1994.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Public Order Act requires police permits for mass political meetings. The Police Commissioner has the authority to refuse permission for a public meeting at his discretion and without explanation. There was no evidence that he used this authority for political purposes. Political parties and other groups held public meetings and rallies throughout the country without hindrance in the course of hard-fought municipal and local elections.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and members of all faiths worship freely. There are no restrictions on foreign religious groups proselytizing in Guyana and foreign missionaries work in the country without hindrance.

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

The Constitution provides for freedom of movement within Guyana. Travel to Amerindian areas requires government permission, the result of a law dating from colonial times designed to protect indigenous people from exploitation. In practice, however, most people travel throughout these areas without a permit. Guyanese are free to travel abroad, to emigrate, and to return.

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

Voters choose members of the unicameral Parliament by direct election in a multiparty political system based on proportional representation. The leader of the party which obtains a plurality of seats in Parliament during national elections is sworn in as Executive President. The President appoints a Cabinet, headed by a Prime Minister, which together with the President exercises executive power.

Guyanese are free to join or support political parties of their choice. Any citizen 18 years or older may register to vote. Local and foreign observers generally considered the 1992 national elections, as well as the 1994 municipal and local elections in most parts of the country, to be free, fair, and open.

There are no legal impediments to women or minorities participating in the political process, but in practice the indigenous Amerindian minority has little influence on decisions affecting its interests (see Section 5). The Cabinet includes two women, two persons of Portuguese descent, one of Chinese origin, eight of East Indian extraction, four Afro-Guyanese, and one Amerindian. The 65-member Parliament includes 12 women and 3 Amerindians, representing both major parties. Following the 1994 municipal elections, a woman became deputy mayor of the capital city of Georgetown.

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

The Guyana Human Rights Association, the most active local human rights group, functioned without government interference in 1994. The GHRA is a nongovernmental organization formed in 1979 with the participation of trade unions, professional organizations, various ethnic groups, and churches. It issues periodic press releases and publishes an annual report on human rights in Guyana. The Government made no official statements on either GHRA or foreign human rights reports.

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

The Constitution provides fundamental rights for all persons in Guyana regardless of race, sex, religion, or national origin.

Women

In principle, the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and commits the Government to ensure equal pay for equal work. However, a 1988 government-sponsored constitutional amendment rendered the equal pay provision unenforceable except in cases in which equal pay for equal work is provided for by specific statute. No such statutes have been enacted. Increased activity by women's groups led to heightened awareness of sexual harassment. A mining company dismissed four men accused of sexually harassing a teenage girl, and in November a businessman was charged with indecent assault for alleged sexual harassment of a female employee. Dismissal because of pregnancy is both legal and common.

Legislation protects women's property rights under common-law marriage, entitling a woman who separates or divorces to one-half the couple's property if she had been working and one-third the property if she had been a housewife. However, divorce by consent remains illegal, and there are unequal provisions regarding adultery as grounds for divorce. The legislation also gave authority to the courts to overturn a man's will in the event it did not provide for his wife.

Violence against women and children, including domestic violence, is a significant problem. Wife beating, rape, and incest are common, but victims rarely report such crimes to the authorities. Victims of such abuse who do seek redress from the police and the courts often suffer social retribution and additional harassment from the authorities charged with pursuing their claims. Because of their economic circumstances and the lack of any family shelters or other place of solace, victims of domestic violence are often trapped in their homes with their abusers. In one case in Georgetown in March, a man stabbed his common-law wife and threw her into a ditch. He was charged with attempted murder, but was discharged by a court after his wife pleaded for his release, saying that she could not support their seven children without him.

Children

An estimated 65 to 86 percent of the population lives in poverty, and children are more severely affected than any other group. The severe deterioration of the public education and health care systems has stunted children's futures and often cut short their lives. Children's lives are also adversely affected by migration. Over 3 percent of Guyana's population emigrates every year in search of a brighter economic future. As parents migrate, particularly when planning to enter other countries illegally, they often leave their children behind to be raised by other family members, friends, or by other children. The administration of justice for children is characterized by a punitive legal system which does not take into account the needs of children suffering sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.

Indigenous People

The small Amerindian population is composed of nine tribal groups, most living in reservations and villages in remote parts of the interior. Their standard of living is much lower than that of most Guyanese, and their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources is limited.

The Amerindian Act regulates Amerindian life, and is legislation dating from colonial times designed to protect indigenous people from exploitation. The Act gives the Government the power to determine who is an Amerindian and what is an Amerindian community, to appoint Amerindian leaders, and to cancel or annul decisions made by Amerindian councils. It also prohibits the sale of alcohol to Amerindians and requires government permission before any Amerindian can accept formal employment, although these provisions generally are not enforced. Both individuals and Amerindian groups remain free to criticize the Government. In April representatives from all Amerindian communities and tribes met with government officials, including President Jagan, to discuss Amerindian problems.

In December 1993 Parliament appointed a select committee to recommend revisions to the Amerindian Act to make it more democratic and enhance Amerindian self-determination. Through September, the committee had met only twice. The Minister of Amerindian Affairs, himself an Amerindian, lacks a staff and separate budget.

During its first 2 years in office, the Jagan administration did not distribute any land titles to Amerindians, arguing that the land must first be surveyed. The Government still holds title to 90 percent of the lands claimed by Amerindians, and through the Amerindian Act may repossess land titles already distributed if it determines that it is in the Amerindians' interest. The Government is negotiating with foreign mining and timber companies for additional concessions on Amerindian-occupied land. Amerindians displaced by timber and mining operations in such cases have no legal recourse. The Barama company, owned by South Korean and Malaysian investors, continued to develop its 4.2-million-acre timber concession in an area where 1,200 Amerindians live, only 550 of them in government-recognized villages. The remainder, scattered along rivers in the concession, have no legal protection for their homesteads.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Longstanding ethnic tensions, primarily between Guyanese of African and East Indian descent, continued to influence Guyanese society and political life. The civil service and defense and police forces are overwhelmingly staffed by Afro-Guyanese. Recruitment efforts targeted at Indo-Guyanese candidates for the uniformed services generally have met with an unenthusiastic response, with most qualified Indo-Guyanese candidates opting for a business or professional career over military, police, or public service. The Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and the Deputy Commissioner of Police, however, are Indo-Guyanese, and there are other Indo-Guyanese officers in both services.

People with Disabilities

Guyana has several special schools and training centers for the disabled, but like the rest of the educational system these are understaffed and in severe disrepair. The lack of appropriate infrastructure to provide accessibility to both public and private facilities makes it very difficult to employ the disabled outside their homes. There is no law mandating provision of access for people with disabilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of association and specifically enumerates a worker's right to "form or belong to trade unions." The law does not require employers to recognize a union in the workplace, even if a large majority of workers have indicated their desire to be represented by a union. The Minister of Labour sent a new trade union recognition bill to the Attorney General for comment in 1993, and the Government presented the bill to Parliament in December 1994.

Most union members work in the public sector and in state-owned enterprises. Organized labor freely associates in one major national federation, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (TUC), composed of 22 unions. There is a tradition of close ties between the trade union movement and political parties. Historically, the two major political parties wielded significant influence over the leadership of a number of unions, and trade union officials often served in dual roles as party officials.

Workers have a generally recognized right to strike, but the law nominally forbids public employees providing essential services from striking (a procedure exists for the review of their grievances by a tribunal appointed by the Minister of Labour). However, this rule is not enforced, and employees in essential services went on strike three times during the first 9 months of 1994.

Most strikes in 1994 were illegal, i.e., the union leadership did not approve them or they did not meet the requirements specified in collective bargaining agreements. The newly emergent private sector fired workers on three occasions for engaging in illegal industrial actions, but they were usually reinstated after the strike was settled.

Unions and their federations freely maintain relations with recognized Caribbean and international trade union and professional groups. All three of the major international trade union federations have affiliates in Guyana.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Public and private sector employees possess and utilize the generally accepted right to organize and to bargain collectively. The Ministry of Labour certifies all collective bargaining agreements and has never refused to do so. This right is not codified, however, and employers are not legally required to recognize unions or bargain with them.

Individual unions directly negotiate collective bargaining status, pursuant to the 1993 repeal of a regulation which required that all collective bargaining be negotiated through the TUC. Unions remain unhappy with the provision granting the Ministry of Finance veto power over wage contracts negotiated by other ministries. In one case, the Ministry of Finance forced the Ministry of Public Service to renege on a contract the latter signed with the four principal public service unions by announcing that the Government did not have the funds to pay promised wage increases.

The Chief Labour Officer and the staff of the Ministry of Labour provide consultation, enforcement, and conciliation services. The Ministry of Labour certified 50 collective bargaining agreements in the first 9 months of 1994, up from 47 for all of 1993. The Ministry has a backlog of cases, and insufficient manpower and transportation severely limit the Ministry's ability to carry out its function.

The Ministry of Labour investigated possible antiunion discrimination at Continental Industries. Continental was accused of denying would-be union organizers access to workers and of firing workers engaged in union organization.

Union leaders make credible charges that workers attempting to unionize workplaces are frequently harassed and intimidated and that the Ministry does not expeditiously investigate complaints that employers dismiss workers when confronted with union organizing efforts. There is no legal mechanism to require employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination to rehire employees fired for union activities. Guyana has no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there is no indication that it occurs.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Factories Act and the Employment of Young Persons and Children Act set out minimum age requirements. Legally, no person under 14 years of age may be employed in any industrial undertaking, and no person under 16 may be employed at night, except under regulated circumstances. The law permits children under age 14 to be employed only in enterprises in which members of the same family are employed. Poverty-stricken young children work, however, and it is common throughout the country to see very young children engaged in street trading. While cognizant of the situation, the Ministry of Labour does not employ sufficient inspectors to enforce existing laws effectively.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government establishes a public sector minimum wage which was the equivalent of $4.00 per day as of July 1. The Labour Act and the Wages Councils Act allow the Labour Ministry to set minimum wages for various categories of private employers. The Government raised official minimum wages by over 400 percent in November 1993; it set the minimum wage for unskilled workers at the equivalent of $0.17 per hour. Both the legal minimum wage for the private sector and the public sector minimum wage are insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a family. There is no enforcement mechanism, and unorganized workers, particularly women and children, are frequently paid less than what is legally required.

The Shops Act and the Factories Act set hours of employment, which vary by industry and sector. In general, work in excess of an 8-hour day or a 44-hour week requires payment of an overtime rate; however, if the initial contract stipulates a 48-hour workweek, then the overtime rate only applies to hours worked in excess of 48 hours. The law does not provide for at least one 24-hour rest period.

The Factories Act also sets forth workplace safety and health standards. The Occupation Health and Safety Division of the Ministry of Labour is charged with conducting factory inspections and investigating complaints of substandard workplace conditions. As with its other responsibilities, inadequate resources prevented the Ministry from effectively carrying out this function. Workers cannot remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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