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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Mauritius

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Mauritius, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa362c.html [accessed 25 July 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.
MAURITIUS

 

Mauritius is a parliamentary democracy governed by a Prime Minister, a Council of Ministers, and a National Assembly. The Head of State is the President, who is nominated by the Prime Minister and confirmed by the Assembly, and whose powers are largely ceremonial. Fair and orderly national and local elections, supervised by an independent commission, take place at regular intervals, most recently on December 20. The judiciary is independent, there are numerous political parties, both large and small, and partisan politics are open and robust.

A paramilitary Special Mobile Force and Special Supporting Units under civilian control are responsible for internal security. These forces, under the command of the Commissioner of Police, are backed by a general duty police force. They are largely apolitical and generally well-trained, but the police committed some human rights abuses.

The economy is based on labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing (mainly textiles), sugar, and tourism. About 85 percent of arable land is planted with sugar cane. There is a generally high standard of living; annual per capita income is approximately $3,250. The country weathered well the global economic slowdown of the early 1990's and is now attempting to diversify its economy by promoting investment in new sectors, such as electronics, and developing Mauritius as a regional financial center.

The Government's human rights record improved, but problem areas remained. There continued to be occasional reports that police abused suspects and detainees. The Government continued to use the National Intelligence Unit to monitor opposition party activities. Violence against women and child labor appeared to be on the rise, despite government efforts to address these problems. The Government made progress in addressing police brutality and advancing the legal status of women.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

The investigation into the 1994 death of a suspect in police custody who burned to death in his cell is complete but the results had not been released by year's end.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

Torture and inhuman punishment are prohibited by law, but there were several reports of police brutality, involving mistreatment of individuals on the street as well as of suspects in custody. The Commissioner of Police continued to display a willingness to pursue such reports of abuse.

Because of the Police Commissioner's crackdown on crime, prisons have become overcrowded and prison sanitation inadequate.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile and the Government generally observes these prohibitions. Last year's constitutional amendment which would allow the Government to detain suspected drug traffickers indefinitely without trial or the possibility of bail came into force in November (see Section 1.e.).

The Government does not use exile as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respects this provision in practice. Some critics believed that the executive interfered with the judiciary. Legal experts noted concern about overt manipulation of the judiciary as well as political influence over the Commissioner of Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Anticorruption Tribunal.

The judicial system consists of the Supreme Court, which has appellate powers, and a series of lower courts. Final appeal may be made to the Judicial Committee in the United Kingdom (the Privy Council), and was routine in the case of death sentences until the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act was passed in July. At year's end, the act had not been signed by the President, but the judiciary has stopped issuing death sentences. There are no political or military courts. The judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process.

Defendants have the right to private or court-appointed counsel. However, in November the Assembly passed the Dangerous Drugs Act, which would permit law enforcement authorities to hold suspected drug traffickers for a limited time without access to bail or legal counsel. The constitutionality of the law may be questioned.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The sanctity of the home is provided for in law and generally respected in practice. The search of personal property or premises is allowed only under clearly specified conditions by court order or by police action to stop a crime in progress. The Government's intelligence apparatus continued to carry out illegal surveillance of local opposition leaders and other major figures. In April the opposition proposed a bill to establish a code of conduct for the intelligence arm and define the "subversion and national security" clauses under which the Government claims to use the unit. The bill was soundly defeated.

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 the Government generally respects these rights in practice. Debate in the National Assembly is lively and open. There were occasional complaints of government influence in editorial policies, but more than a dozen privately owned daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers presented varying political viewpoints and they expressed partisan views freely. In 1995 three editors of independent newspapers resigned to accept government positions, fueling speculation that the press was less independent than previously believed. However, there was no evidence of loss of independence in subsequent reporting by those newspapers. The Government has the ability to counter press criticism by using strict libel laws; however the Government did not use these laws to inhibit the press in 1995. Libel suits between private parties are common.

The Government used the Official Secrets Act in October 1994 to arrest two editors and the managing director of the weekly magazine Le Mag, ostensibly for publishing an internal document; the document, which was embarrassing to a public official, had been in the public domain for more than a year. Opposition and press criticism led the Prime Minister to say that the Commissioner of Police had acted legally but overzealously; within 24 hours, the police released the three on bail. While the case was pending at year's end, the three remained under an "objection to departure" restriction for overseas travel.

The Government controls television and radio--the most important media. Programming and editorial policies generally reflect government interests. The Government gave opposition politicians slightly more broadcast time in 1995 than in years past. However in February, the Mauritius Broadcast Corporation director interrupted a talk show program which had been discussing the controversial Nationality Law; it was widely believed that the order to stop the broadcast was because of comments critical of the Government. In December 1994, the Government authorized the private use of "television reception only" satellite dishes. Ownership and operation of private television and radio stations is not permitted. However, foreign television broadcasts, specifically "Skynews" from the United Kingdom and "Canal Plus" from France became available to the general public via a subscriber service.

The Government generally respects academic freedom but has occasionally censored books, usually citing national security reasons.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government generally respects them in practice. Police permission is required for demonstrations and mass meetings; such permission is rarely refused and groups have the right to challenge denials.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government respects this right in practice.

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

The Constitution provides for these rights and the Government respects them in practice.

There are no refugees in Mauritius, and the Government deals with asylum requests on a case by case basis.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right peacefully to change their government, and citizens exercise this right in practice. Free and fair elections based on universal suffrage were held on December 20. The opposition coalition won all of the elected seats in the National Assembly, and Labor Party leader Navinchandra Ramgoolam was sworn in as Prime Minister, replacing Anerood Jugnauth, who had led the Government since 1982.

The remote and isolated islands of Agalega and St. Brandon are an exception to universal suffrage. Their nearly 500 citizens are not registered as voters and have no representation in Parliament.

In the National Assembly, up to eight members are appointed through a "best loser" system to ensure that all ethnic groups are represented. Political parties often match the ethnicity of their candidates to the ethnic composition of particular electoral districts.

Six of the 66 members of the Assembly are women.

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

A variety of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, caste, place of origin, political opinion, color, creed, or sex. The Government generally respects these provisions.

Women

Violence against women, particularly spousal abuse, is widespread and increasing, according to the Ministry of Women's Rights and Family Welfare, attorneys, and nongovernmental organizations. In March the National Council of Women reported a 43 percent increase in registered cases of domestic violence in 1994 over 1993. To address this issue, the Ministry requested consultative assistance from the United Nation's Children's Fund. There are no special provisions in Mauritian law concerning family violence. Police are generally reluctant to become involved in cases of spousal abuse.

Women have traditionally occupied a subordinate role in society, and societal discrimination continues. The National Assembly addressed one facet of this problem in 1995 when it amended the Citizenship Act to permit women to transmit citizenship to their children and obtain residence and work permits for their spouses, as do men. Nearly half of Mauritian women work outside the home. The Government also moved to promote greater equality by amending the Constitution to prohibit discrimination against women.

Children

The Government placed a strong emphasis on the health and welfare of children, and displayed a commitment to expand educational opportunities for children. Reported incidents of child abuse are infrequent and isolated, although private voluntary organizations claim that the problem is more widespread than publicly acknowledged. At present, most government programs are administered by the state-funded National Children's Council, which provides counseling and investigates reports of child abuse as well as takes "remedial action" to protect affected children.

People with Disabilities

There is no discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or in the provision of other state services. The law requires organizations which employ more than 10 people to set aside at least 3 percent of their positions for people with disabilities. The law does not, however, require that work sites be accessible to the disabled, making it difficult for people with disabilities to fill many jobs. There is no law mandating access to public buildings or facilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Tensions between the Hindu majority and Creole and Muslim minorities persist. In 1995 the Supreme Court struck down a Government proposal which would have favored the Hindu majority in educational opportunities as violating the constitutional right to equal protection. This ruling appeared to be a factor in the Government's decision to call new elections at the end of the year. However, public attention to the issue faded during the course of the campaign.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution explicitly protects the right of workers to associate in trade unions, and Mauritius has an active trade union movement. Almost 300 unions represent over 100,000 workers, more than 20 percent of the total work force. With the exception of members of the "disciplined force" (i.e., the police and the Special Mobile Force) and persons in state services who are not public officers (e.g., contractors), workers are free to form and join unions and to organize in all sectors including in the export processing zone (EPZ). Employers sometimes intimidated prospective union members. Labor unions are independent from the Government and in 1995 successfully appealed to the Government to withdraw proposed legislation which would have further curbed the ability of unions to strike. Unions can and do press wage demands, establish ties to domestic political parties, and address political issues. Unions are free to establish federations.

Under the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), unions have the legal right to strike. In practice, however, the IRA requires a prestrike 21-day cooling-off period, followed by binding arbitration, which has the effect of making most strikes illegal. Moreover, the IRA states that worker participation in an unlawful strike is sufficient grounds for dismissal. According to Ministry of Labor statistics, there were seven strikes.

Under the law, unions may and do establish ties with international labor bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law protects the right of employees to bargain collectively with their employers. However, the collective bargaining process is weakened by excessive government intervention in the form of wage-setting in the state sector, which is generally used as the basis for private-sector pay. Wages are set by the National Remuneration Board, whose chairman is appointed by the Minister of Labor. About 12 percent of the labor force works for national or local government. The IRA prohibits antiunion discrimination. There is an arbitration tribunal which handles any such complaints.

Mauritius' export processing zone (EPZ) employs about 90,000 people. While there are some EPZ-specific labor laws, such as provisions allowing EPZ employers to require up to 10 hours per week of paid overtime from their employees, workers in this sector enjoy the same basic protections as non-EPZ workers. Statutory minimum wage levels in the EPZ are somewhat lower than elsewhere, but due to the country's labor shortage, actual wage levels are nearly double the minimum wage.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law and not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The legal minimum age for employment of children is 15 years. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement and conducts frequent inspections. In June inspections revealed 46 underage workers and in July 25 more. These findings led the Government to review its inspection program and implement more systematic inspections, particularly of smaller firms that tend to hire underage workers. According to the Government's report, child labor in homes, on farms, and in shops is common in Rodrigues, where inspection procedures are less effective.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government administratively establishes minimum wages, which vary according to the sector of employment, and it mandates minimum wage increases each year based on inflation. The minimum wage for an unskilled worker in the EPZ is about $12.25 (218.58 rupees) per week effective July 1, while the lowest weekly wage for a non-EPZ worker is about $13.25 (236.25 rupees). While this is significantly below the level needed to provide an acceptable standard of living, the actual market wage for most workers is much higher due to the present labor shortage.

The standard legal workweek in the industrial sector is 45 hours. In the EPZ an employee may be required to work an additional 10 hours per week, although at a higher hourly wage.

In 1995 the Mauritius Labor Congress filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) regarding the wages and living conditions of foreign workers. The ILO and the Government are both investigating the complaint.

The Government sets health and safety standards and Ministry of Labor officials inspect working conditions and ensure compliance with the 1988 Occupational Safety, Health, and Welfare Act. The small number of inspectors limits the Government's enforcement ability, but the number of occupational accidents has been cut nearly in half since the Act's passage. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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