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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Sao Tome and Principe

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 - Sao Tome and Principe, 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.


In 1991 Sao Tome and Principe became a multiparty democracy, and citizens changed their government through free and fair elections. Independent candidate Miguel Trovoada became President, and the Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD) toppled the former single ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), in legislative elections to win control of the Government. In 1993 the PCD continued to dominate the Government and the National Assembly, but there were new political tensions between the two parties and between the President and the PCD Prime Minister and his Government over interpretation of the separation of powers provisions in the 1990 Constitution. In December 1992, the MLSTP came back to score a series of landslide victories in municipal elections, taking firm control of six of eight regional governing bodies. The elections took place peacefully, and, after some initial disputes over transfer of government offices, the municipal committees began to work alongside the Government.

External and internal security is provided by a 300-person military force, composed mainly of part-time farmers or fishermen, and a 300-person paramilitary police force. In 1993 the Government began a process of shifting the police force fom the jurisdiction of the Minister of Defense to the Minister of Justice, Labor, and Public Administration. There were no reports of abuses by military or police forces in 1993.

In contrast to progress on the political front, there was little improvement in 1993 in Sao Tome's export economy, which relies almost exclusively on a single cash crop, cocoa, and an archaic, state-run system of plantations (called "empresas"). Almost all other production on the islands is for subsistence or local consumption. In 1993 the Government continued to implement strict structural adjustment measures, emphasizing privatization, including of empresas, and currency reform to reduce the country's $200 million foreign debt. However, by the end of 1993 only a handful of plantations had managed even the first small steps away from state control, and the structural adjustment program tended to exacerbate economic hardship.

The human rights situation continued to be encouraging in 1993. The Government showed a continued respect for the rights of its citizens, and the young multiparty political system operated well in the face of new challenges. Nevertheless, there remained serious problems in the judicial system, notably long delays in bringing cases to trial, and societal discrimination against women. Also, worker rights remained limited in practice with the economy dominated by the plantation system.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killing by the Government.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

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

There were no reports of such abuses. The Constitution, promulgated in 1990, states explicitly that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment. Prison conditions are harsh but did not result in any known deaths in 1993.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

There was no evidence of arbitrary arrest or detention, but there was very little information available on the laws regulating these practices or the manner in which the authorities carry them out. The Constitution provides for the right to challenge the legality of detention through habeas corpus procedures.

Exile is not used as a punishment in Sao Tome, and all those exiled under the former regime have been given the opportunity to return. Former president Manuel Pinto da Costa, who voluntarily left the country following current President Trovoada's election in 1991, returned in 1993. He was warmly received and was often seen in public.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

For civil cases, the Constitution states that all citizens shall have access to fair public trial and have the right of appeal. For criminal cases, it provides for a public trial before a judge. The accused are entitled to legal representation; however, there is a shortage of trained judges, lawyers, and judicial infrastructure. The Government has been slow to institute reform, in part because of budgetary constraints. As a result, there are long delays in bringing cases before the courts, and there were instances in 1993 of the authorities simply dismissing criminal cases. In at least two confirmed cases, the Government did not bring to trial persons charged with assault because of insufficient personnel to conduct proper investigations.

There were no known political prisoners or detainees held during the year.

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

The Constitution states that personal identity and the right to privacy are inviolable; it provides for privacy of the home, correspondence, and private communication. In 1991 the new democratically elected Government ended the intrusive monitoring practices of the past.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The 1992 municipal elections were conducted freely, with opposition parties publicly campaigning and openly criticizing the Government. The opposition had access to, but used sparingly, the limited facilities of the government -controlled national television and radio stations. Three newspapers appeared irregularly; one newspaper presents mainly the views of the Government and the others generally support opposition positions. There was one report in 1993 of a minister warning an independent publisher about the content of certain critical articles. However, the Government took no action against the publisher and did not attempt to censor the newspaper.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Under the Constitution, citizens have the right to associate freely and to demonstrate publicly, provided they obtain legal authorization 48 hours in advance of planned events. This authorization is usually granted. Although bureaucratic delays often hold up such authorizations, there were no known instances of authorizations being withheld for purely political reasons in 1993. In December 1992, municipal elections took place nationwide; numerous rallies and demonstrations occurred, and even those that did not receive government sanction took place peacefully and without police restriction.

Following its resounding victory in these elections, the MLSTP took control of the newly created municipal committees in six of eight districts. The Government, under provisions in the Constitution, had called for formation of these municipal committees in order to add a measure of decentralization to government administration, and the elections determined their first members. Tension arose in two districts – including Aguas Grandes, where Sao Tome City is located – when the police barricaded buildings in which the committees were to meet. The committees, despite bitter complaints, were not afforded a place to meet for 2 months. In May, however, the PCD-controlled Government relented, and the committees began meeting regularly.

c. Freedom of Religion

Religious freedom is provided for in the Constitution and in practice. The three major religious communities – Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Seventh-Day Adventist – are allowed to practice freely. There are no restrictions on the activities of foreign clergy.

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

Citizens move freely around the island of Sao Tome, as well as between it and the smaller island of Principe, 90 miles away. Interisland transport, however, is infrequent and slow. Under the Constitution, citizens have the specific right to move freely to any part of the national territory and are free to emigrate and to return. In July the Government repealed a law that required Sao Tomeans who wished to travel abroad to obtain exit visas.

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

Citizens have this right. Less than 2 years after ousting the MLSTP from power, Sao Tomean voters peacefully returned to the polls in December 1992 to give the former single ruling party an overwhelming victory in municipal elections. The MLSTP took the majority of seats in six of eight municipal districts, forming new committees that were designed to improve citizen participation in government administration at the village level.

Throughout 1993 there were serious political differences between the opposition and the Government, initially when the PCD Government withheld budgets and refused to allow two of the MLSTP-dominated municipal committees to meet for 2 months. In the National Assembly, the PCD Government of Prime Minister Norberto Costa Alegre defeated the MLSTP's efforts to institute a vote of no confidence. The disputes were conducted and resolved entirely within the existing constitutional framework.

Other constitutional disputes arose in 1993, notably between the independent President and the PCD Prime Minister over authority for handling foreign and internal economic policies. According to the findings of a panel of Portuguese jurists brought in to assist in interpreting the Constitution, foreign policy is solely the domain of the Chief of State, while economic policy is the province of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Nevertheless, given the close interrelationship of the two responsibilities, the controversy continued throughout much of the year and led to new discussions concerning amendment of the Constitution's separation of powers provisions. By year's end, however, there had been no action toward amending the Constitution.

There are no restrictions in law or practice on the participation of women in politics. Women currently occupy important posts in the National Assembly, the Cabinet, and the municipal committees.

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

Since the elections of 1991, a few small domestic groups have formed with various objectives, including the protection of human and civil rights. Traditionally, Sao Tome and Principe has had limited contact with international human rights groups, mainly due to its small population and the absence of allegations of human rights abuses. In a report published in 1993, Amnesty International named Sao Tome and Principe as one of three countries worldwide in which there were no serious government-sponsored violations of human rights.

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

The Constitution states that all citizens, regardless of sex, race, social origin, political tendency, creed, or philosophic conviction, are equal under the law. With more than 80 percent of the population (estimated at 94,000 on Sao Tome and 20,000 on Principe) able to understand Portuguese, the country also enjoys the advantages of being a relatively homogeneous society.


The Constitution stipulates that women and men have equal rights to full political, economic, social, and cultural participation. Women have access to opportunities in education, business, and government. However, in practice women encounter substantial discrimination. In particular, traditional beliefs concerning the division of labor between men and women leave women with much of the hard labor in agriculture, most of the child-rearing responsibilities, and less access to education and the professions. In addition, the general lack of public services and health care serve to disadvantage women more than men in these traditional roles.

Violence against women in Sao Tome and Principe is believed to be infrequent. However, there is no specific information available on domestic violence, including data on instances of wife-beating and rape, and the small media rarely cover cases. Women have the right to legal recourse against men – including spouses – in cases of rape, domestic violence, and other abuses. In practice, however, police rarely intervene, and tradition and/or ignorance of the law may keep women from filing complaints or seeking outside intervention. The Government is actively trying to address women's issues through various programs.


There are a number of government and donor-funded programs aimed at improving conditions for children, and great strides have been made in pre- and post-natal care, infant nutrition, and access to basic health services. Family planning practices have not changed significantly, though, and Sao Tome may soon face more serious challenges to limited resources. According to recent estimates, nearly half the population is under the age of 15, and documented research in some rural areas indicates the percentage may be as high as 75. According to health officials, the Government is beginning to make efforts to include family planning in its maternal and child health care programs, but traditional beliefs and cultural practices inhibit acceptance.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

There are two minority groups which speak their own dialects: the Angolares, who are distant descendants of an Angolan ethnic group, and ethnic Cape Verdians, most of whom are second- or third-generation Creole speakers. The Angolares principally inhabit the south of Sao Tome Island, making their living through subsistence fishing; the Cape Verdians still mainly work on the cocoa plantations, where they were brought by the Portuguese during colonial times. Both of these principally rural groups enjoy fewer opportunities in terms of health care, education, and social advancement than urban Sao Tomeans, although this is not due to any specific government action against them. Lack of government resources has also contributed to continuing complaints from inhabitants of Principe of governmental neglect. However, the newly named Minister for the Region of Principe – a cabinet-level post – has specifically addressed some of these issues.

People with Disabilities

There is no officially sanctioned discrimination against physically handicapped individuals. As far as known, there is no law specifically mandating accessibility to buildings for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association and the right to strike, and a newly formed union federation, the Independent Union Federation (IUF), began to take advantage of these provisions. However, the formation of unions remained at an early stage, and in 1993 there was a significant increase in the activities of cooperatives, many of which began independent activities on formerly state-owned land. These cooperatives tended to represent more tangible goals and results than unions, thus attracting greater participation on the part of plantation and other wage workers.

Unrelated to the former sole union and unaffiliated with any political party, the IUF is still in its organizational stages and hobbled by the country's general poverty. Nevertheless, it seeks to represent workers in all sectors, including the large state-owned plantations (empresas) which employ a majority of the working population. It made only slight organizational progress in this respect in 1993. Workers do not often leave the estates, which generally provide all community facilities.

Essential workers are allowed to strike in practice, and in November 1993, midlevel functionaries in the Ministries of Health and Justice briefly went on strike to demand higher wages.

In 1992 the Government announced an ambitious plan to privatize most of the state-owned industries, including the cocoa empresas. This move was seen as a positive step not only for the economy as a whole, but also as part of the effort to improve the lot of workers, especially on the large plantations. At year's end, however, only one of these state-owned enterprises, the National Printing Press, had actually been privatized.

In March workers at the largest state-run empresa, Monte Cafe, staged a strike to demand higher wages and more time off. Plantation managers requested government intervention, and there were reports of minor clashes between police and strikers. However, there were no reports of serious injuries or arrests, and, after 4 days, work was resumed. Sporadic strikes by government employees were less common in 1993 than in previous years.

There are no restrictions barring trade unions from joining federations or becoming affiliated with international bodies.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers may organize and bargain collectively under the Constitution. However, in practice, since privatization steps have not yet reduced the relative role of the Government as employer, the Government remains the key interlocutor for labor on all matters, including wages. As far as is known, there are no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The legally mandated minimum employment age of 18 years in the modern wage economy is generally respected in practice. The Ministry of Justice, Labor, and Public Administration is responsible for enforcing this law. However, in the subsistence agricultural sector, children work on family plots from an early age.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Work conditions on the state-owned empresas – the biggest wage employment sector – border on medieval. There is no legally mandated minimum wage, and the average salary for empresa workers does not permit a decent standard of living. Workers are, however, provided free (but poor) housing, rudimentary education and health care, and – in theory – the right to reduced prices and credit at the "company store." Clothes and foodstuffs are subsidized, but corruption at all levels is rampant, and the parallel market finds goods selling for far above the prices stipulated by the Government.

Recently, in conjunction with the Government's privatization efforts, some empresas allotted workers small plots to raise noncash crops for their own consumption or sale. Nevertheless, most empresas still do not allow private farming on company land. The current system of state control, and the corruption associated with it, is so entrenched that on most plantations, privatization is still a long way off.

Implementation of an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment program continues to cause hardship for workers, both on and off the empresas.

Basic occupational health and safety standards are contained in the Social Security Law of 1979, which is loosely enforced by inspectors from the Ministry of Justice, Labor, and Public Administration.

[1]* There is no American Embassy in Sao Tome and Principe. Information on the human rights situation is therefore limited.

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