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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Suriname

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Suriname, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa874.html [accessed 25 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.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

After over a decade of predominantly military rule, Suriname installed a freely elected Parliament and inaugurated a democratically chosen President in 1991. Since then the Government has made fitful progress in consolidating democracy and slow but steady progress toward professionalizing and depoliticizing the military and reestablishing civilian authority over it. In 1992 the Government concluded a peace accord with members of insurgent groups that fought a domestic armed conflict between 1986 and 1991. Elections were completed on May 23 without incident and were deemed free and fair by observers from the Organization of American States. A People's Assembly elected Jules Wijdenbosch President in September and he formed his Cabinet from members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and several other political parties. Former military strongman Desi Bouterse, president of the NDP, does not hold a position in the new Government, but exerts considerable influence through his party role.

The Government of former President Ronald Venetiaan took positive steps toward reforming the military during 1995 and early 1996. The purging of Bouterse supporters, including the armed forces commander in 1995 and the army commander in February, both of whom were reportedly close to Bouterse, extended somewhat democratic civilian control over the military. This positive trend may be affected, however, with the return of the Bouterse-led NDP to government. Cooperation between the military and the civilian police improved as respective roles have been clarified. Some aspects of the relationship between the Government and the military remain to be defined. Civilian police bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, but they continue to be responsible for some human rights abuses.

The market-oriented economy is largely agricultural, but with an important bauxite and alumina export sector. There is a high degree of state involvement and regulation; the Government and state-owned companies employ over half the working population. For the last several years, depressed world prices for bauxite and alumina, the damaging effects of the country's domestic armed conflict, and rapid growth of the money supply resulted in high inflation and reduced economic growth. Previously high inflation, which reached 586 percent in 1994 and 37 percent in 1995 according to the Surinamese Statistics Bureau, dropped to less than 1 percent in the first half of 1996. The estimated real economic growth rate was about 4 percent, and per capita annual income is about $1,400. The recent stabilization of the currency following the July 1995 unification of the exchange rate is cited by some as an indication that the economy is beginning to respond to government efforts at structural reform. There are indications that the new Government, despite its populist base, is continuing efforts to limit expenditures and to support the local currency.

Both the Wijdenbosch and the Venetiaan governments generally respected the human rights of their citizens; however, problems remained in some areas. These are police mistreatment of detainees, abuse of prisoners, overcrowding of jails, societal discrimination and violence against women, and marginalization of indigenous people. Both governments failed to call to account those responsible for human rights abuses in previous regimes.

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 or other extrajudicial killings. There was, however, one report of a Molotov cocktail attack on the home of a human rights activist. The victim was pressing for an investigation of the 1982 murders of 15 opposition leaders.

The authorities took no action against prison guards who allegedly beat a prisoner to death in 1993. The Government also took no action to investigate past human rights violations, such as the 1982 executions by the military regime of 15 opposition leaders or the 1986 massacre of civilians at the village of Moiwana. The human rights group Moiwana '86 unsuccessfully challenged in the lower court of Paramaribo the validity of the amnesty law passed in 1992, which pardoned members of the military and the insurgents for crimes (except crimes against humanity) committed between January 1985 and August 1992.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment in 1993 that required the Government to pay compensation to the survivors of seven Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves who fled into the interior to avoid recapture) killed near the village of Pokigron in 1987. The Government responded by establishing a fully funded foundation to pay compensation to relatives of the victims. The foundation is actively disbursing compensation and has also funded a school and clinic in the village.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. The Government, however, took no action to investigate earlier allegations of disappearances that occurred under previous regimes.

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

The Constitution prohibits inhuman treatment or punishment, but human rights monitors continued to express concern about official mistreatment of detainees and prisoners. The authorities fired two prison guards and suspended a third for reportedly beating prisoners and using unnecessary force in attempting to quell a riot at the Latour jail in February. The Government has not released the results of an inquiry into charges that guards beat several recaptured prisoners in 1993.

The completion of a new prison and renovation of existing jails have somewhat reduced overcrowding and improved overall health and safety conditions. However, the new prison, at Duuisberglaan, is operating at only half its capacity, in large part due to difficulty in recruiting and training additional prison guards. Older jails remain seriously overcrowded with as many as four times the number of detainees they were designed for; they are also unsanitary. At police stations, guards allow detainees no exercise and only rarely permitted them to leave the cells. Detainees also suffer from inadequate nutrition, although families are permitted and encouraged to provide food to incarcerated relatives. Female prisoners were housed exclusively in an older jail and were not eligible for transfer to the new facility. According to local women's groups, there were no reports of sexual abuse of female prisoners by police officers.

The Government permits independent monitoring of prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law provides that the police may detain for investigation up to 14 days a person suspected of committing a crime for which the sentence is longer than 4 years. Within the 14-day period, the police must bring the accused before a prosecutor to be formally charged. If additional time is needed to investigate the charge, a prosecutor may authorize the police to detain the suspect for an additional 30 days. Upon the expiration of the initial 44 days, a "judge of instruction" may authorize the police to hold the suspect for up to 120 additional days, in 30-day increments (for a total of 164 days), before the case is tried. The judge of instruction has the power to authorize release on bail, but that power is rarely, if ever, used. There were no reports of detentions in contravention of these standards.

Pretrial detainees constitute a large percentage of inmates and are often held in overcrowded detention cells at local police stations. Of those held in police custody, 15 percent had already been convicted.

The military police observed the requirement to hand over to the civil police civilians arrested for committing a crime in their presence. The military police continued to perform the immigration control function at the country's borders and airports but no longer investigated civilian crimes.

While not specifically forbidden by law or the Constitution, exile is not practiced as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary and the right to a fair public trial in which defendants have the right to counsel, the effectiveness of the civilian and military courts is limited. The courts assign lawyers in private practice to defend prisoners and pay them from public funds. The courts must, and in practice do, free a detainee who is not tried within the 164-day period. Trials are before a single judge, with right of appeal. There is little firm evidence of the extent to which corruption affects the court system, but the entire criminal justice system was subjected to severe strain during the period when the military controlled the Government and prominent members of the judiciary were involved with, or afforded protection to, drug traffickers. Recent escapes of high-profile prisoners were linked to corruption of prison guards.

The 1987 Constitution calls for the establishment of an independent constitutional court. However, as no steps have been taken to set up such a court, it remains unclear when the Government will create this institution.

Military personnel are generally not subject to civilian criminal law. A soldier accused of a crime immediately comes under military jurisdiction and military police are responsible for all such investigations. Military prosecutions are directed by an officer on the public prosecutor's staff, and take place in separate courts before two military judges and one civilian judge. The military courts follow the same rules of procedure as the civil courts. There is no appeal from the military to the civil system.

Since the change in military leadership in 1993, coordination between the military police and the civil police has improved, and there were no further instances of military interference in civilian police investigations. The pervasive climate of fear and intimidation that previously prevented cases involving military personnel or drug traffickers from being tried began to dissipate, and prospects for the impartial administration of justice have improved. Fear of possible reprisals by the ex-military strongman Desire Bouterse, however, appears to affect judicial decisionmaking in cases involving persons close to Bouterse.

Foreign military instructors conducted human rights and military justice seminars in July 1995 and in March 1996. These seminars provided unprecedented opportunities for civilian government and private sector representatives and military personnel to discuss human rights and the role of the military in a democracy.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the right to privacy. The law requires warrants for searches, which are issued not by judges but by quasi-judicial officers who supervise criminal investigations. The police obtain them in the great majority of investigations. The military command curbed invasions of privacy by the military such as the illegal monitoring of telephone calls, monitoring of the movements of human rights advocates, and threatening government officials, policemen, politicians, human rights workers, and journalists.

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.

The parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition criticize the Government freely. Media members continue to practice some self-censorship, because of the recent history of intimidation and reprisals by certain elements of the former military leadership.

The two daily newspapers and most of the radio stations are privately owned. The two television stations and one of the radio stations are publicly owned. The Government did not attempt to interfere with publications or to abridge academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

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

Citizens may change their residence and work places freely and travel abroad as they wish. Political dissidents who emigrated to the Netherlands and elsewhere during the years of military rule are welcome to return. Few of them have chosen to do so. Citizenship is not revoked for political reasons.

The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise. There were no reports of forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

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

The Constitution provides for this right, but in the past the military prevented its effective exercise. Although the military has twice handed over power to elected civilian governments following coups, 1996 marked the first time since independence from the Netherlands in 1975 that one elected government succeeded another in accordance with constitutional provisions. However, the Government is still in the process of institutionalizing democratic, constitutional rule.

The Constitution stipulates that power and authority rest with the people and provides for the right to change the government through the direct election by secret ballot of a National Assembly of 51 members every 5 years. The National Assembly then elects the President by a two-thirds vote. If the legislature is unable to do so, as has been the case both in the 1991 and 1996 national elections, the Constitution provides that a national People's Assembly, comprising Members of Parliament and regional and local officials, shall elect the President.

The Constitution provides for the organization and functioning of political parties, and many parties and political coalitions are represented in the National Assembly.

There are historical and cultural impediments to equal participation by women in leadership positions in government and political parties. In the past, most women expected to fulfill the role of housewife and mother, thereby limiting opportunities to gain political experience or position. Participation by women in politics (and other fields) was generally considered inappropriate. While women have made limited gains in attaining political power in recent years, political circles remain under the influence of traditional male-dominated groups, and women are disadvantaged in seeking high public office. In May voters elected six women to the National Assembly, compared with three who held seats in the previous assembly, and the Assembly appointed one of them as chairperson. The Wijdenbosch Cabinet includes a woman as Minister of Regional Development.

Although the Constitution proscribes racial or religious discrimination, several factors limit the participation of Maroons and Amerindians in the political process. Most of the country's political activity takes place in the capital and a narrow belt running east and west of it along the coast. The Maroons and Amerindians are concentrated in remote areas in the interior and therefore have limited access to, and influence in, the political process. There is a small Maroon political party, which holds three seats in the National Assembly and belongs to an opposition coalition. Although there is no Amerindian political party, voters elected the first Amerindian to the National Assembly in May. There are seven Maroons in the National Assembly. There are no Maroons or Amerindians in the Cabinet.

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

Human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are, however, generally not cooperative or responsive to their views. In April the Government refused a request by Amnesty International to allow a video crew to make a film about the December 1982 murders (see Section 1.a.) on the grounds that the timing would upset the elections. In May a Surinamese organization, the Organization for Justice and Peace, approached the Government with the idea of establishing a "truth commission" to investigate past human rights abuses. However, the Government turned down the idea again citing the fear that any findings would have an adverse impact on the election process. The National Institute of Human Rights, which had been initiated by the Government but authorized to act independently, was dissolved in 1994, after the expiration of the first members' 10-year term.

The Venetiaan Government reacted negatively to calls for investigations into past human rights violations and refused to initiate such studies. By year's end, the new Wijdenbosch Government had taken no concrete steps to initiate any investigations.

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

The Constitution and laws do not differentiate among citizens on the basis of their ethnic origins, religious affiliations, or other cultural differences. In practice, however, several groups within society suffer various forms of discrimination.

Women

The law does not differentiate between domestic violence and other forms of assault, and the Government has not specifically addressed the problem of violence against women. According to a national women's group, victims reported approximately 500 cases of violence against women, and complained of an inadequate response from the Government and society to what appears to be a trend of increasing family violence. Police are reluctant to intervene in instances of domestic violence. It remains a problem at all levels of society.

There are no specific laws to protect women against trafficking and sexual exploitation. A local women's group is investigating several cases of arranged marriages to foreigners where the women were subsequently forced into prostitution. There are also credible reports of trafficking in Brazilian women for prostitution. Neither medical nor legal assistance is available to victims. Victims are not discouraged from filing complaints and do not face legal or other penalties.

Women have a legal right to equal access to education, employment, and property. Nevertheless, social pressures and customs inhibit their full exercise of these rights, particularly in the areas of marriage and inheritance. Women, notably those who were heads of families, were adversely affected by deteriorating economic conditions. Women experience economic discrimination in access to employment and in rates of pay for the same or substantially similar work. The Government has not made specific efforts to combat economic discrimination.

The National Women's Center is a government agency devoted to women's issues; there is also a women's policy coordinator. Their effectiveness is severely limited by financial and staffing constraints. There are several active women's rights groups. Their principal concerns are political representation, economic vulnerability, violence, and discrimination. These groups are somewhat effective.

Children

The Government makes only limited efforts to ensure safeguards for the human rights and welfare of children. The steady increase in the number of cases of malnutrition, by some estimates reaching upwards of 20 percent of schoolchildren in the Paramaribo area, has been cause for concern. In the capital, where most of the country's population is concentrated, there are some orphanages, and a privately funded shelter for sexually abused children opened in 1993. Elsewhere, distressed children must usually rely on the resources of their extended families. There is no societal pattern of abuse directed against children. Both in the capital and in the country's interior, some school-age children do not have access to education because of a lack of transportation, facilities, or teachers. There is no difference in the treatment of girls and boys in education or health care services. Children face increasing economic pressure to discontinue their education in order to work.

People with Disabilities

There are no laws concerning disabled people and no provisions for making private or public buildings accessible to them. There are also no laws mandating that they be given equal consideration when seeking jobs or housing. However, there are some training programs for the blind and others with disabilities.

Indigenous People

Most Amerindians and Maroons suffer a number of disadvantages and have only limited ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and natural resources. The nation's political life, educational opportunities, and jobs are concentrated in the capital and its environs, while the majority of Amerindians and Maroons live in the interior. Government services in the interior became largely unavailable and much of the infrastructure was destroyed during the 1986-91 domestic insurgencies; progress in reestablishing services and rebuilding the infrastructure has been very slow.

The Government appointed the Consultative Council for the Development of the Interior in September 1995. This Council, provided for in the 1992 peace accords ending the insurgencies, includes representatives of the Maroon and Amerindian communities. The Government did not, however, consult with representatives of these communities about the granting of gold and timber concessions.

In May the World Council of Churches condemned the mining activity of two Canadian mining companies, claiming that they violate the human rights of the indigenous people who live within the mining concession areas. Organizations representing Maroon and Amerindian communities complained that the companies dig trenches that cut residents off from their agricultural land and threaten to drive them away from their traditional settlements. In December the Minister of Natural Resources met with the leaders of Nieuw Koffiekamp, one of the principal villages involved in the indigenous community conflicts with mining concessionaires, to discuss the village's concerns and options to resolve this particular dispute.

Although a special mission from the Organization of American States has embarked on a number of initiatives related to the determination of indigenous rights and the division of interior districts, implementation has been delayed by the cumbersome government bureaucracy and its reluctance to tackle sensitive political issues.

Maroon and Amerindian groups are beginning to cooperate in order to exercise their rights more effectively. The second summit, or "gran krutu," in as many years between Maroon and Amerindian tribal leaders took place in September. The leaders reiterated their demands for the right to participate in decisions concerning the use of natural resources and for greater autonomy from the Government.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution protects the right of workers to associate and to choose their representatives democratically. Nearly 60 percent of the work force is organized into unions, most of which belong to one of the country's six major labor federations. Unions are independent of the Government and play an active role in politics. The small Labor Party, which is independent of the labor movement, has historically been a very influential force in government.

The Constitution provides for the right of nongovernment employees to strike. Civil servants have no legal right to strike or mount other labor actions, but in practice do so. Strikes in both the public and private sectors were common as workers tried to secure wage gains to protect their earning power from rapid inflation.

Suriname was elected to the governing body of the International Labor Organization in March. There are no restrictions on unions' international activities. Several labor federations were reaccepted as affiliates of international trade union organizations in the late 1980's, after having been suspended for collaboration with the military regime.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution explicitly recognizes these rights, and the authorities respect them in practice. Collective bargaining agreements cover approximately 50 percent of the labor force. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers, and there are effective mechanisms for resolving complaints of such discrimination. Employers must have prior permission from the Ministry of Labor to fire workers, except when discharging an employee for cause. The Labor Ministry individually reviews dismissals for cause; if it finds a discharge unjustified, the employee must be reinstated.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no known instances of it.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years. However, the Ministry of Labor and the police enforce this law only sporadically. Those under 16 years of age often work as street vendors, newspaper sellers, or shop assistants. Working hours for youths are not limited in comparison with the regular work force. School attendance is compulsory until 12 years of age.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage legislation. Following a 40 percent pay hike instituted during election time, the lowest wage for civil servants was about $41.79 (SF 16,800) per month. This salary level makes it very difficult to provide a decent living for a worker and family. Government employees, who comprise close to 50 percent of the work force of 100,000, frequently supplement their salaries with second or third jobs, often in the informal sector. The Government sets civil service wages and the National Assembly approves them.

Work in excess of 9 hours per day or 45 hours per week on a regular basis requires special government permission, which is routinely granted. Such overtime work earns premium pay. The law requires one 24-hour rest period per week.

A 10- to 12-member inspectorate of the Occupational Health and Safety Division of the Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing legislated occupational safety and health regulations. Resource constraints and lack of trained personnel preclude the division from making regular inspections of industry. Accident rates in local industry do not appear to be high, and the key bauxite industry has an outstanding safety record. There is, however, no law authorizing workers to refuse to work in circumstances they deem unsafe. They must appeal to the inspectorate to declare the workplace situation unsafe.

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