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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Sao Tome and Principe

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 - Sao Tome and Principe, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa8b30.html [accessed 11 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.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is a multiparty democracy. The Government is composed of an executive branch, a unicameral legislature (the National Assembly), and an independent judiciary. The President appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints the ministers of the Government. Miguel Trovoada, an independent, was re-elected President in 1996 for a second 5-year term. The Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), which had ruled prior to 1990 as the sole legal party, won a plurality in free and fair parliamentary elections in 1994 and holds 5 of 9 seats in the current Government. Presidential elections held in June and July were deemed generally free and fair by international observers and the results were ratified in late August, despite allegations of an unconstitutional modification of voter lists between the first and second rounds.

The Minister of National Defense, Security, and Internal Order supervises the military, many of whose members are part-time farmers or fishermen, and the police. A week-long military mutiny in August 1995 was ended by an agreement mediated by the Foreign Minister of Angola, forestalling a threatened overthrow of the Government. The National Assembly passed an amnesty for the mutineers which was proclaimed by the President. The Government and international donors have dedicated resources to improving soldiers' living conditions.

The economy is based on the export of a single product, cocoa, produced in an archaic state-run system of plantations called "empresas." The Government has privatized some of the state-held land but has had limited success in privatizing state-owned enterprises. The Government is following structural adjustment guidelines, but the economy continues to face serious difficulties. The annual inflation rate is 35 percent, unemployment is 27 percent, total external debt is six times gross domestic product, and the country is highly dependent on foreign aid. Per capita income is less than $250 per year.

The Government continued to respect the rights of its citizens. The principal human rights problems continued to be an inefficient judicial system, harsh prison conditions, discrimination and violence against women, and outdated plantation labor practices that limit worker rights.

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.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits torture or cruel and inhuman punishment. There were no reports of violations such as beatings or other cruel treatment during arrests or interrogations.

Prison conditions are harsh but not life threatening. While there is no indication that human rights monitors have requested permission to make prison visits, it is believed the Government would permit such visits if requested.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes these prohibitions.

Exile is not used as a punishment, and all those exiled under the one-party regime of 1975-1990 are free to return.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary has returned verdicts against both the President and the Government. The legal system is based on Portuguese law and customary law, with the Supreme Court at the apex. The Government has important powers relating to the judiciary, including setting salaries for judges and all ministerial employees in accordance with standard government salary guidelines. Government salaries are extremely low, and the authorities are concerned that judges may be tempted to accept bribes. The authorities maintain that they continue to respect the independence of the judiciary.

The Constitution provides for the right to fair public trial, the right of appeal, and the right to legal representation. In practice, however, the judicial infrastructure suffers from severe budgetary constraints, inadequate facilities, and a shortage of trained judges and lawyers, causing long delays in bringing cases to court and greatly hindering investigations in criminal cases.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the integrity of the person and the right to privacy of home, correspondence, and private communication. The Government does not engage in intrusive practices, such as surveillance of people or the monitoring of communications. The judicial police are responsible for criminal investigations and must obtain authorization from the Ministry of Justice to conduct searches.

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, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. One government-run and four independent newspapers have published in the past; none appeared regularly in 1996 due to financial constraints and the lack of printing facilities.

Television and radio are state-operated. While there are no independent local stations, there are no laws forbidding them. The Voice of America, Radio International Portugal, and Radio France International are rebroadcast locally. The law grants all opposition parties access to the state-run media, including a minimum of 3 minutes per month on television.

All parties freely distribute newsletters and press releases giving their views and criticizing the Government, the President, and one another. There were no reports of government censorship or threats of censorship from any group, nor any reports of efforts by national security forces to suppress criticism.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. Political rallies during the election campaign were numerous and unhindered. The Government requires that requests for authorization of large-scale events be filed 48 hours in advance and usually grants the appropriate permits.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Government respects this right in practice. There are no restrictions on the activities of foreign clergy.

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

Under the Constitution and in practice, citizens have the right to move freely within the country, to travel abroad, and to emigrate and return. Authorities have traditionally welcomed those seeking refuge or asylum. The issue of provision of first asylum did not arise during the year.

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

Citizens exercised this right for the first time in free and fair presidential and legislative elections in 1991 and again in the legislative elections of October 1994. These elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power between political party coalitions. More than 80 percent of those eligible to vote cast their ballots in the 1996 presidential elections. International observers judged the contest to be free and fair. The National Electoral Commission acknowledged minor discrepancies in the registration process and in voter rolls while asserting that these were insufficient to call the results into question. After some controversy, the Supreme Court ratified the results. Each of the three principal political parties has significant representation in the unicameral National Assembly. Elections are by secret ballot on the basis of universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age or older.

The Constitution provides for the election of the President, who as Head of State names the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Government.

There are no restrictions in law or in practice on the participation of women in politics. However, women are underrepresented in the legislature. They currently hold 3 of 55 seats in the National Assembly. One woman was a presidential candidate in the 1996 elections and received 16 percent of the first-round vote.

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

A small number of local human rights groups have formed since 1991 and operate without restriction or governmental interference. There were no known requests by international human rights groups to visit the country.

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

The Constitution provides for the equality of all citizens regardless of sex, race, racial origin, political tendency, creed, or philosophic conviction. However, the Government has not sought actively to enforce these provisions.

Women

While the extent of the problem is unknown, violence against women occurs, and medical professionals and officials report firsthand experience in dealing with violence, including rape. They also report that although women have the right to legal recourse – including against spouses – many are reluctant to bring a complaint or are ignorant of their rights under the law. Traditional beliefs and practices also inhibit women from taking domestic disputes outside the family.

While the Constitution stipulates that women and men have equal political, economic, and social rights, and while many women do have access to opportunities in education, business, and government, in practice women still encounter significant societal discrimination. Traditional beliefs concerning the division of labor between men and women leave women with much of the hard work in agriculture, with most child-rearing responsibilities, and with less access to education and to the professions. Female literacy is approximately 62 percent (compared with male literacy of 85 percent).

Children

A number of government and donor-funded programs have been established to improve conditions for children. There has been improvement in maternity and infant care, in nutrition, and in access to basic health services, especially in urban areas. Mistreatment of children is not widespread. There remain few social protections for orphans and abandoned children.

People with Disabilities

The law does not mandate arrangements to provide access to buildings, transportation, or services for persons with disabilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association and the right to strike. Few unions exist in the very small modern wage sector. One confederation, the Independent Union Federation, has been attempting to organize workers on the large state-owned plantations, but it has met with only limited success. Independent cooperatives, on the other hand, have taken advantage of the government land distribution program to attract workers and in many cases significantly to improve production and incomes. Public sector employees still comprise the great majority of wage earners. Government employees and other essential workers are allowed to strike and did so repeatedly. There are no laws or regulations prohibiting employers from retaliating against strikers.

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

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides that workers may organize and bargain collectively. However, due to its role as the principal employer in the wage sector, the Government remains the key interlocutor for labor on all matters, including wages. There are no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and such labor is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Employers in the modern wage sector generally respect the legally mandated minimum employment age of 18 years. The Ministry of Justice and Labor is responsible for enforcing this law. In subsistence agriculture, on plantations, and in informal commerce, children do work, sometimes from an early age.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Working conditions on many of the state-owned plantations – the biggest wage employment sector – border on the medieval. There is no legally mandated minimum wage. The average salary for plantation workers does not permit a decent standard of living, and its real value is constantly eroded by high rates of inflation. In principle, workers are provided free (but inadequate) housing, rudimentary education, and health care, as well as the privilege of reduced prices and credit at the "company store." These arrangements are intended to subsidize food and clothing. Corruption is an everyday fact, however, and international lending institutions have criticized the Government for ineffective administration of these subsidies. Workers are often forced to pay higher prices on the parallel market to obtain the goods theoretically provided at a discount as part of their compensation.

The legal workweek is 40 hours with 48 consecutive hours mandated for a rest period, a norm respected in the modern wage sector. The Social Security Law of 1979 prescribes basic occupational health and safety standards. Inspectors from the Ministry of Justice and Labor are responsible for enforcement of these standards, but their efforts are ineffective. Employees have the right under the law to leave unsafe working conditions.

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