Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2000 - Bhutan

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 26 February 2001
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2000 - Bhutan , 26 February 2001, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
Comments This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with sections 116(d) and 502(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended, and section 504 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. The law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, by February 25 "a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights, within the meaning of subsection (A) in countries that receive assistance under this part, and (B) in all other foreign countries which are members of the United Nations and which are not otherwise the subject of a human rights report under this Act." We have also included reports on several countries that do not fall into the categories established by these statutes and that thus are not covered by the congressional requirement.
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.

Bhutan is ruled by a hereditary monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who governs with the support of a National Assembly and a Council of Ministers; there is no written constitution to protect fundamental political and human rights. Since ascending to the throne in 1972, the King has continued efforts toward social and political modernization begun by his father. In the last few years, Bhutan has improved rapidly services in education, health care, sanitation, and communications, with parallel but slower developments of the role of representatives in governance and decision making. In recent years, Bhutan has adopted some measures to transfer power from the King to the National Assembly. The judiciary is not independent of the King.

Approximately two-thirds of the government-declared population of 600,000 persons is composed of Buddhists with cultural traditions akin to those of Tibet. The Buddhist majority consists of two principal ethnic and linguistic groups: the Ngalongs of the western part of the country and the Sharchops of the eastern part of the country. The remaining third of the population, ethnic Nepalis, most of whom are Hindus, live in the country's southern districts. Bhutanese dissident groups claim that the actual population is between 650,000 and 700,000 persons and that the Government underreports the number of ethnic Nepalese in the country. The rapid growth of this ethnic Nepalese segment of the population led some in the Buddhist majority to fear for the survival of their culture. Government efforts to institute policies designed to preserve the cultural dominance of the Ngalong ethnic group, to change citizenship requirements, and to control illegal immigration resulted in political protests and led to ethnic conflict and repression of ethnic Nepalese in southern districts during the late 1980's and early 1990's. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese left the country in 1991-92, many of whom were expelled forcibly. According to U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 98,269 ethnic Nepalese in 7 refugee camps in eastern Nepal as of late June; upwards of 15,000 reside outside of the camps in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The Government maintains that some of those in the camps never were citizens, and therefore have no right to return. In 1998 the Government began resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other regions of the country on land in southern districts vacated by the ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in Nepal, which some claim will complicate any future return of the ethnic Nepalese. A National Assembly resolution adopted in 1997 prohibits still-resident immediate family members of ethnic Nepalese refugees from holding jobs with the Government or the armed forces. In early 1998 the Government implemented the resolution, and already had dismissed 429 civil servants by November 1998, when implementation of the resolution was discontinued.

The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), assisted by the Royal Bhutan Army, including those assigned to the Royal Body Guard, and a national militia, maintain internal security. Some members of these forces committed human rights abuses against ethnic Nepalese.

The economy is based on agriculture and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for 90 percent of the population and account for about half of the gross domestic product (GDP). Agriculture largely consists of subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Cardamon, citrus fruit, and spices are the leading agricultural exports. Cement and electricity are the other important exports. Strong trade and monetary ties link the economy closely to that of India. Hydroelectric power production potential and tourism are key resources, although the Government limits foreign tourist arrivals because of inadequate tourist infrastructure and environmental concerns. Tourist arrivals also are limited by means of pricing policies. Bhutan is a poor country. The gross national product per capita is estimated to be $470.

The Government's human rights record remained poor, and problems remain in several areas. The King exercises strong, active, and direct power over the Government. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. The Government discourages political parties, and none operate legally. There were reports that security forces beat ethnic Nepalese refugees who entered the country to demonstrate. Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems, and reports of torture and abuse of persons in detention continue. Impunity for those who commit abuses also is a problem. Judges serve at the King's pleasure, and the Government limits significantly the right to a fair trial. Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated under a legal code established in the 17 century and revised and modernized in 1958 and 1965. In late 1998 the Government formed a special committee of jurists and government officials to review the country's basic law and propose changes. In April the Government established a Department of Legal Affairs, which is projected to be functioning fully by mid-2001; it is a result of the review of the Basic Law. Programs to build a body of written law and to train lawyers are progressing. For example, the Government sends many lawyers to India and other countries for legal training. The Government limits significantly citizens' right to privacy. The Government restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association. The Government launched the country's first indigenous television service in June 1999, modifying a ban on private television reception that had been in place since 1989. Citizens face significant limitations on freedom of religion. In July 1998, the Government initiated steps to renew negotiations with the Government of Nepal on procedures for the screening and repatriation of ethnic Nepalese in the refugee camps, and the two governments held a series of meetings during the second half of that year. After a 3-year hiatus, ministerial-level bilateral talks resumed in September 1999. The Government restricts worker rights.

The Government claims that it has prosecuted government personnel for unspecified abuses committed in the early 1990's; however, public indications are that it has done little to investigate and prosecute security force officials responsible for torture, rape, and other abuses committed against ethnic Nepalese residents.


1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no confirmed reports of political or other extrajudicial killings during the year. Human rights groups allege that in 1998 a government official shot and killed Gomchen Karma, a Buddhist monk arrested in October 1997 during a peaceful demonstration in the eastern part of the country. The Government stated that the shooting was accidental, that the official responsible has been suspended from duty and charged in connection with the incident, and that his case was being heard as of September.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The law prohibits torture and abuse; however, human rights advocates state that in practice security forces ignore these provisions. No one was prosecuted in connection with violating prohibitions against torture during the year. There were reports that security forces captured numerous ethnic Nepalese refugees attempting to return to the country, beat them, and sent them back across the border. Persons holding peaceful marches from India to Bhutan report that in 1998 and 1999, the police assaulted them, injuring several demonstrators, and then arrested and deported all of the marchers to Nepal (see Section 5). In the past, there have been reports that ethnic Nepalese refugees who attempted to return to the country were tortured. Refugee newspapers published in Nepal allege that Nima Gyaltsen, a prisoner detained since 1997 without charge or trial in Zilnon Namgyeling jail in Thimphu, died in 1999 after being subjected to torture during his incarceration.

Refugee groups credibly claim that persons detained as suspected dissidents in the early 1990's were tortured by security forces, who also committed acts of rape. During those years, the Government's ethnic policies and the crackdown on ethnic Nepalese political agitation created a climate of impunity in which the Government tacitly condoned the physical abuse of ethnic Nepalese. The Government denies that these abuses occurred but also claims that it has investigated and prosecuted three government officials for unspecified abuses of authority during that period. Details of these cases have not been made public, and there is little indication that the Government has investigated adequately or punished any security force officials involved in the widespread abuses of 1989-92.

Prison conditions reportedly are adequate, if austere. In 1993 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began a program of visits to prisons in the capital, Thimphu. In 1994 a new prison in Chemgang was opened. Together, these events contributed to a substantial improvement in conditions of detention over those that existed previously. However, Bhutanese human rights groups active outside the country maintain that prison conditions outside of Thimphu remain oppressive.

The Government and the ICRC signed a new Memorandum of Understanding in September 1998, extending the ICRC prison visits program for another 5 years. The ICRC conducted two prison visits during the year, as it has done for each of the past 6 years, and received unhindered access to prisons during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. Under the Police Act of 1979, police may not arrest a person without a warrant and must produce an arrested person before a court within 24 hours of arrest, exclusive of travel time from place of arrest. However, legal protections are incomplete, due to the lack of a fully elaborated criminal procedure code and to deficiencies in police training and practice. Incommunicado detention is known to occur. Incommunicado detention of suspected militants was a serious problem in 1991 and 1992, but the initiation of ICRC prison visits and the establishment of an ICRC mail service between detainees and family members has helped to allay this problem. Of those detained in connection with political dissidence and violence in southern areas in 1991-92, 1,685 persons were ultimately amnestied, 58 are serving sentences after conviction by the High Court, 9 were acquitted by the High Court, and 71 were released after serving prison sentences.

Human rights groups allege that in July and August 1997, the Royal Bhutan Police in and around Samdrup Jongkar town in the east arrested some 50 suspected supporters of a Bhutanese dissident group active outside the country. The Government states that only 16 persons were arrested during this period and that they have been charged with involvement in seditious activities and are awaiting trial. Many were said to be supporters of one-time Druk National Congress (DNC) and United Front for Democracy in Bhutan (UFD) leader Rongthong Kunley Dorji, who was arrested in India in April 1997, following the issuance of an extradition request by Bhutanese authorities. Dorji faces extradition proceedings in India and possible return to Bhutan to face charges of fraud, nonpayment of loans, and incitement to violence. The original Bhutanese extradition request included a third charge, "antinational activities," but this later was dropped when it became clear that Indian law would preclude his extradition to face political charges. Human rights groups contend that the charges brought against Dorji are politically motivated and constitute an attempt by the Government to suppress his prodemocracy activities. In June 1998, an Indian court granted Dorji bail, but placed restrictions on his movements. Dorji's extradition case still is pending in the Indian courts. According to an Amnesty International report released in 1999, 30 persons were detained in 1998, most of them on suspicion of being members or supporters of the DNC.

Amnesty International has reported that some of those arrested are feared to be at risk of torture (see Section 1.c.). Bhutanese human rights groups outside the country claim that the arrests, including those of several Buddhist monks, are aimed at imposing Ngalong norms on the eastern, Sharchop community, which has a distinct ethnic and religious identity. The Government denies that it has such a policy; many government officials, including both the former Head of Government, Foreign Minister Jigme Thinley, and the Chief Justice of the High Court Sonam Tobgye, are Sharchops.

Persons holding peaceful marches from India to Bhutan charge that in 1999, the police assaulted them, injuring several demonstrators, and then arrested and deported all of the marchers to Nepal (see Section 5). By one estimate, approximately 100 marchers were arrested and deported in 1999. The Government acknowledged that 58 persons whom it described as terrorists were serving sentences at the end of 1998 for crimes including rape, murder, and robbery. It stated that a total of 134 persons were arrested in connection with the October 1997 disturbances in the east; of that number, more than one-half either had been tried and acquitted or had been released after serving short sentences.

Some or all of the approximately 75 prisoners serving sentences for offenses related to political dissidence or violence, primarily by ethnic Nepalese during 1991-92, may be political prisoners (see Section 1.e.).

Although the Government does not use formally exile as a form of punishment, many accused political dissidents freed under Government amnesties say that they were released on the condition that they depart the country. Many of them subsequently registered at refugee camps in Nepal. The Government denies this.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

There is no written constitution, and the judiciary is not independent of the King.

The judicial system consists of district courts and a High Court in Thimphu. Judges are appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Chief Justice and may be removed by the King. Village headmen adjudicate minor offenses and administrative matters.

The Department of Legal Affairs, which was established in April, is projected to be fully functional by mid-2001. At a future date, the Government expects to create a Ministry of Law and Justice and an Attorney General's office within the Department of Legal Affairs. At present, the Department is composed of a Legal Services Division (which eventually is to become the Ministry of Law and Justice) with domestic, international, and human rights sections; and a Prosecution Division (which eventually is to become the Attorney General's office), with a criminal section and a civil section.

Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated under a legal code established in the 17 century and revised in 1958 and 1965. For offenses against the State, state-appointed prosecutors file charges and prosecute cases. In other cases, the relevant organizations and departments of government file charges and conduct the prosecution. Defendants are supposed to be presented with written charges in languages that they understand and given time to prepare their own defense. However, this practice is not always followed, according to some political dissidents. In cases where defendants cannot write their own defense, courts assign judicial officers to assist defendants. There were reports that defendants receive legal representation at trial, and that they may choose from a list of 150 government-licensed and employed advocates to assist with their defense; however, it is not known how many defendants actually receive such assistance. A legal education program gradually is building a body of persons who have received formal training in the law abroad. Village headmen, who have the power to arbitrate disputes, make up the bottom rung of the judicial system. Magistrates, each with responsibility for a block of villages, can review their decisions. Magistrates' decisions can be appealed to district judges, of which there is 1 for each of the country's 20 districts. The High Court in Thimphu is the country's supreme court. Its decisions can be appealed to the King.

Defendants have the right to appeal to the High Court and may make a final appeal to the King, who traditionally delegates the decision to the Royal Advisory Council. Trials are to be conducted in open hearings; however, there are allegations that this is not always the case in practice.

Questions of family law, such as marriage, divorce, and adoption, traditionally are resolved according to a citizen's religion: Buddhist tradition for the majority of the population and Hindu tradition for the ethnic Nepalese; however, the Government states that there is one formal law that governs these matters.

Some or all of the approximately 75 prisoners serving sentences for offenses related to political dissidence or violence, primarily by ethnic Nepalese during 1991-92, may be political prisoners (see Section 1.d.).

On December 17, 1999, the King pardoned 200 prisoners to mark National Day; all reportedly were released. Among them were 40 persons convicted of "antinational" offenses, including prominent ethnic Nepalese dissident and internationally recognized political prisoner Tek Nath Rizal. Tek Nath Rizal was arrested in 1988 in Nepal and extradited to Bhutan, where he was held in solitary confinement in Wangdiphodrang military prison until his 1992 conviction for antinational crimes, including writing and distributing political pamphlets and attending political meetings. He was convicted under the 1993 National Security Act, although at the time of his conviction the act had not yet been passed. However, a U.N. Human Rights Commission Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that visited the country in 1994 at the Government's invitation determined that Rizal had received a fair trial and declared his detention "not to be arbitrary." During the latter part of the year, Rizal was granted permission to leave Bhutan to receive medical treatment in Calcutta, India. He had not left Bhutan by year's end.

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

There are no laws providing for these rights. The Government requires all citizens, including minorities, to wear the traditional dress of the Buddhist majority when visiting Buddhist religious buildings, monasteries, or government offices, and in schools and when attending official functions and public ceremonies. According to human rights groups, police regularly conduct house-to-house searches for suspected dissidents without explanation or legal justification.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government restricts freedom of speech and of the press.The country's only regular publication is Kuensel, a government-run weekly newspaper with a circulation of 10,000. Human rights groups state that government ministries regularly review editorial material and have the power to suppress or change content, which they regularly do. They allege that the board of directors nominally responsible for editorial policy is appointed by and can be removed by the Government. Kuensel, which publishes simultaneous editions in the English, Dzongkha, and Nepali languages, supports the Government but does occasionally report criticism of the King and Government policies in the National Assembly. Nepalese, Indian, and other foreign newspapers are available, but they sometimes can be withheld from circulation if they carry news that the Government deems critical of the country.

In 1989 the Government banned all private television reception and ordered that television antennas and satellite dishes be dismantled. Many homes in Paro and Thimphu nonetheless have satellite dishes and receive signals from international broadcasters. In June 1999, the Government introduced locally produced television service with the inauguration of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. The service broadcasts 4 hours of programming daily: 2 hours of locally produced programming in Dzongkha, and 2 hours of English-language programming produced outside of the country (such as from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Cable News Network (CNN)). In late 1999 the Government began licensing cable operators to provide service in Thimphu and Paro, and cable television is available. The Government radio station broadcasts each day in the four major languages (Dzongkha, Nepali, English, and Sharchop). The Government inaugurated the country's first Internet service provider, Druknet, in June 1999.

English is the medium of instruction in schools and the national language, Dzongkha, is taught as a second language. The teaching of Nepali as a second language was discontinued in 1990.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government restricts freedom of assembly and association. Citizens may engage in peaceful assembly and association only for purposes approved by the Government. Although the Government allows civic and business organizations, there are no legally recognized political parties. The Government regards parties organized by ethnic Nepalese exiles – the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) and the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) – as well as the Druk National Congress – as "terrorist and antinational" organizations and has declared them illegal. These parties do not conduct activities inside the country. They seek the repatriation of refugees and democratic reform.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Government limits freedom of religion. The Drukpa branch of the Kagyupa School of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. About two-thirds of the population practice either Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa Buddhism. The Drukpa branch is practiced predominantly in the western and central parts of the country, which are inhabited mainly by ethnic Ngalongs (descendants of Tibetan immigrants who predominate in government and the civil service, and whose cultural norms have been declared to be the standard for all citizens). The Ningmapa school is practiced predominantly in the eastern part of the country, although there are adherents in other areas, including the royal family. Most of those living in the east are ethnic Sharchops – the descendants of those thought to be the country's original inhabitants. The Government subsidizes monasteries and shrines of the Drukpa sect and provides aid to about one-third of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. The Government also provides financial assistance for the construction of Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist temples and shrines. In the early 1990's, the Government provided funds for the construction of new Hindu temples and centers of Sanskrit and Hindu learning and for the renovation of existing temples and places of Hindu learning. The Drukpa branch enjoys statutory representation in the National Assembly (Drukpa monks occupy 10 seats in the 150 member National Assembly) and in the Royal Advisory Council (Drukpa monks hold 2 of the 11 seats on the Council), and the Drukpa branch is an influential voice on public policy. Citizens of other faiths, mostly Hindus, enjoy freedom of worship but may not proselytize. Under the law, conversions are illegal.

The King has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays, and the royal family participates in them. Foreign missionaries are not permitted to proselytize, but international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests are active in education and humanitarian activities. According to dissidents living outside of the country, the Government restricts the import into the country of printed religious matter; only Buddhist religious texts are allowed to enter. These dissidents also state that Buddhist religious teaching, of both the Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa sects, is permitted in schools; the teaching of other religious faiths is not. The passports of members of minority religions cite the holder's religion, and applicants for government services sometimes are asked their religion before services are rendered.

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

Citizens traveling in border regions are required to show their citizenship identity cards at immigration check points, which in some cases are located at a considerable distance from what is ineffect an open border with India. By treaty, citizens may reside and work in India.

Bhutan is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol (See Section 5 regarding the ethnic Nepalese refugee situation).

The Government states that it recognizes the right to asylum in accordance with international refugee law; however, it has no official policy regarding refugees, asylum, first asylum, or the return of refugees to countries in which they fear persecution. According to one credible human rights source, until recent years the Government systematically used to arrest and imprison Tibetan refugees crossing the country's border from Tibet. This policy was followed in deference to China's wishes. So invariable was this policy that Tibetan leaders advise refugees not to use routes of escape through Bhutan. Tibetan refugees have not done so for several years. This virtually is the only refugee population seeking first asylum in Bhutan, thus, the issue of first asylum did not arise during the year.

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

Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Bhutan is a monarchy with sovereign power vested in the King. In June 1998, the King introduced term limits for his Council of Ministers and proposed measures to increase the role of the National Assembly in the formation of his Government. The National Assembly elected a new Council of Ministers and Government in July 1998 to a 5-year term. There are elected or partially elected assemblies at the local, district, and national levels, and the Government claims to encourage decentralization and citizen participation. These elections are conducted in much the same way as National Assembly elections. Since 1969 the National Assembly has had the power to remove ministers who the King appoints, but it never has done so. Political authority ultimately resides in the King and decisionmaking involves only a small number of officials. Officials subject to questioning by the National Assembly routinely make major decisions, but the National Assembly is not known to have overturned any decisions reached by the King and government officials.

Political parties do not exist legally, and the Government discourages their formation as unnecessarily divisive. The Government prohibits parties established abroad by ethnic Nepalese (see Section 2.b.).

The National Assembly, established in 1953, has 150 members. Of these, 105 are elected indirectly by heads of household, 10 are selected by a part of the Buddhist clergy, and the remaining 35 are appointed by the King to represent the Government. The National Assembly, which meets irregularly, has little independent authority. However, there are efforts underway to have the National Assembly meet on a more regular basis, and in recent years the King and the Council of Ministers have been more responsive to the National Assembly's concerns.

The procedures for the nomination and election of National Assembly members are set out in an amendment to the country's Basic Law proposed by the King and adopted by the 73 session of the National Assembly in 1995. It provides that in order to be eligible for nomination as a candidate for election to the National Assembly, a person must be a citizen of Bhutan, be at least 25 years of age, not be married to a foreign national, not have been terminated or compulsorily retired for misconduct from government service, not have committed any act of treason against the King, the populace, and country, have no criminal record or any criminal case pending against him, have respect for the nation's laws, and be able to read and write in Dzongkha (the language, having different dialects in the eastern and western areas of the country, spoken by Bhutanese Buddhists).

Each National Assembly constituency consists of a number of villages. Each village is permitted to nominate one candidate but must do so by consensus. There is no provision for self-nomination and the law states that no person...may campaign for the candidacy or canvass through other means. If more than one village within a constituency puts forward a candidate, an election is conducted by the district development committee, and the candidate obtaining a simple majority of votes cast is declared the winner. Individuals do not have the right to vote; every family in a village is entitled to one vote in elections. The law does not make clear how a candidate is selected if none achieves a simple majority. However, it does state that in case of a tie among the candidates in the election, a selection shall be made through the drawing of lots. The candidate whose name is drawn shall be deemed to be elected.

Human rights activists claim that the only time individual citizens have any involvement in choosing a National Assembly representative is when they are asked for consensus approval of a village candidate by the village headman. The name put to villagers for consensus approval by the headman is suggested to him by district officials, who in turn take their direction from the central Government. Consensus approval takes place at a public gathering. Human rights activists state that there is no secret ballot.

The Assembly enacts laws, approves senior government appointments, and advises the King on matters of national importance. Voting is by secret ballot, with a simple majority needed to pass a measure. The King may not formally veto legislation, but may return bills for further consideration. The Assembly occasionally rejects the King's recommendations or delays implementing them, but in general, the King has enough influence to persuade the Assembly to approve legislation that he considers essential or to withdraw proposals he opposes. The Assembly may question government officials and force them to resign by a two-thirds vote of no confidence; however, the National Assembly never has compelled any government official to resign. The Royal Civil Service Commission is responsible for disciplining subministerial level government officials and has removed several following their convictions for crimes including embezzlement.

In June 1998, the King issued a decree setting out several measures intended to increase the role of the National Assembly in the formation and dissolution of his Government. The decree, later adopted by the 76 session of the National Assembly, provided that all cabinet ministers are to be elected by the National Assembly and that the roles and responsibilities of the cabinet ministries were to be spelled out. Each cabinet minister is to be elected by simple majority in a secret ballot in the National Assembly from among candidates nominated by the King. The King is to select nominees for cabinet office from among senior government officials holding the rank of secretary or above. The King is to determine the portfolios of his ministers, whose terms will be limited to 5 years, after which they must pass a vote of confidence in the National Assembly in order to remain in office. Finally, the decree provided that the National Assembly, by a two-thirds vote of no confidence, can require the King to abdicate and to be replaced by the next in the line of succession. After adopting the decree, the National Assembly elected a new cabinet of ministers consistent with the decree. Human rights groups maintain that since only the King may nominate candidates for cabinet office, their election by the National Assembly is not a significant democratic reform. The King also removed himself as Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers in 1998; Foreign Minister Jigme Thinley was elected to that position by the National Assembly for 1 year, and was replaced by Minister for Health and Education Sangay Ngedup in July 1999.

Women are underrepresented in government and politics, although they have made small but visible gains. Three women hold seats in the National Assembly.

All major ethnic groups, including ethnic Nepalese, are represented in the National Assembly. There are 16 "southern Bhutanese" (also known as Lhotshampas) in the National Assembly.

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

There are no legal human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) in the country. The Government regards human rights groups established by ethnic Nepalese exiles – the Human Rights Organization of Bhutan, the People's Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan, and the Association of Human Rights Activists – Bhutan – as political organizations and does not permit them to operate in the country. Amnesty International visited Bhutan in 1992 to investigate and to report on the alleged abuse of ethnic Nepalese. In late November 1998, Amnesty International again sent a delegation to the country and later released a report.

ICRC representatives continue twice yearly prison visits, and the Government has allowed them unhindered access to detention facilities, including those in southern districts inhabited by ethnic Nepalese. The chairman and members of the U.N. Human Rights Commission Working Group on Arbitrary Detention made a second visit to the country in May 1996 as a follow-up to an October 1994 visit. In addition to meetings with government officials, members of the working group visited prisons and interviewed prisoners in Thimphu, Phuntsoling, and Samtse.

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

Ongoing government efforts to cultivate a national identity rooted in the language, religion, and culture of the Ngalong ethnic group restrict cultural expression by other ethnic groups. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Government instituted polices designed to preserve the cultural dominance of the Ngalong ethnic group. It also committed many abuses against the ethnic Nepalese, which led to the departure of tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese from the country; many ethnic Nepalese were expelled forcibly, and almost 100,000 of them remain in refugee camps in Nepal. At the time, the Government claimed that it was concerned about the rapid population growth of and political agitation by the ethnic Nepalese. The Government claims that ethnic and gender discrimination in employment is not a problem. It claims that ethnic Nepalese fill 22 percent of government jobs, which is slightly less than their proportion of the total population. Bhutanese human rights groups active outside the country claim that ethnic Nepalese actually make up about 35 percent of the country's population and that the Government underreports their number. Women are accorded respect in the traditions of most ethnic groups; however, persistence of traditional gender roles apparently accounts for the low proportion of women in government employment. Exile groups claim that ethnic and gender discrimination is a problem.


There is no evidence that rape or spousal abuse are extensive problems. However, there are credible reports by refugees and human rights groups that security forces raped large numbers of ethnic Nepalese women in the southern area of the country in 1991 and 1992. According to Amnesty International, some women reportedly have died as a result. In one independent survey of 1,779 refugee families, 26 percent of the respondents cited rape, fear of rape, or threat of rape as a prime reason for their departure from the country. The Government has denied these reports.

Rape was made a criminal offense in 1953, but that law had weak penalties and was enforced poorly. In 1993 the National Assembly adopted a revised rape act with clear definitions of criminal sexual assault and stronger penalties. In cases of rape involving minors, sentences range from 5 to 17 years. In extreme cases, a rapist may be imprisoned for life.

Women constitute 48 percent of the population and participate freely in the social and economic life of the country. Approximately 43 percent of enrollment in school is female, and 16 percent of civil service employees are women. Inheritance law provides for equal inheritance among all sons and daughters, but traditional inheritance practices, which vary among ethnic groups, may be observed if the heirs choose to forego legal challenges. Dowry is not practiced, even among ethnic Nepalese Hindus. Among some groups, inheritance practices favoring daughters reportedly account for the large numbers of women among owners of shops and businesses and for an accompanying tendency of women to drop out of higher education to go into business. However, female school enrollment has been growing in response to government policies. Women increasingly are found among senior officials and private sector entrepreneurs, especially in the tourism industry. Women in unskilled jobs generally are paid slightly less than men.

Polygamy is sanctioned provided the first wife gives her permission. Marriages may be arranged by the marriage partners themselves as well as by their parents. Divorce is common. Recent legislation requires that all marriages must be registered; it also favors women in matters of alimony.


The Government has demonstrated its commitment to child welfare by its rapid expansion of primary schools, health-care facilities, and immunization programs. The mortality rates for both infants and children under 5 years have dropped significantly since 1989. The Government provides free and compulsory primary school education, and primary school enrollment has increased at 9 percent per year since 1991, with enrollment of girls increasing at an even higher rate. In 1995 the participation rate for children in primary schools was estimated at 72 percent, with the rate of completion of 7 years of schooling at 60 percent for girls and at 59 percent for boys. There is no law barring ethnic Nepalese children from attending school. However, most of the 75 primary schools in southern areas heavily populated by ethnic Nepalese that were closed in 1990 remain closed today. The closure of the schools acts as an effective barrier to the ability of the ethnic Nepalese in southern areas to obtain a primary education. Children enjoy a privileged position in society and benefit from international development programs focused on maternal and child welfare. Amnesty International reported that at least 23 students, between 7 and 21 years of age, whose relatives had been arrested for supporting the prodemocracy movement, were expelled from school in eastern Bhutan in 1998. Amnesty International also reported that 19-year-old Needup Phuntso was expelled from school in March 1998 and was tortured by members of the Royal Bhutanese police after his arrest in Thimphu in July 1998.

A study by UNICEF found that boys and girls receive equal treatment regarding nutrition and health care and that there is little difference in child mortality rates between the sexes. Government policies aimed at increasing enrollment of girls have increased the proportion of girls in primary schools from 39 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 1995.

There is no societal pattern of abuse against children.

People With Disabilities

There is no evidence of official discrimination toward disabled persons but the Government has not passed legislation mandating accessibility for the disabled. Societal discrimination against the disabled is a problem.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic Nepalese have lived in the southern part of the country for centuries, and the early phases of economic development at the turn of the century brought a large influx of additional ethnic Nepalese. In the late 1980's, concern over the increase in the population of and political agitation among ethnic Nepalese prompted aggressive government efforts to assert a national culture, to tighten control over southern regions, to control illegal immigration, to expel ethnic Nepalese, and to promote national integration. Early efforts at national integration focused on assimilation, including financial incentives for intermarriage, education for some students in regions other than their own, and an increase in development funds in the south.

Beginning in 1989, more discriminatory measures were introduced, aimed at shaping a new national identity, known as Drukpa. Drukpa is based on the customs of the non-ethnic Nepalese Ngalong ethnic group predominant in the western part of the country. Measures included a requirement that national dress be worn for official occasions and as a school uniform, the teaching of Dzongkha as a second language in all schools, and an end to instruction in Nepali as a second language (English is the language of instruction in all schools). Also, beginning in 1988, the Government refused to renew the contracts of tens of thousands of Nepalese guest workers. Many of these workers had resided in the country for years, in some cases with their families.

During the mid- and late 1980's, citizenship became a highly contentious issue. Requirements for citizenship first were formalized in the Citizenship Law of 1958, which granted citizenship to all adults who owned land and had lived in the country for at least 10 years. However, in 1985 a new citizenship law significantly tightened requirements for citizenship and resulted in the denaturalization of many ethnic Nepalese. While citizenship previously was conferred upon children whose father was a citizen under the 1958 law, the 1985 law required that both parents be citizens in order to confer citizenship on a child, and that persons seeking to prove citizenship through their own or their parents' residency in 1958 be able to prove residency in the country at that time. In many cases, persons were unable to produce the documentation necessary, such as land tax receipts from 1958, to show residency nearly 30 years before. The law permits residents who lost citizenship under the 1985 law to apply for naturalization if they can prove residence during the 15 years prior to that time. The Government declared all residents who could not meet the new citizenship requirements to be illegal immigrants.

The 1985 Citizenship Act also provides for the revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who "has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the King, country, and people of Bhutan." The Home Ministry, in a circular notification in 1990, advised that "any Bhutanese nationals leaving the country to assist and help the antinationals shall no longer be considered as Bhutanese citizens...such people's family members living in the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship." Human rights groups allege that these provisions were used widely to revoke the citizenship of ethnic Nepalese who subsequently were expelled or otherwise departed from the country. Beginning in 1988, the Government expelled large numbers of ethnic Nepalese through enforcement of the new citizenship laws.

Outraged by what they saw as a campaign of repression, ethnic Nepalese mounted a series of demonstrations, sometimes violent, in September 1990. The protests were spearheaded by the newly formed Bhutan People's Party, which demanded full citizenship rights for ethnic Nepalese, the reintroduction of Nepali as a medium of education in the south, and democratic reforms. Characterizing the BPP as a "terrorist" movement backed by Indian sympathizers, the authorities cracked down on its activities and ordered the closure of local Nepalese schools, clinics, and development programs after several were raided or bombed by dissidents. Many ethnic Nepalese schools reportedly were turned into Army barracks. There were credible reports that many ethnic Nepalese activists were beaten and tortured while in custody, and that security forces committed acts of rape. There also were credible reports that militants, including BPP members, attacked and killed census officers and other officials, and engaged in bombings. Local officials took advantage of the climate of repression to coerce ethnic Nepalese to sell their land below its fair value and to emigrate.

Beginning in 1991, ethnic Nepalese began to leave southern areas of the country in large numbers and take refuge in Nepal. Many were expelled forcibly. According to Amnesty International, entire villages sometimes were evicted en masse in retaliation for an attack on a local government official. Many ethnic Nepalese were forced to sign "voluntary migration forms" wherein they agreed to leave the country, after local officials threatened to fine or imprison them for failing to comply. By August 1991, according to NGO reports, 2,500 refugees already were camped illegally in Nepal, with a steady stream still coming from Bhutan. The UNHCR began providing food and shelter in September of that year, and by year's end, there were 6,000 refugees in Nepal. The number of registered refugees grew to approximately 62,000 by August 1992, and to approximately 80,000 by June 1993, when the UNHCR began individual screening of refugees. The flow slowed considerably thereafter; there were no new refugee arrivals from Bhutan to the camps during the year. According to UNHCR, there were 98,269 ethnic Nepalese refugees in 7 refugee camps in eastern Nepal, as of June 30. Much of this increase since 1993 is the result of births to residents of the camps. An additional 15,000 refugees, according to UNHCR estimates, are living outside the camps in Nepal and India.

Ethnic Nepalese political groups in exile complain that the revision of the country's citizenship laws in 1985 denaturalized tens of thousands of former residents of Bhutan. They also complain that the new laws have been applied selectively and make unfair demands for documentation on a largely illiterate group in a country that only recently has adopted basic administrative procedures. They claim that many ethnic Nepalese whose families have been in the country for generations were expelled in the early 1990's because they were unable to document their claims to residence. The Government denies this and asserts that a three-member village committee – typically ethnic Nepalese in southern districts – certifies in writing that a resident is a Bhutanese citizen in cases where documents cannot be produced.

The Government maintains that many of those who departed the country in 1991-92 were Nepalese or Indian citizens who came to the country after the enactment of the 1958 Citizenship law but were not detected until a census in 1988. The Government also claims that many persons registered in the camps as refugees may never have resided in the country. A royal decree in 1991 made forcible expulsion of a citizen a criminal offense. In a January 1992 edict, the King noted reports that officials had been forcing Bhutanese nationals to leave the country but stressed that this was a serious and punishable violation of law. Nevertheless, only three officials ever were punished for abusing their authority during this period (see Section 1.c.). According to the UNHCR, the overwhelming majority of refugees who have entered the camps since screening began in June 1993 have documentary proof of Bhutanese nationality. Random checks and surveys of camp residents – including both pre- and post-June 1993 arrivals – bear this out. The Government contends that some ethnic Nepalese left the country voluntarily, thus renouncing their Bhutanese citizenship. However, human rights organizations credibly dispute this claim.

A Nepal-Bhutan ministerial committee met seven times between 1994 and 1996, and a secretarial-level committee met twice in 1997 in efforts to resolve the Bhutanese refugee problem. In 1998 Foreign Minister Jigme Thinley took office with a mandate to resolve the refugee issue, and several meetings were held with representatives of the Nepalese Government, the UNHCR, and NGO's. However, the dialog lost momentum in 1998 and was suspended by the Bhutanese Government pending the formation of a new government in Nepal in 1999. After a 3-year hiatus, the foreign ministers of Nepal and Bhutan met in September 1999 in Kathmandu to resume discussions on the refugee issue. Bilateral and multilateral discussions have continued, including a ninth round of ministerial level talks held in May. During the year, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata visited the country, as did at least one high-ranking foreign official. In late December, Bhutan and Nepal agreed upon a system to verify the nationality of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal in preparation for their for return to Bhutan. Refugee verifications were scheduled to begin in January 2001. At year's end, approximately 98,000 Bhutanese refugees remained in Nepal. The resettlement of persons onto the land once occupied by refugees continues to represent an obstacle to a negotiated resolution of the refugee problem.

In March 1996, refugees began a series of "peace marches" from Nepal to Bhutan to assert their right to return to Bhutan. Bhutanese police immediately detained and deported the marchers who crossed into Bhutan in August, November, and December 1996. In the December 1996 incident, police reportedly used force against the marchers. Such marches also were held in 1998 and 1999; the marchers charge that the police assaulted them during each march, injuring several demonstrators, and then arrested and deported all marchers. A resolution adopted by the National Assembly in July 1997 prohibits the still-resident family members of ethnic Nepalese refugees from holding jobs with the Government or in the armed forces. Under the resolution, those holding such jobs were to be retired involuntarily. The Government made clear that for the purposes of this resolution, a family member would be defined as a parent, a child, a sibling, or a member of the same household. The Government states that 429 civil servants, many of them ethnic Nepalese, were retired compulsorily in accordance with the July 1997 National Assembly resolution, and that the program was terminated in November. The Government states that those forced to retire were accorded retirement benefits in proportion to their years of government service. The Government also began a program of resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other regions of the country on land in the southern part of the country vacated by the ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in Nepal. Human rights groups maintain that this action prejudices any eventual outcome of negotiations over the return of the refugees to the country. The Government maintains that this is not its first resettlement program and that Bhutanese citizens who are ethnic Nepalese from the south sometimes are resettled on more fertile land in other parts of the country. The failure of the Government to permit the return of ethnic Nepalese refugees has tended to reinforce societal prejudices against this group, as has the Government's policy on forced retirement of refugee family members in government service and the resettlement of Buddhists on land vacated by expelled ethnic Nepalese in the south.

6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Trade unions are not permitted, and there are no labor unions. Workers do not have the right to strike, and the Government is not a member of the International Labor Organization.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no collective bargaining in industry. Industry accounts for about 25 percent of the GDP, but employs only a minute fraction of the total work force. The Government affects wages in the manufacturing sector through its control over wages in state-owned industries.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Government abolished its system of compulsory labor taxes in December 1995. Laborers in rural development schemes previously paid through this system now are paid regular wages. There is no evidence to suggest that domestic workers are subjected to coerced or bonded labor. The law does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 18 years for citizens and 20 years for noncitizens. A UNICEF study suggested that children as young as 11 years sometimes are employed with road-building teams. The Government provides free and compulsory primary school education, and 72 percent of the school-aged population is enrolled (see Section 5). Children often do agricultural work and chores on family farms. There is no law barring ethnic Nepalese children from attending school. However, most of the 75 primary schools in southern areas heavily populated by ethnic Nepalese that were closed in 1990 remain closed today. The closure of the schools acts as an effective barrier to the ability of the ethnic Nepalese in southern areas to obtain a primary education. In the early 1990's, children who failed their school examinations were compelled to join the armed forces (despite the fact that the minimum age of recruitment is age 18). This practice of conscription has ended. The law does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur (see Section 6.c.). e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A circular effective in February 1994 established wage rates, rules and regulations for labor recruiting agencies, and regulations for payment of workmen's compensation. Wage rates are revised periodically, and range upward from a minimum of roughly $1.50 (50 ngultrums) per day for unskilled and skilled laborers, with various allowances paid in cash or kind in addition. This minimum wage provides a decent standard of living for a worker and family in the local context. The workday is defined as 8 hours with a 1-hour lunch break. Work in excess of this must be paid at one and one-half times normal rates. Workers paid on a monthly basis are entitled to 1 day's paid leave for 6 days of work and 15 days of leave annually. The largest salaried work force is the government service, which has an administered wage structure last revised in 1988 but supplemented by special allowances and increases since then, including a 25 percent increase in July 1997. Only about 30 industrial plants employ more than 50 workers. Smaller industrial units include 69 plants of medium size, 197 small units, 692 "mini" units, and 651 cottage industry units. The Government favors a family-owned farm policy; this, along with the country's rugged geography, and land laws that prohibit a farmer from selling his last 5 acres and that require the sale of holdings in excess of 25 acres, result in a predominantly self-employed agricultural work force. Workers are entitled to free medical care within the country. They are eligible for compensation for partial or total disability, and in the event of death, their families are entitled to compensation. Existing labor regulations do not grant workers the right to remove themselves from work situations that endanger health and safety without jeopardizing their continued employment.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law does not prohibit trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, within, or through the country.

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