Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

Political life in Suriname, which gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, continues under the shadow of the February 25, 1980 military coup, led by Sergeant Desire Bouterse, and the December 8-10, 1982 execution of fifteen opponents of the regime. In overthrowing the civilian government, Bouterse, who became commander-in-chief of the army and assumed the rank of lieutenant colonel, suspended the Constitution and installed a succession of civilian figureheads as president. The executions, at military headquarters in the capital of Paramaribo, eliminated fifteen of the country's most prominent citizens.

As a result of the killings, the Netherlands suspended its substantial aid program, and the United States ended the $1 million per year which it had been providing. The traumatic effect of the killings, which horrified Suriname's small, close-knit society, can be seen, in the view of many observers, in the later civilian government's lack of political will to exert control over the army.

In 1987, a new Constitution was approved by the National Assembly and a popular referendum. Articles 177 and 178, which give the army the function of "guaranteeing the conditions in which the Surinamese people can carry out and consolidate a peaceful transition to a democratic and socially just society," have been cited by the military to justify a continuing presence in politics.

Elections were held pursuant to the new Constitution in November 1987. Generally viewed as free and fair, the elections brought to power a civilian government dominated by a coalition of traditional ethnic-based parties, called the Front for Democracy and Development. The Front won forty of the fifty-one seats in the National Assembly, while the party affiliated with the military, the National Democratic Party (NDP), captured only three seats.

Despite this decisive mandate, the Front government was widely perceived as corrupt and reluctant to confront the military. The army, still under Colonel Bouterse, retained de facto control of the country. In December 1990, ostensibly because the civilian president did not react strongly enough to what Colonel Bouterse perceived to be insulting treatment by the Dutch, the army once again overthrew the civilian government and installed an interim government.

From 1987 to 1990, during the period of nominal civilian rule, the military engaged in numerous human rights abuses, both in the undeveloped interior and in Paramaribo, the capital. Violence in Paramaribo was directed particularly against members of the civilian police force who attempted to enforce the law against military personnel. These attacks included arson against police stations and drive-by shootings aimed at particular police officers. In August 1990, Police Inspector Herman Gooding was murdered under circumstances that strongly indicate military complicity, apparently in the course of investigating military involvement in narcotics.

Violent abuses were most frequent in Suriname's interior. In various attempts to suppress an anti-Bouterse insurgency group called the Jungle Command, which formed following the 1980 coup, the army often launched harsh attacks against noncombatants. Military raids on villages in the interior resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. Leaders of an Amerindian insurrection disappeared while in military custody in February 1990.

The situation in the interior worsened with the emergence of several armed groups that purport to be insurgents but almost certainly are proxies of the military. These groups engage in indiscriminate killing and robbery of civilians. In January 1990, the largest and most active of the groups, the Tucayana Amazonas, held a televised press conference in Colonel Bouterse's office and threatened by name Police Inspector Gooding before his murder.

Due to the fighting, thousands of Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) and Amerindians have fled the interior to Paramaribo, other parts of Suriname, and neighboring French Guiana. Thousands of refugees are currently in camps in French Guiana.

In July 1989, the Jungle Command reached a peace agreement with the civilian government. However, in an indication of the civilian government's relative power, Colonel Bouterse effectively shelved the agreement by denouncing it as unconstitutional. Although former elements of the Jungle Command insurgency are now allied with the army, with the remaining active insurgents mostly in French Guiana, Colonel Bouterse has cited a supposed continuing insurgent threat to justify an ongoing military presence in the interior. The presence facilitates military involvement in drug trafficking which, considerable evidence shows, has grown rapidly in the last three years. Because military personnel are exempt from the jurisdiction of the civilian police or courts, army traffickers, as well as military abusers of human rights, have enjoyed total impunity.

On May 25, 1991, another election was held, amidst widespread popular doubts that elections would alter the balance of power. The Front, renamed the New Front, won thirty seats; the NDP, twelve seats; and a new opposition party, Democratic Alternative '91, nine seats. About sixty-four percent of the electorate went to the polls.

Again, the election was found to have been essentially free and fair by the international observers in attendance, with little overt intimidation of the opposition during the campaign. However, Americas Watch found that the opposition politicians felt free to address the issue of civilian control of the military only tangentially, through the surrogate issue of whether to seek closer ties to the Netherlands.

Because the National Assembly was unable to elect a president by the requisite two-thirds majority, the decision went to the People's Assembly, made up of the National Assembly and the various New Front-dominated regional assemblies. On September 6, the People's Assembly elected by an eighty-percent majority Ronald Venetiaan, a member of the New Front and the minister of education in the civilian government toppled by the 1990 coup. Venetiaan is regarded as honest and more forceful than the previous civilian president.

Although newly elected members of the National Assembly belonging to Democratic Alternative have expressed the opinion that "nothing has changed," there has been some positive activity. Under Venetiaan, the government has announced its intention to cut the military's budget and to reorganize its functions, including transferring responsibility for immigration to the civilian police.

In September, President Ventiaan addressed the United Nations, pledging to amend the Constitution "within the shortest possible time." A number of constitutional amendments, including revisions of Articles 177 and 178, have been proposed to the State Council, an advisory body with the role of reviewing legislation, but the amendments have not yet reached the National Assembly.

In the same speech, President Ventiaan also pledged to fight drug trafficking. While few concrete steps have yet to be taken, Suriname in November signed a protocol of future cooperation with the Netherlands, which includes a provision for cooperation in fighting drug trafficking. The Dutch have agreed to restore some aid, including assistance to the judiciary and the police, with the rest of the aid conditioned on structural changes.

The result of these pledges has been a growing tension between the army and the civilian government. Since the government has not yet acted on its announced intentions, it is uncertain to what degree the army will resist further incursions on its prerogatives. A round of talks took place between the new government and the military leadership in October, at about the same time that the new constitutional amendments were proposed. In early November, after the talks, the military issued a curious statement essentially declaring that the military was an organ of the state charged with defense of the national sovereignty and implying that, as such, it reported only to the supreme commander – i.e., the president – and would not take orders from others. This was regarded by some as a refusal to accept the authority of the defense minister. The statement was described by one observer as "superficially compliant" but essentially defiant.

Colonel Bouterse himself also has adopted a defiant posture. He allowed the press to film and report on a speech that he made to his troops, against the explicit instructions of the defense minister. He also threatened to sue The Washington Post over an article on drug trafficking in Suriname.

The human rights situation since the election is substantially unchanged. In the interior, armed groups allied with the military continue to engage in violence against civilians. There are reports of car hijackings, thievery, and kidnappings for ransom. Some diplomatic observers worry that the situation in the interior may soon escalate. In addition, a policeman was murdered in the town of Moengo in November; the lead suspect is a former member of the Jungle Command who is now apparently in the Netherlands. Various sources said that the policeman's murder is believed to be politically motivated, but the situation remains unclear.

There has been some activity on the international level regarding human rights in Suriname. In the fall of 1991, Amos Wako, the U.N. special rapporteur on summary or arbitrary executions, sent a letter to the Surinamese government asking for an explanation of the murder of Police Inspector Gooding. The government has not yet responded.

Two human rights cases involving Suriname are currently before the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Court on Human Rights. In one of the cases, according to the lawyer representing Suriname before the Court, the Surinamese government has conceded responsibility to provide compensation to the families of victims of several military raids on the village of Pokigron, and will allow the Court to determine the amount owed. The Pokigron incidents, which took place in 1987 and 1989, resulted in numerous civilian deaths and the virtual destruction of the village.

The second case involves the November 1988 death of Gangaram Panday, a Surinamese whose body was found in a military police cell in the airport at Paramaribo upon his return to Suriname from the Netherlands. The military and the government assert that Panday committed suicide by hanging himself; others claim that he was murdered while in custody. The Surinamese government defended itself before the Court by arguing that the deceased was not a victim of homicide, that domestic remedies were not exhausted, and that the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had not handled the case in accordance with the rules set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights. In early December, the Court rejected Suriname's preliminary objections and will consider the case on the merits sometime in 1992.

The Right to Monitor

An Americas Watch mission that visited Suriname shortly before the May election encountered no overt discouragement or intimidation. However, it did find a reluctance on the part of higher-ranking members of the military to speak to the mission.

The situation is more hostile for domestic human rights monitors. In December 1989, an attempt was made to assassinate Stanley Rensch, Suriname's most prominent human rights activist, under circumstance that strongly suggest army involvement. Rensch fortuitously escaped unharmed and there were no further attempts on his life, but he is often under military surveillance. Other members of Rensch's organization, Moiwana '86, have also encountered intimidation, including anonymous phone calls in which the caller imitates the noise of a gun shot. In 1989, two members of Moiwana were forced to leave the country and remain in the Netherlands. In a speech in November 1991, Colonel Bouterse made veiled threats against Ilse Labadie of the Organization for Justice and Peace, and a public prosecutor named Van Der San.54

U.S. Policy

The Bush Administration strongly condemned the December 1990 coup and suspended aid to Suriname. It also pressed for the May 25 elections to be free and fair.

For example, in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs on April 18, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson said:

We deplore the December military coup in Suriname that overthrew a democratically elected government. We urge the interim government in Paramaribo to keep its pledge to hold free and fair elections on May 25, to make them open to full international observation, and to respect the results.

Following the elections, the State Department expressed strong support for efforts by the civilian government to exert control over the military. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs on June 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Sally Cowal warned:

We strongly endorse the right of the democratic forces to form a government and to rule unimpeded by the military. Bouterse's unbroken record of violence and intimidation against civilian authority, however, cause doubt that he will respect the popular will. I would note, however, that at the General Assembly of the OAS in Santiago earlier this month, all 34 nations unanimously adopted a resolution that calls for an automatic meeting of foreign ministers should any democratically elected government in the Hemisphere be overthrown. Anyone contemplating such an act in Suriname will face a united hemisphere committed to restoring democracy....

We intend, in conjunction with other interested governments, to offer every encouragement and support to democratic forces in Suriname.

A resumption of a certain amount of nonmilitary aid is reportedly under discussion as a means of strengthening the Venetiaan government. However, Secretaries Aronson and Cowal both indicated in their testimony that Suriname's role as a drug trafficking center remains a source of concern to the United States.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch sent a mission to Suriname in April 1991 to investigate pre-election conditions. A report of its findings was issued in mid-May, shortly before the election took place. The report received extensive press coverage in the Netherlands which, because of its past colonial relationship and potential aid commitment, is the most important external source of leverage on the Surinamese government.

Threatened at the same time was Dr. Jules Sedney, former general director of the Central Bank of Suriname.

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