U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Djibouti

DJIBOUTI   Despite 1992 constitutional changes that permitted the creation of four political parties, President Hassan Gouled Aptidon and the People's Rally for Progress (RPP), in power since independence in 1977, continued to rule the country. Djibouti's two main ethnic groups are the politically predominant Issa (the tribe of the President, which is of Somali origin) and the Afar (who are also numerous in Ethiopia and Eritrea). The Afar comprise the largest single tribe in Djibouti but are outnumbered by the Issa and other Somali clans (Issak and Gadabursi) taken together. In December 1994, the Government and the Afar-led Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) signed a peace accord, ending 3 years of civil war. As part of the accord, the Government agreed to recognize the FRUD as a legitimate political party, but the FRUD did not seek formal recognition. However, in June the Government named two FRUD leaders to key cabinet posts. The other two officially recognized opposition parties, The Party for Democratic Renewal (PRD) and the National Democratic Party (PND), do not hold parliamentary seats, in large part because the PND boycotted the December 1992 legislative elections. As a result, the RPP won all 65 parliamentary seats and, with the reelection of President Gouled in May 1993, now holds all significant government posts as well. In January the national security force and the police merged to form the 8,000-member National Police Force (FNP). The FNP has primary responsibility for internal security and border control and is overseen by the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry of Defense controls the army and the gendarmerie, and a small intelligence bureau reports directly to the President. Civilian authorities generally maintain effective control of the security forces, but there were instances in which the security forces acted independently of government authority (see Sections l.a. and 1.c.), and some members committed a number of human rights abuses. Djibouti has little industry; services and commerce provide most of the national income, which is largely generated by the large foreign expatriate community of 12,000, including 3,300 French soldiers, and the state-controlled maritime and commercial activities of the port of Djibouti, the airport, and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad. Only a few mineral deposits exist in the country, and the arid soil is unproductive--only 10 percent is pasture and 1 percent is forested. People are free to pursue private business interests and to hold personal and real property. That part of the gross national product which benefits only Djiboutians (and thus excludes the expatriates) is estimated at about $250 per capita. The Government's human rights record did not improve despite the introduction of a new Constitution in 1992 and a limited multiparty political system. Citizens have not yet been fully allowed to change their government. The judiciary is not independent of the executive. The Government permitted increased freedom of the press but cracked down heavily on union leaders during a protracted strike triggered by the Government's austerity plan. The Government continued arbitrarily to arrest and detain persons beyond the 48 hours permitted by law. There were credible reports that security forces beat criminal detainees. Discrimination against women persists, and the practice of female genital mutilation continued to be a problem, especially in rural areas.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including

Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were political undertones, possibly involving government forces, in the June assassination of Randa's religious leader, Ali Houmed Souleh, and an associate, Said Aramis. The official newspaper indicated that the clerics may have been murdered because they had threatened to press charges against some soldiers for alleged rape. While Tadjourah's District Commissioner denied such a connection, others including Mohamed Houmed Souleh, the President of the Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Liberties (ADHRL), and also the brother of the religious leader, blamed government forces and speculated that the killers wanted to undermine the government-sponsored peace process. At year's end, the Government continued to hold 11 soldiers pending the outcome of an official investigation. Also with possible political implications, there was serious fighting in June between former FRUD fighters, resulting in several deaths. Some former FRUD fighters reportedly had become disenchanted with the relatively slow process of their integration into the armed forces and confronted another faction of former FRUD combatants.

b. Disappearance

There were no known reports of politically motivated disappearances. However, in August a group of armed men abducted five persons in the north. They released one of the men when he identified himself as a FRUD member. Government officials claimed to know the whereabouts of the other men but had not secured their release or provided details by year's end. Also, in November unknown persons kidnaped a traditional Afar Chief at Alalli Dada. At year's end, the Chief's whereabouts remained unknown.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading

Treatment or Punishment The Constitution states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to other inhuman, cruel, degrading, or humiliating punishments. Torture is punishable by 15 years in prison. However, there were credible reports that police and prison officials sometimes beat and otherwise physically abused prisoners and detainees. In September the newspaper of the opposition National Democratic Party reported that police held PND member, Dirieh Darar Farah, for 6 days without charge. While in detention, the police reportedly kicked, punched, and struck him with pickaxe handles. Before fainting, he remembered the authorities warning him, "not to contradict the President's will." During the government crackdown on striking teachers in September, the police raided the office of the primary school teachers' union and beat union president Mohamed Nasser Abbas. The human rights group ADHRL alleges continued involvement of government forces in the rape of Afar women and girls. Prison conditions are harsh and characterized by severe overcrowding. A prison built for 300 persons has more than twice that many inmates, including 30 women. Reportedly, prisoners must pay authorities to obtain food. Reports also indicate that illegal aliens jailed for crimes sometimes have young children with them. In a prison visit, one diplomatic official saw a child under the age of 10. There were, however, no reports of abuses leading to the deaths of prisoners or rape of female prisoners. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff no longer reside in Djibouti. When present, they normally had access to all prisoners. An ICRC representative from Nairobi visited the main prison in Djibouti in 1995.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The 1994 Penal Code stipulates that the State may not detain a person beyond 48 hours without an examining magistrate's formal charge. Detainees may be held another 48 hours with the prior approval of Djibouti's public prosecutor. Persons charged with political or national security offenses may be detained as long as an investigation is underway. Nevertheless, the police often disregarded these procedures, normally arresting persons without warrants and sometimes detaining persons for lengthy periods. In September work stoppages and protests related to the Government's new austerity measures prompted the police to arrest several labor leaders and an estimated two dozen secondary school teachers and parents of school children. Credible reports indicated that the authorities made at least 100 arbitrary arrests and detained some parents for at least 5 days. Among those arrested were Kamil Diraneh Hared, Secretary General of the General Union of Djiboutian Workers (UGTD), Ahmed Djama Egueh, President of the Djiboutian Labor Union (UDT). The official newspaper reported that the two labor leaders were arrested for inciting mob violence and organizing illegal demonstrations (see Section 2.b.). Although the unions are formally independent, the Government forced the dismissal of both men from their positions. The police also arrested several members of a parents' organization, including Houssein Robleh, the group's president, and detained them at a police camp near the capital city. In October the Government arrested opposition PND leader, Aden Robleh Awaleh, and party spokesman Farah Ali Waberi, for violating a civil order not to stage a demonstration. Both men subsequently received suspended 1-month sentences. There were no developments in the cases of alleged terrorists Awalle Guelle Assone and Mohamed Hassan Farah, who were arrested in 1994 for the 1990 bombing of a cafe. The Government's investigation into their role in the attack was ongoing at year's end. The agreement signed with the FRUD in December 1994 granted amnesty to all FRUD militants.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary and magistrates are appointed for life terms. However, in practice the judiciary is not independent although the constitutional provisions for a fair trial are generally respected in nonpolitical cases. In June the Government took steps to strengthen the rule of law by disbanding the special State Security Court which in the past handled cases of espionage, treason, and acts threatening the public order or "the interest of the Republic" outside normal judicial channels. Another special court, the Superior Court of Justice, rules on cases of embezzlement of public funds and is theoretically empowered to try the President and government ministers. The Supreme Court is the only judicial body which can overrule decisions from the lower courts. A Constitutional Council rules on the constitutionality of laws, including those related to the protection of human rights and civil liberties. The legal system is composed of legislation and executive decrees, French codified law adopted at independence, Shari'a (Islamic) law, and traditions of the native nomadic peoples. Crimes committed in urban centers are dealt with in accordance with French-inspired law and judicial practice in the regular courts. Civil actions may be brought in these courts or in the traditional courts. Shari'a law is restricted to civil and family matters. The Constitution states that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, has the right to legal counsel, and the right to be examined by a doctor if imprisoned. Legal counsel is available to the indigent in criminal and civil matters. Court cases are heard in public before a presiding judge and two accompanying judges. The latter receive assistance from two persons--assessors--who are not members of the bench, but who possess enough sophistication to comprehend legal proceedings. The Government selects the assessors from the public at large, and credible reports indicate that political and ethnic affiliations may play a role in the appointment process. There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

Correspondence The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the family, home, correspondence, and communications. The law also requires that the authorities obtain a warrant before conducting searches on private property. However, in practice the Government does not always obtain warrants before conducting such searches, and it monitors the communications of some regime opponents (see Section 1.d.). In October several persons were slightly injured when national police and army troops forcibly drove out several hundred squatters from an area in Balbala.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of the press, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government owns the electronic media, the most important medium for reaching the public, as well as the principal weekly newspaper, La Nation. The official media generally do not criticize the President or the Government. There are several opposition-run weekly and monthly publications which circulate freely and openly criticize the Government. The Government does not interfere with foreign broadcasts or prevent the distribution of foreign publications. There are no specific laws or other criminal sanctions that threaten academic freedom. In general, teachers may speak and conduct research without restriction as long as they do not violate the laws on sedition.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The right to free assembly is provided for in the Constitution, and the Government generally respected this right. However, the Ministry of Interior requires permits for peaceful assembly and monitors opposition activities. In September the authorities arrested labor leaders and others, in part for alleged illegal demonstrations (see Sections 1.d. and 6.a.). Some opposition leaders effectively practiced self-censorship and, rather than provoke a government crackdown, refrained from organizing popular demonstrations. The Constitution provides for four political parties. Nonpolitical associations must register with the Ministry of the Interior in accordance with a preindependence law.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion. Virtually the entire population is Sunni Muslim. The Government imposes no sanctions on those who choose to ignore Islamic teachings. The foreign community supports Roman Catholic, French Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Foreign clergy and missionaries may perform charitable works but proselytizing, while not illegal, is discouraged.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign

Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation The Constitution allows freedom of movement. This right may be only limited by law. Although the insurgency is over, travel north of Tadjourah and west of Dikhil is prohibited without government authorization. In general, Djiboutians may travel or emigrate to foreign countries without restriction or interference. However, some Afar leaders have had their passports revoked or have been denied passports, and Muslim women planning to travel to certain Gulf countries may be prohibited from doing so unless accompanied by a spouse or an adult male. Djibouti hosts almost 75,000 refugees and illegal immigrants, according to government sources. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges only the presence of some 23,000 refugees, largely from Somalia and Ethiopia, resident in three main refugee camps. Since late 1994, the Government in cooperation with the UNHCR has been moving illegal residents to refugee camps for repatriation to Ethiopia. A similar repatriation of Somalis to northwest Somalia has been delayed because of sporadic fighting in Somaliland. An estimated 10,000 to 18,000 Afars displaced by the civil war continue to live in Ethiopia, though not in refugee camps. The Government states that the Afars are welcome to return, but it suspects that FRUD agitators are persuading the refugees not to return home. Afar refugees also perceive the northern region as being unsafe. In March the Government expelled several hundred Ethiopians, some of whom had been long-term illegal residents in Djibouti.

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

Although the 1992 Constitution provides for the right of citizens to change their government, in practice citizens have not yet been fully allowed to exercise this right. The RPP has carefully controlled the implementation of the new four-party system, and, with the opposition largely refusing to participate, easily ensured total RPP control of the legislature in 1992 and President Gouled's reelection to a fourth term in 1993. Many Afars, particularly supporters of the FRUD, claim that the Constitution was crafted to ensure the President's domination of virtually all aspects of the Government, including the legislature and judiciary. The Government signed a peace agreement with the FRUD in December 1994 which set the stage for the inclusion of FRUD members in senior government posts. In June the Government named two FRUD faction leaders who signed the peace accord to a newly reshuffled Cabinet. Although the agreement provided for the recognition of the FRUD as a political party, by year's end the FRUD had yet to begin the registration process. Although legally entitled to participate in the political process, women are largely excluded from senior positions in government and in the political parties. There are no women in the Cabinet or in Parliament. The highest ranking woman in the country is Mrs. Khadija Abebe, President of the Court of Appeals. At least three other women serve as judges, and one is a director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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

The Government has been hostile to the formation of local human rights groups. In the case of the Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Liberties (ADHRL), in 1993 the Government imprisoned its leader, Mohamed Houmed Souleh, after he criticized military abuses in the civil conflict, and in 1995 continued to deny the ADHRL recognition. Nevertheless, the ADDHL continued to function during the year with Souleh as its head. No other known human rights groups exist, and, except for the ICRC, no international human rights group visited the country in 1995 (see Section 1.c.).

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,

Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of language, race, sex, or religion, but discrimination against women and ethnic minorities is widespread. In particular, enforcement of laws to protect women and children is weak.


Violence against women exists but does not appear to be a major problem. The Government has been concerned about the problem of rape and included in the new 1994 Penal Code stiff sentences for rape ranging up to 20 years in prison. However, there have been no cases tried under the new Code. When violence against women does occur, it normally is dealt with within the family or clan structure rather than in the courts. The police rarely interfere in domestic violence cases, and the media cover only the most extreme cases, such as murder. Women legally possess full civil rights, but in practice, due to traditional societal discrimination in education and custom, play a secondary role in public life and do not have the same employment opportunities as men. With only a few women in the professions, women are largely confined to wage employment in small trade as well as in the clerical and secretarial fields. Customary law discriminates against women in such areas as inheritance, divorce, property ownership, and travel. As the French-inspired Legal Code does not sanction such discrimination, educated women increasingly seek to defend their interests through the regular courts.


The Government devotes virtually no public resources to the advancement of children's rights and welfare. A few charitable organizations work with children. According to an independent expert, as many as 98 percent of Djiboutian females 7 years or older have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. In Djibouti FGM is generally performed on girls between the ages of 7 and 10. In 1988 the Djiboutian National Women's Union began an educational campaign against FGM, particularly infibulation, the most extensive and dangerous form of sexual mutilation. The campaign has had only marginal impact on this custom, which is pervasive in rural areas. Judicial reforms enacted in 1991 stipulate that anyone found guilty of genital mutilation of young girls may face a heavy fine and 5 years in prison. However, the Government has not convicted anyone under this statute or under the provisions of the new Penal Code which entered into force in April and specifically prohibits FGM. The Government has not specifically addressed other forms of child abuse, which are often lightly punished. For example, when a child is raped or otherwise abused, the perpetrator is usually fined an amount sufficient to cover medical care given to the injured child. The Government has not as yet used provisions of the new Penal Code to deal more stiffly with other domestic violence and child abuse.

People With Disabilities

The Government does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for people with disabilities. Although disabled persons have access to education and public health facilities, there is no specific legislation that addresses their needs, and there are no laws or regulations which prevent job discrimination against disabled people. The disabled find it difficult to find employment in an economy where approximately 60 percent of the able-bodied male adult population is underemployed or jobless.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government continued to discriminate against citizens on the basis of ethnicity in terms of employment and advancement. The Issa (the dominant Somali clan in Djibouti) control the ruling party, the civil and security services, and the military. The President's subclan, the Mamassan, is particularly strong and wields disproportionate power in the affairs of state.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Under the Constitution, workers are free to join unions and to strike provided they comply with legally prescribed requirements. In the small wage economy, about 70 percent of workers are union members, concentrated in individual private or state-owned enterprises. Previously, the Government exerted control over individual unions by making membership mandatory in the state-organized labor confederation, the General Union of Djiboutian Workers (UGTD). Since 1992 unions are free to join or form other confederations. While the UGTD is now nominally independent of the Government, it still has close ties to the RPP. However, the Democratic Labor Union (UDT) has gained increasing union support despite government harassment. The prescribed legal requirement for initiating a strike calls for the representatives of employees who plan to do so to contact the Interior Ministry 48 hours in advance. All strikes in 1995 were legal. In February secondary school teachers struck unsuccessfully over nonpayment of salaries and for better benefits. In September civil servants and school teachers struck to protest the Government's austerity measures, including the elimination of free housing for government employees. Although the Labor Law prohibits employer retribution against strikers, the unions claimed that the Government arbitrarily arrested several hundred striking workers, including labor leaders, then suspended or fired them from their jobs. The Government said that the unions, for political ends, exaggerated the number of arrests but insisted that tough measures were necessary to discourage further work stoppages (see Section 1.d.). The Government has not replied to the International Labor Organization (ILO) concerning a complaint lodged by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1994. The ICFTU alleges that on October 4, 1994, the police searched UDT headquarters without a warrant, arrested and detained two union leaders, and assaulted a trade unionist. UDT headquarters have remained sealed since the government action. In June the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association deplored the arrests of union leaders and urged the Government to investigate the assault on the trade unionist, punish those responsible, and allow UDT members free access to their headquarters. Unions are free to maintain relations and exchanges with labor organizations abroad. The UDT has been a member of the ICFTU since 1994.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Although labor has the right to organize and bargain collectively, collective bargaining rarely occurs. Relations between employers and workers are informal and paternalistic. Wages are generally established unilaterally by employers on the basis of Ministry of Labor guidelines. When disputes about wages or health and safety issues arise, the Ministry of Labor encourages direct, ad hoc resolution by labor representatives and employers. Workers or employers may request formal administrative hearings before the Ministry of Labor's inspection service. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination against employees, and employers guilty of such discrimination are legally required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The Ministry generally enforces the law. An export processing zone (EPZ) was established in December 1994. Firms in the EPZ are exempt from the Government's social security and medical insurance programs. Instead, they must provide either government or private accident insurance. The minimum wage in the EPZ, which is stated on a weekly basis, comes to 0.43 cents per hour. Elsewhere, it is calculated on a monthly basis and comes to 0.44 cents per hour. The regular workweek is 40 hours, while in the EPZ it is 45 hours. An employee having worked for the same firm in the EPZ for at least 1 year has the right to 15 days annual leave compared to 30 days in the rest of the country (see also Section 6.e.).

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and while this is generally observed, security forces sometimes compel illegal immigrants to work for them in lieu of deportation.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for the employment of children is 14 years, and the law is generally respected. However, the shortage of labor inspectors reduces the likelihood of investigations ever being carried out, according to union sources. Children are generally not employed under hazardous conditions. Children may and do work in family owned businesses, such as restaurants and small shops, at all hours. Many street beggars are young children whose parents have forced them to beg to help support the family.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Only a small minority of the population is engaged in wage employment. The Government administratively sets minimum wage rates according to occupational categories, and the Ministry of Labor is charged with enforcement. Last raised in 1982, the minimum monthly wage rate is approximately $200 (35,900 Djiboutian francs) for a 12-hour day of unskilled labor. Many workers also receive housing and transportation allowances. Even with these fringe benefits, however, the minimum wage does not provide adequate compensation for a worker and family to maintain a decent standard of living. By law, the workweek is 40 hours, often spread over 6 days. Workers are guaranteed daily and weekly rest periods and paid annual leave. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing occupational health and safety standards, wages, and work hours. Because enforcement is ineffective, workers sometimes face hazardous working conditions, particularly at the port. Workers rarely protest as they fear replacement by others willing to accept the risks. There are no laws or regulations permitting workers to refuse to carry out dangerous work assignments without jeopardy to continued employment.

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