U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Suriname


After over a decade of predominantly military rule, Suriname installed a freely elected Parliament and inaugurated a democratically chosen president in 1991. Another free and fair election was held in May 1996, but no candidate was able to secure the two-thirds majority of the 51-member National Assembly necessary to elect a president. In accordance with the Constitution, an 836-member United People's Assembly, a broadly representative, democratically chosen body, then voted in Jules Wijdenbosch of the National Democratic Party (NDP) as President in September 1996. Wijdenbosch formed a cabinet from members of the NDP, the ethnic-Hindustani Grassroots Party for Renewal and Democracy, the ethnic-Javanese KTPI party, and several smaller political parties. Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, an ongoing dispute between the previously sitting judges and a new slate Wijdenbosch appointed has damaged severely the concept of an independent judiciary. As a result, the effectiveness of the courts is even more limited in practice.

The armed forces are responsible for national security and border and immigration control and are under the control of the civilian Minister of Defense. Civilian police bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order and report to the Ministry of Justice and Police. The Venetiaan government had taken steps to reform the military in 1995-96 by purging military officers and supporters of former dictator Desi Bouterse, who ruled the country in the 1980's. Although Bouterse loyalists continue to hold civilian positions of authority, their influence within the military has declined steadily. The military hierarchy has placed a growing emphasis on civilian control over the military. During large antigovernment street demonstrations in May, the military remained apolitical and rejected suggestions for military intervention. Members of the security forces continue to be responsible for some human rights abuses.

The economy depends heavily on the export of bauxite derivatives. Unregulated gold mining is an increasingly important economic activity that highlights a lack of land rights for indigenous and tribal people and has a serious environmental impact. The Government and state-owned companies employ over half the working population. Overall economic conditions deteriorated during the year. Following an inflation rate of 5 percent for most of 1997 and 22 percent in 1998, in 1999 inflation had reached an estimated annual rate of 121 percent. In addition, estimated gross domestic product declined by 1 percent in 1999. Per capita annual income was about $2,500.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, endemic problems still remain in some areas. There was one incident of extrajudicial killing. Police mistreat detainees, particularly during arrests; guards abuse prisoners; and local detention facilities remain overcrowded. The judiciary suffers from ineffectiveness and a huge case backlog. There was some harassment and media self-censorship, and societal discrimination against women and indigenous and tribal people persists. Violence against women is a problem. In view of the human rights record of the Bouterse regime, many of whose members participate in the current Government, human rights organizations remain concerned about the potential for a deterioration of civil liberties. The Wijdenbosch administration has not addressed calls to investigate human rights abuses by previous regimes, other than by appointing a committee in December 1997 to establish a framework for an investigative commission. However, the Government did participate in an independently sponsored "Truth and Reconciliation" conference in August 1998. The preliminary meeting sought to solicit suggestions for the framework of a human rights commission and included frank discussion of human rights violations committed during the 1980's, but no concrete action followed.

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings.

In June police officers shot and killed two innocent men whom they mistook for escaped armed felons. The Government immediately admitted it was at fault and compensated the families. The families also sued the Government in civil court.

While there have been no recent reports of political killings, the Government has not addressed past abuses, and they continue to be a focus of concern. The authorities have not taken action against prison guards who allegedly beat a prisoner to death in 1993. The Government undertook no investigation into the 1982 executions by the Bouterse regime of 15 opposition leaders and the 1986 massacre of civilians at the village of Moiwana.

However, in December 1997 the Wijdenbosch administration appointed a "committee to establish the framework for a commission to investigate past human rights abuses." Human rights groups, which had been pressing since 1995 for an independent human rights commission to investigate violations committed during the 1980's, were neither informed nor consulted prior to the establishment of the committee. Moreover, the chairman of the committee was reportedly a member of Bouterse's team of legal advisers; his appointment raised questions regarding the objectivity of the group's work. Although the committee's report was presented to the President in September, the Government has not yet released its contents or recommendations.

The Organization for Justice and Peace, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), sponsored a "Truth and Reconciliation" conference in August 1998 aimed at creating an independent truth commission for the country. Representatives from both local and international human rights organizations, as well as high-level government officials including the Vice President, attended the conference. Although it was only a preliminary meeting, there was at times frank discussion of the human rights violations committed during the 1980's. However, there were no significant developments regarding these problems.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

However, the Government took no action to investigate allegations of disappearances that occurred under previous regimes.

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

The Constitution prohibits inhuman treatment or punishment, but human rights groups continue to express concern about official mistreatment and have documented cases of police mistreatment of detainees, particularly during arrests, and guard abuse of prisoners. Local detention facilities remain overcrowded.

The police used tear gas to disperse at times violent demonstrations in May, and fired at least one shot that struck a demonstrator (see Section 2.b.).

Prison conditions are poor. With the completion of a new prison in 1996, there are three state prisons and several detention facilities at police stations, where arrestees are detained until they appear before a judge for trial. Human rights activists are concerned about conditions in the prisons and especially about conditions in local detention facilities. They report that the jails are overcrowded, that guards mistreat prisoners, and that medical care and living conditions are inadequate. Police officers, who are not trained in prison work, serve as the jailers at local detention facilities, a situation that human rights groups assert contributes to the abuses.

In February the human rights group Moiwana '86 issued a report that accused prison officials at two of the federal prisons of using electrical shocks to discipline prisoners. The report further asserted that different ethnic groups receive different forms and degrees of punishments. Prison officials denied the accusations, and the Government took no investigative action. Moiwana '86 did not pursue the issue further.

The completion of a new prison and renovation of existing jails have reduced somewhat the problems and improved overall health and safety conditions. However, the older jails remain seriously overcrowded, with as many as four times the number of detainees for which they were designed. In addition, these older prisons are unsanitary. At police stations, guards allow detainees no exercise and only rarely permit them to leave the cells. Detainees and human rights groups also complain about inadequate prison meals, although families are permitted and encouraged to provide food to incarcerated relatives.

In January 1996, Moiwana '86 implemented a program to monitor the condition of prisoners. Representatives of the group report that in general they have access to prisoners and receive cooperation from prison officials on routine matters. Moiwana '86 and the police cooperated to develop a detention officer training program for police guards working at the local detention facilities. The program consists of lectures given at the state prison to both guards and to prisoners.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the authorities generally respect these provisions in practice. However, delays resulting from the split in the judiciary have caused prisoners who appeal their sentences to remain in prison until a ruling is reached on their appeal, even if they have served the full term of their original sentence. Lawyers have filed complaints, but the problem has not been resolved.

The law provides that the police may detain for investigation up to 14 days a person suspected of committing a crime for which the sentence is longer than 4 years. During the 14-day period, the law also permits incommunicado detention, which must be authorized by an assistant district attorney or a police inspector. Within the 14-day period, the police must bring the accused before a prosecutor to be formally charged. If additional time is needed to investigate the charge, a prosecutor may authorize the police to detain the suspect for an additional 30 days. Upon the expiration of the initial 44 days, a "judge of instruction" may authorize the police to hold the suspect for up to 120 additional days, in 30-day increments (for a total of 164 days), before the case is tried. The judge of instruction has the power to authorize release on bail, but that power is rarely, if ever, used.

Pretrial detainees, who constitute a large percentage of inmates, are routinely held without being brought before a judge. They are often held in overcrowded detention cells at local police stations. Of those held in police custody or detention cells, a steadily growing number had already been convicted but not placed in prisons.

In October 1997, the authorities arrested 25 men for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Government. One of the ringleaders was hospitalized for injuries sustained during his arrest. The detainees were accorded due process under the law and were given access to attorneys and family members. In August the coup plotters were sentenced formally. The presiding judge issued mostly moderate sentences of approximately 2 years' imprisonment for each person, with the exception of the leaders, who received approximately 4 years' imprisonment.

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

While not specifically forbidden by law or the Constitution, exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, an ongoing dispute between the previously sitting judges and a new slate that Wijdenbosch appointed has damaged severely the concept of an independent judiciary. As a result, the effectiveness of the civilian and military courts is even more limited in practice.

The judicial system consists of three lower courts and an appeals court; there is no Supreme Court. In July 1998, President Wijdenbosch named a new President of the Court of Justice and Prosecutor General without consulting with, and over the objections of, the sitting justices. Most legal authorities interpret the Constitution to require that consultation, and the members of the court refused to recognize the named President of the court or Prosecutor General. In spite of the continued objections, President Wijdenbosch named additional justices without consultation in December 1998. In May the appointed President of the Court of Justice first swore in himself and then the new justices. Both groups of justices have set their own agendas for the next series of court sessions. The 1987 Constitution calls for the establishment of an independent constitutional court. However, the Government has not taken any steps to set up such a court, and the timing of its establishment remains unclear.

The Constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial in which defendants have the right to counsel if needed. The courts assign lawyers in private practice to defend prisoners and pay them from public funds. However, the court-assigned lawyers usually only show up at the trial, if they show up at all. The courts must, and in practice do, free a detainee who is not tried within the 164-day period. In one instance, a court levied a fine against the Government for failing to release detainees as directed by the court. Trials are before a single judge, with the right of appeal. Due to the conflict over the legitimacy of the President of the Court and the justices, there is a huge backlog in the judicial system.

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

Foreign military instructors conducted human rights and military justice seminars in 1998 and 1999. These seminars provided continued opportunities for civilian government officials, private sector representatives, and military personnel to discuss human rights and the role of the military in a democracy.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the right to privacy. The law requires warrants for searches, which are issued by quasi-judicial officers who supervise criminal investigations. The police obtain them in the great majority of investigations. There have been complaints of surveillance of human rights workers by members of the military police and the division of central intelligence.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights; however, there were reports of intimidation and harassment.

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

The Government publicly reprimanded radio stations and newspapers for their negative coverage of protest demonstrations that took place in May. Although the Government threatened to censor the press, it ultimately took no action, and there continued to be reports unfavorable to the Government.

On December 8, 1997, three men kidnaped, beat and threatened a journalist. The incident occurred on the anniversary of the 1982 murders of 15 political opponents of the Bouterse regime and appeared aimed at stifling criticism in the local press. In June 1998, a Dutch journalist, who was principally covering political and economic issues, was kidnaped, beaten, and threatened. Both incidents remain under investigation.

The two daily newspapers, three television stations, and most of the radio stations are privately owned. Two television stations and two radio stations are publicly owned. Three companies provide cable television, which includes international channels.

The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. However, in response to a series of public demonstrations in May, the Government announced that it intended to begin enforcing a 1930's law requiring a permit to hold a public demonstration or gathering. After the announcement, in late July the authorities detained two opposition leaders for demonstrating without a permit but quickly released them. Subsequent public marches were allowed to proceed without permits.

There was a series of generally peaceful demonstrations in May in protest of economic conditions. The demonstrations resulted in several violent confrontations, one of which involved a police officer whom demonstrators pushed through a ground floor window. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds on two occasions. During one demonstration, a police office discharged his revolver when confronted by an advancing crowd, injuring a demonstrator with a ricocheting bullet.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, and the Government respected this right in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

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

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

The Government cooperates with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise in 1999. There were no reports of forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

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

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

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

While the Constitution is clear on how the executive and legislative branches of government are chosen to begin their terms, it is vague about how they may be removed or replaced in midterm. Questions arose following street protests in May as to whether the President had the authority to dissolve the National Assembly and call early elections or whether the National Assembly could vote the President out of office with a simple majority no-confidence vote. With no constitutional court yet established, there exists no definitive interpretive authority to settle such disputes, creating the potential for future constitutional conflict.

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

There are historical and cultural impediments to equal participation by women in leadership positions in government and political parties. In the past, most women were expected to fulfill the roles of housewife and mother, thereby limiting opportunities to gain political experience or position. Participation by women in politics (and other fields) was generally considered inappropriate. While women have made limited gains in attaining political power in recent years, political circles remain under the influence of traditional male-dominated groups, and women are disadvantaged in seeking high public office. In 1996 voters elected six women to the National Assembly, compared with three who held seats in the previous assembly, and the Assembly appointed a woman as chairperson. The Cabinet includes one woman as Minister of Regional Development and another as Deputy Minister of Social Affairs.

Although the Constitution proscribes racial or religious discrimination, several factors limit the participation of Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves who fled to the interior to avoid recapture) and Amerindians in the political process. Most of the country's political activity takes place in the capital and a narrow belt running east and west of it along the coast. The Maroons and Amerindians are concentrated in remote areas in the interior and therefore have limited access to, and influence in, the political process. Voters elected the first Amerindians to the National Assembly in 1996. There are six Maroons and two Amerindians in the National Assembly. There are no Maroons or Amerindians in the Cabinet.

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

Human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases; however, government officials generally are not cooperative or responsive to their views.

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

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


Violence against women is a problem. The law does not differentiate between domestic violence and other forms of assault. The Government has not addressed specifically the problem of violence against women. According to a national women's group, victims continue to report cases of violence against women and complain of an inadequate response from the Government and society to what appears to be a trend of increasing family violence. Although the police have been reluctant to intervene in instances of domestic violence, a national women's group noted that police attitudes have improved significantly as a result of training conducted during the year.

There are no specific laws to protect women against trafficking and sexual exploitation. There were credible reports of trafficking in women for prostitution (see Section 6.f.).

Women have the right to equal access to education, employment, and property. Nevertheless, social pressures and customs, especially in rural areas, inhibit their full exercise of these rights, particularly in the areas of marriage and inheritance. Women experience economic discrimination in access to employment and in rates of pay for the same or substantially similar work. The Government has not made specific efforts to combat economic discrimination.

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


School attendance is free and compulsory until 12 years of age, but some school-age children do not have access to education because of a lack of transportation, facilities, or teachers. There is no difference in the treatment of girls and boys in education or health care services. Both students and parents complained about the Government's decision to double enrollment fees for public school. Children face increasing economic pressure to discontinue their education in order to work.

The Government allocates only limited resources to ensure safeguards for the human rights and welfare of children. There are continuing reports of malnutrition among poor children, but it is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem. In the capital, where most of the country's population is concentrated, there are several orphanages, and a privately funded shelter for sexually abused children opened in 1993. Elsewhere, distressed children must usually rely on the resources of their extended families.

There is no societal pattern of abuse directed against children; however, some children are sexually exploited and there were credible reports of trafficking in girls for prostitution (see Section 6.f.). The legal age of consent is 21; however, it is not strictly enforced, and the Asian Marriage law lowers the marriage age for children of Asian descent to 13 years for girls and 14 years for boys.

People with Disabilities

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

Indigenous People

The Constitution affords no special protection for, or recognition of, indigenous people. Most Amerindians and Maroons suffer a number of disadvantages and have only limited ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and natural resources. The nation's political life, educational opportunities, and jobs are concentrated in the capital and its environs, while the majority of Amerindians and Maroons live in the interior. Government services in the interior became largely unavailable and much of the infrastructure was destroyed during the 1986-91 domestic insurgencies; progress in reestablishing services and rebuilding the infrastructure has been very slow.

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

Organizations representing Maroon and Amerindian communities complain that small-scale mining operations, mainly illegal Brazilian gold miners, dig trenches that cut residents off from their agricultural land and threaten to drive them away from their traditional settlements. Mercury runoff from these operations also contaminates and threatens traditional food source areas.

Maroon and Amerindian groups continue to cooperate with each other in order to exercise their rights more effectively. Two summits, or "gran krutus," bringing together Maroon and Amerindian tribal leaders, have been held, the most recent in September 1996. During these summits, indigenous leaders reiterated their demands for the right to participate in decisions concerning the use of natural resources on land they claim as their own and for greater autonomy from the Government.

Section 6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

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

The Constitution provides for the right to strike. Civil servants have the right to strike, and strikes in both the public and private sectors are common as workers try to secure wage gains to protect their earning power from inflation.

There are no restrictions on unions' international activities. Several labor federations were accepted once again as affiliates of international trade union organizations, after having been suspended for collaboration with the military regime in the late 1980's.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

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

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no reports that it occurred. However, there were credible reports of trafficking in women and girls for prostitution (see Section 6.f.). The law prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and 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 14 years. However, the Ministry of Labor and the police enforce this law only sporadically. Children under 14 years of age work as street vendors, newspaper sellers, or shop assistants. Working hours for youths are not limited in comparison with the regular work force. School attendance is compulsory until 12 years of age. The law prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and there were no reports of such practices, although trafficking of girls for prostitution does occur (see Section 6.f.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage legislation. In January civil servants were granted a 20 percent pay increase, with a cost of living allowance of about $21 (Sfl 30,000). Including that allowance, the lowest wage for civil servants is about $56 (Sfl 78,000) per month at the official exchange rate, or about $52 at the legal parallel market rate. This salary level makes it very difficult to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Government employees, who constitute close to 50 percent of the work force of 100,000, frequently supplement their salaries with second or third jobs, often in the informal sector. The President and Council of Ministers set and approve civil service wage increases. Civil service and other wages are not keeping pace with inflation.

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

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

f. Trafficking in Persons

The only legislation specifically prohibiting trafficking in persons are old "white slavery laws" that are rarely enforced.

There were credible reports of trafficking in women and girls for prostitution. Women and girls from the interior are brought to the capital city and also to various gold mining locations in the interior. Several clubs in the capital are also known for recruiting women from Brazil and the Caribbean.

In addition, alien smuggling organizations use the country as an intermediate destination to smuggle Chinese nationals, including women and girls, to the United States, where frequently they are forced into bonded-labor situations.


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