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TITLE: BENIN HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1993 DATE: JANUARY 31, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE BENIN The Republic of Benin has a constitutional government headed by President Nicephore Soglo, who was elected in free and fair elections in 1991. There are a large number of political parties represented in the National Assembly. A working coalition of approximately 34 parties referred to as the Presidential majority dissolved in late 1993, and no party or grouping commands a majority of seats. There were tensions between the executive and the legislature over the installation of the new Constitutional Court which took place in June. The security forces are under civilian control: the 4,000 personnel of the armed forces are under the direction of the Minister of Defense, while the 1,500-person police force comes under the Minister of the Interior. The 2,500-strong gendarmerie reports to both the Minister of Defense and the Minister of the Interior; it fills police functions in rural areas. The questionable commitment of the military establishment to democratic change remains a cause of concern, especially as voluntary departures have left the officer ranks ethnically unbalanced in favor of the otherwise underprivileged north. The Government has implemented a voluntary departure program to reduce the size of the armed forces and seeks to keep the armed forces professional and depoliticized. The underdeveloped economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, regional trade, and small-scale offshore oil production. In accordance with World Bank and International Monetary Fund agreements, the Government is pursuing an austerity program for the purpose, among others, of privatizing state-owned enterprises, reducing fiscal expenditures, and deregulating trade. Benin suffers from a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, high debt-servicing costs, and widespread unemployment. The human rights situation continued to improve. Positive developments included the establishment of the Constitutional Court as a potentially important judicial counterweight to the executive and legislative branches. The Government continued to respect the fundamental rights provided for in the 1990 Constitution, and, in a conciliatory move, President Soglo commuted the sentences of those persons, all northerners, convicted and still imprisoned for involvement in electoral violence in 1991. There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees. However, the Government continued to detain without trial a number of persons charged with torture under the old regime and did not address the serious administrative delays in processing criminal cases, resulting in the denial of timely fair trial. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from: a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killing. b. Disappearance There were no reports of disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There were no reports of torture. A rising crime rate and a lack of police responsiveness to reports of crime sometimes led mobs to take justice into their own hands, resulting in severe injuries to suspected criminals, particularly thieves caught in the act. While a number of such incidents took place in urban areas, there were no reported cases of such vigilantism being prosecuted. Prison conditions remained harsh and characterized by extensive overcrowding as well as lack of proper sanitation and medical facilities. The prison diet is grossly inadequate, and malnutrition and disease are common among prisoners. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile Since 1990 arbitrary arrest and detention has ceased to be routinely practiced by the Government. Procedural safeguards against arbitrary arrest include a constitutional provision forbidding detention of more than 48 hours without a hearing by a magistrate, whose order is required for continued detention. However, there were credible reports that this 48-hour limit was exceeded in many cases, mainly due to the accepted practice of holding a person without specified time limit "at the disposition of" the public prosecutor's office before presenting the case to a magistrate. According to a local human rights group, when such cases come to its attention and it lodges a protest, such detained individuals are promptly released, but there are cases in which persons have been held in this manner for periods of up to a year or more. There were no reports of incommunicado detention. There were no reports of political detainees held by the Government at year's end. However, the Government continued to hold the former head of Benin intelligence, who allegedly carried out acts of torture under the old regime, and a deputy in detention pending trial at year's end. The pair are being held on charges of torture, one since late 1991, the other since late 1992. The delay has been due to the complexity of the case, the large number of victims involved, and the reluctance of many victims to give evidence out of fear of retaliation. The Government has also held a group of military officers involved in a May 1992 coup attempt in detention for over a year. International human rights groups expressed concern to the Government about the officers' extended detention without charge or trial. A number of the accused officers escaped from prison in March, but the remaining officers are expected to be brought to trial in early 1994. The Constitution contains a provision prohibiting the Government from exiling any citizen, and many exiles have returned to Benin since the change in government and a 1990 Presidential amnesty. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The legal system is based on French civil law and on local customary law. A civilian court system operates on the national and provincial levels. Military disciplinary councils deal with minor offenses by military members but have no jurisdiction over civilians. Judges in civil courts are career magistrates, appointed by the President, and administratively they come under the Ministry of Justice. However, under the Constitution, officials are answerable only to the law in carrying out their duties and may not be transferred. Serious crimes are first presented to an investigating magistrate who decides whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant trial. A defendant has the right to be present at his or her trial and to be represented by an attorney, at public expense, if necessary. In practice, indigent clients are provided with court-appointed counsel upon request. Under the Constitution, the highest courts are the Supreme Court, which is the court of last resort in all administrative and judicial matters, and the new Constitutional Court, charged with passing on the constitutionality of Beninese laws, including those that may violate fundamental human rights. The Constitutional Court was first seated in June. Whether it will develop as the main judicial counterweight to the legislative and executive branches of government remained to be seen, but it was the subject of much political debate between the Presidency and the National Assembly (see Section 3). The Constitution also provides for a High Court of Justice to be convened when necessary to preside over crimes against the nation committed by the President or by ministers in the Government. There were no political or security trials, and there were no reports of political prisoners being held at year's end. In a conciliatory gesture, President Soglo commuted the sentences of the last persons, all of them northerners, in prison for acts of violence in connection with the 1991 elections. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution provides for the inviolability of private property and the home and for the privacy of personal correspondence and communications. Police are required to obtain a judicial warrant before entering a private home, a requirement observed in practice. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press and other media, and these rights were generally respected. Beninese freely discussed politics, both in public and private forums, including in the National Assembly. A large and active private press was represented through more than 15 private newspapers, mostly weeklies and monthlies. The Government continued to own and operate the media most influential in reaching the public, the local radio and television stations, and the one daily newspaper. However, official journalists continued to cover sensitive matters and to criticize the Government, including perceived indiscretions on the part of the President's spouse, as well as strong criticism of the President's delay in the seating of the Constitutional Court. Benin experienced a large number of libel cases brought against journalists in 1993. In one notable case, brought by President Soglo, a journalist who had been convicted in open court in a criminal libel case, which observers described as fair, failed to appear at his sentencing hearing or appeal his conviction. His failure to appear led to his receiving the maximum sentence, 1 year's imprisonment. Several months later, he was apprehended and sent to prison to serve his sentence. There were complaints that the journalist went to prison subsequent to (and because of) the publication of another article critical of the President, a claim the President denied. Most journalists deny the incident had any chilling effect on their reporting, other than to make them careful to check the accuracy of their reports. There was no censorship of foreign books or artistic works. Foreign periodicals were widely available on newsstands, and much of the population has ready access to foreign broadcasts on short wave radio. In general, academic freedom is enjoyed in schools and in the sole university. University professors are permitted to lecture freely in their subject areas, conduct research, and draw independent conclusions. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution recognizes the rights of peaceful assembly and association. These rights were generally respected. Permits are required for use of public places for demonstrations, and associations are required to register. Both permits and registrations are routinely granted, as in the case of the long-clandestine Communist Party of Benin, which registered as a political party for the first time. Multiple political parties as well as numerous religious and cultural associations exist. The Government did not take any actions against nonregistered organizations for failure or refusal to register. c. Freedom of Religion Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions coexist in Benin with occasional friction. Adherence to a particular faith does not confer special status or benefit. Religious ceremonies and shrines of all faiths are protected by law. There are no restrictions on religious ceremonies, teachings, foreign clergy, or conversion to any religion. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation Domestic movement is impeded somewhat by the presence of police, gendarmerie, and customs roadblocks. Ostensibly present for the purpose of enforcing automotive safety and customs regulations, many of these checkpoints serve as a means for officials to exact bribes from travelers. Travel outside of Benin is not restricted for political reasons; those who travel abroad may return without hindrance. Benin respects the right of first asylum and welcomes refugees, notably 150,000 refugees from Togo in 1993. The majority of these refugees were accommodated by family and friends in Benin. Refugees who marry Beninese may apply for citizenship; other refugees are permitted to remain indefinitely but do not have the option of naturalization, though the Government helps integrate them into Beninese society if they chose to remain. There were no reports of involuntary repatriation during 1993. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens have this right, and the Government continued the process of creating and consolidating its democratic institutions, notably in the installation of the Constitutional Court, an event which finally took place in June. The conflict between President Soglo and the National Assembly over the seating of the Constitutional Court centered on the qualifications of the designated members, the infrastructure of the Court, and the timing of the installation ceremony. The President and an informal coalition of parties commanded a majority in the National Assembly for much of 1993 and used it effectively to gain passage of the controversial 1993 budget. The Constitution provides for a 5-year term of office for the President (who is limited to 2 terms) and a 4-year term for National Assembly members (who may serve an unlimited number of terms). Women are poorly represented in the political process. There are 2 women in the 19-member Cabinet and only 4 female deputies in the 64-member National Assembly. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights Several nongovernmental organizations monitor human rights; they include the Human Rights Commission, the Study and Research Group on Democracy and Economic and Social Development, the Association of Christians Against Torture, and the League for the Defense of Human Rights in Benin. The groups' activities in 1993 included drawing attention to poor prison conditions, calling upon the President to stop delaying installation of the Constitutional Court, drawing attention to corruption, and emphasizing the unacceptability of procedural delays in the court system. In contrast to the attitude of the former authoritarian regime, which considered outside investigation into human rights unwarranted interference in internal affairs, the current Government has welcomed nongovernmental and international scrutiny of human rights. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status Discrimination based on the these factors is prohibited in the Constitution and by law, and in practice the Government generally respected these prohibitions. Women The Constitution specifically states that women are the equal of men in the political, economic, and social spheres, but they face extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas, where they occupy a subordinate role and are responsible for much of the hard labor on subsistence farms. Women in all parts of the country are the equals of men in inheritance and property rights in the courts, though local custom in some areas does not permit women to inherit real property. As a consequence, women increasingly approached the courts to resolve inheritance and property issues. Women do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as men, and in some parts of the country, families are reluctant to have their daughters educated at all. Overall, the literacy rate for women is only 16 percent compared to 32 percent for men. While no statistics are available, violence against women, including wife beating, occurs, although it is prohibited by law. Incidents are sometimes reported in the private press and, when they are brought to the attention of judicial or police authorities, they are treated as criminal cases. However, some judges and police are reluctant to intervene seriously, considering such affairs to be family matters. Among women's groups, the Association of Women Jurists has taken an active role in educating women about their legal rights. Children The Government recognizes its responsibilities for the protection and welfare of children as outlined in both the Constitution and the African Charter of Human Rights and People's Rights, to which Benin subscribes. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is charged generally with the protection of children's rights. The Government's commitment to children has been particularly focused on the education and health sectors, and especially its constitutional obligation to provide universal education for children. Education and public health remain priority sectors even in the face of a difficult economic austerity program. Most notable are the advances in primary education and the highly successful vaccination program conducted throughout the country. Some infants born with deformities are deemed to be sorcerers and reportedly killed at birth in some rural areas. The Government deals with such matters as criminal offenses and regularly prosecutes offenders. There were also credible reports that a number of children were sent, often by their families and for a fee, through unscrupulous traders to work as domestic servants and farm laborers in other countries in the region, often in deplorable conditions (see also Section 6). Female genital mutilation (circumcision), which is condemned by international health experts as damaging to physical and mental health, is practiced on females at a young age. Conventional wisdom had been that the practice existed primarily in the north, but it has become evident that the practice is more widespread in the south than formerly believed, although statistical evidence is not available. Infibulation does not appear to be widely practiced, if at all, in Benin. Recent research by a small Beninese nongovernmental organization found that those who perform such circumcisions, themselves often elderly women, have a strong profit motive in the continued practice. The Government has cooperated with an inter-African committee working against the practice of female genital mutilation by allowing locally produced posters and pamphlets about the practice to be made available at government health clinics. National/Ethnic/Racial Minorities Benin has a long history of regional rivalry. This led to violence during the 1991 elections, when northerners supporting ex-President Kerekou's candidacy clashed with southerners and at least one death ensued. In a move to reduce regional tensions, President Soglo commuted the sentences of the last persons serving prison sentences for acts of violence at that time, all of them northerners. However, relatively few northerners have been appointed to senior governmental positions and this, as well as the general lack of economic development in the north, leads to regional dissatisfaction with the Government. The southern third of the country, which was favored during the colonial period, has about two-thirds of the population and is itself divided among various ethnic and religious groups. Religious Minorities No one religion can accurately claim a majority of the population as its followers. Christians and followers of the Vodun traditional religion are concentrated in the south, and Muslims and followers of other traditional religions are concentrated in the north. Government action in the face of interfaith conflicts was the subject of criticism from nearly all religious groups in 1993. Action to quell tensions between Muslims and followers of traditional religion in Porto-Novo in April was tardy, and two people died in rioting before the Government intervened. In the same month, in response to protests from followers of traditional religions about disrespect to their practices, government officials in Atlantique province told Christians not to work their fields on traditional market days, causing the Christians to make countercharges of religious discrimination. In a case in which two opposing groups from a small Christian sect repeatedly brawled in the streets, the Minister of the Interior suspended the registration, and thus the legal existence, of the church for several months, only restoring registration upon receiving assurances the violence would cease. People with Disabilities The Constitution contains a clause mandating that the State "look after the handicapped." However, there are no legislatively or otherwise mandated provisions of accessibility for disabled persons. The Government runs a number of social centers for disabled persons and conducts seminars, including one in 1993 attended by government officials and members of associations of persons with disabilities, to encourage the handicapped to become better organized and to recommend methods for improved social integration. Nonetheless, disabled persons are subject to societal discrimination. For example, they are sometimes popularly believed to be cursed and are treated as outcasts and forced into beggary. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The December 1990 Constitution gives workers the freedom to organize, join unions, meet, and strike, and those rights are respected in practice. Benin's labor force of about 2 million is primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture (80 percent), with less than 2 percent of the population engaged in the modern (wage) sector. Approximately 75 percent of the wage earners belong to labor unions. There were efforts to organize certain workers in the informal sector, notably motorcycle taxi drivers and automotive mechanics. In 1974 all preexisting unions were absorbed into a single trade union confederation, the National Workers' Union of Benin (UNSTB), which for 17 years was the designated mass organization of a single-party Marxist regime. The UNSTB declared its independence from the former ruling party in 1990 and now claims 26 nationwide affiliated unions. It represents workers at the International Labor Organization (ILO). The Confederation of Autonomous Unions (CSA), a separate and larger confederation formed in 1991, represents an additional 26 unions, mostly in the public sector. In February the National Association of Public Administration Trade Unions (FENSAP), organized in 1992, changed its name to the General Confederation of Workers of Benin (CGTB). A fourth confederation, the Union Center of Workers of Benin (CSTB), formed in late 1993. There were a number of labor actions, including strikes of railway workers, airline workers, and civil servants. The Government took no action to impede any of these strikes or other labor union demonstrations. The right to strike was respected, even when it proved highly disruptive as in airport workers' and railroad workers' strikes. There were no known efforts to retaliate against strikers. Confederations and individual unions have the right to affiliate with international labor movements. The Government designated the head of the CSA to represent the workers at the International Labor Organization conference in Geneva, with the head of UNSTB serving as adviser. In 1990 the UNSTB disaffiliated from the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions, and in 1992 it affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively The Labor Code provides for collective bargaining, which took place on such issues as assistance to laid-off workers. The Code is basically copied from the French colonial Labor Code. Revisions to the Labor Code were under consideration by the National Assembly in late 1993. Individual labor unions are authorized to negotiate with employers on labor matters and represent workers' grievances to both employers and the Government, with the latter often acting voluntarily as arbitrator. Wages in the public sector are set by law and regulation via a schedule that is periodically reviewed. The schedule has not been changed since 1984 due to the economic collapse of the previous government and the subsequent austerity program required by international financial institutions. Private sector wages in one of the larger industrial enterprises, i.e., a brewery, were set by the employer in 1992 after informal consultations with labor unions and the Government. The Labor Code prohibits employers from taking union membership or activity into account when making decisions on hiring, work distribution, professional or vocational training, or dismissal. The Labor Code sets out extensive procedural mechanisms to enforce all of its provisions including the use of inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and labor tribunals with rights of appeal into the regular court system. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by the Labor Code and is not practiced. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The Labor Code prohibits the employment or apprenticeship of children under the age of 18 in any enterprise. However, enforcement by inspectors from the Ministry of Labor is limited, and child labor does occur, particularly in rural areas, where children under the age of 14 often work on family farms. Some child labor occurs in urban areas, primarily in the informal sector. For example, street vendors of newspapers and foodstuffs are frequently under the age of 16. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Government administratively sets minimum wage scales for a number of occupations. Most of those actually employed in the wage sector earn much more than the lowest minimum wage, which was last set in 1984 and is sufficient only to provide rudimentary food and housing for a family. It must be supplemented by subsistence farming or small trade in the informal sector if a worker and his family are to enjoy a decent living. The lowest minimum wage rate was approximately $49 per month (CFA Francs 13,500). For the wage sector, the Labor Code establishes a workweek varying between 40 hours (nonagricultural employees) and 56 hours (security guards), depending on the type of work. The law provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The Government supports policies designed to improve the conditions of workers in both the agricultural and industrial sectors. The Labor Code establishes health and safety standards, but enforcement by inspectors from the Ministry of Labor is weak. The Labor Code is silent on whether workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment. However, there are extensive provisions concerning the right of the Ministry of Labor to take note of dangerous work conditions and require employers to remedy them. (###)
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