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TITLE: BENIN HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE DATE: FEBRUARY 1995 BENIN The Republic of Benin is a constitutional democracy headed by President Nicephore Soglo, who was elected in free and fair elections in 1991. There are 24 political parties represented in the 64-member National Assembly. No party or grouping commands a majority of seats. The President resorted to emergency powers to pass his 1994 budget and fulfill the country's commitments to international financial institutions. The civilian-controlled security forces consist of the armed forces under the direction of the Minister of Defense and the police force under the Minister of Interior. The two ministers also share authority over the gendarmerie, which exercises police functions in rural areas. Although the military continued to play an apolitical role in government affairs, there were some concerns about morale within its ranks, its ethnic imbalance, and the depth of its commitment to constitutional rule. The economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, regional trade, and small-scale offshore oil production. The Government continued its austerity program to privatize state-owned enterprises, reduce fiscal expenditures, and deregulate trade. However, the country continues to suffer from a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, high debt-servicing costs, and widespread unemployment. Overall, the Government continued to respect the fundamental rights provided for in the 1990 Constitution. The major human rights problems continued to be the failure by police forces to curtail acts of vigilantism and mob justice; serious administrative delays in processing criminal cases with attendant denial of timely fair trials; harsh and unhealthy prison conditions; societal discrimination and violence against women and the abuse of children. The Government finally brought to trial those detained for coup plotting in 1992; it acquitted 3 and convicted 24 persons. 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 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, and there were no reports that government forces employed it. The Government began making payments to victims of torture under the previous military regime which ruled from 1972 to 1989. A rising crime rate and a lack of police responsiveness led to more reports of mob justice. Mobs reportedly inflicted severe injuries on suspected criminals, particularly thieves caught in the act. Although a number of these incidents took place in urban areas, there were no indications that the Government investigated or prosecuted anyone involved. Prison conditions continue to be harsh. Extensive overcrowding and lack of proper sanitation and medical facilities pose a risk to prisoners' health. The prison diet is grossly inadequate, and malnutrition and disease are common. Prisoners are allowed to meet with visitors. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The Constitution prohibits detention of persons for more than 48 hours without a hearing by a magistrate, whose order is required for continued detention. However, there were credible reports that authorities exceed this 48-hour limit in many cases, sometimes by as much as a week, using 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. There were no reports of incommunicado detention. Approximately 75 percent of prisoners are pretrial detainees. Arbitrary arrest is not routine but does occur occasionally. There were no reports that the Government held any political detainees at year's end. Early in 1994 the Government provisionally released, pending their trials, the country's former intelligence chief and his deputy who allegedly carried out acts of torture under the old regime. The Government had held the pair on charges of torture, one since late 1991, the other since late 1992. President Soglo at the end of the year announced a one-half reduction in the prison terms of those convicted of offenses after August 1. He excluded those sentenced for murder and certain other felonies, as well as those convicted of embezzlement of public funds. In August the Government began the trial of a group of 27, largely military officers, of whom 16 were tried in absentia. Most had been held for over 2 years; international human rights groups had expressed concern. The trial ended in September. The Constitution prohibits forced exile of any citizens, and many who went into exile under previous governments have returned. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The legal system is based on French civil law and 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. There is only one court of appeals. The President appoints career magistrates as judges in civil courts. Although the Constitution provides that the Ministry of Justice has administrative authority over judges, officials are answerable only to the law in carrying out their duties. The Ministry may, however, transfer judges. Inadequate facilities and overcrowded dockets result in slow administration of justice. The relatively low salaries of magistrates and clerks have a demoralizing effect on their commitment to efficient and timely justice and make them susceptible to corruption. A defendant has the right to be present at trial and to representation by an attorney, at public expense if necessary. In practice, the court provides indigent defendants court-appointed counsel upon request. Trials are open to the public. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in all administrative and judicial matters, and the new Constitutional Court is charged with passing on the constitutionality of laws. The Constitutional Court, seated in June 1993, decides disputes between the President and the National Assembly. Its rulings against both the executive and legislative branches indicated its independence from these two branches of government. The Constitution also provides that a High Court of Justice convene when necessary to preside over crimes against the nation committed by the President or government ministers. The Government held no political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution provides for, and the Government respected in practice, the inviolability of private property and the home, as well as 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; the Government generally respected these rights. There is a large and active private press consisting of more than a dozen private newspapers. A major new independent daily newspaper which frequently criticizes the Government began publishing in 1994. The Government continued to own and operate the local radio and television stations and a daily newspaper, the media most influential in reaching the public. Nevertheless, journalists continued to cover sensitive matters and to criticize the Government. This included strong criticism of the President's exercise of emergency powers to implement the budget. A major increase in defamation suits accompanied the rise of the free press. Due to the President's grant of a reduction in sentences, authorities released a journalist early who had been convicted in 1993 of libel and sentenced to 1 year in prison. The Government does not censor foreign books or artistic works and foreign periodicals are widely available at newsstands. The High Authority for Audio-Visual and Communications (HAAC), a new constitutionally mandated body, began its preliminary work to develop private radio stations. By year's end, it had not approved any licenses. The Government, without prior consultation with the HAAC, adopted two decrees in September which regulated movie and video clubs. In general, academic freedom is respected. University professors are permitted to lecture freely, conduct research, and publish their work. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and these rights were generally respected. The Government on two occasions disbanded labor meetings (see Section 6.a.). The Government requires permits for use of public places for demonstrations, and requires associations to register. However, it routinely grants both permits and registrations. The Government did not take any actions against nonregistered organizations for failure or refusal to register. c. Freedom of Religion The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government observed it in practice. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation The presence of police, gendarmerie, and illegal roadblocks impedes domestic movement. Though ostensibly meant to enforce automotive safety and customs regulations, many of these checkpoints serve as a means for officials to exact bribes from travelers. The Government's policy toward transhumance allows migratory Fulani herdsmen from other countries to enter freely; it does not enforce designated entry points. In recent years, friction between native farmers and itinerant foreign herders has sometimes led to violence. The Government does not restrict international travel for political reasons, and those who travel abroad may return without hindrance. Benin hosts some 50,000 Togolese refugees who are protected and assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Togolese Government has pressured Benin to deny asylum and to repatriate refugees forcibly, most of whom are members of or are sympathetic to opposition groups. The Government has resisted this pressure and continues to maintain an open-door policy toward refugees. There were no reports of forced repatriation. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens exercised this constitutional right in free and fair elections in 1991. The Constitution provides for a 5-year term of office for the President (who is limited to 2 terms) and 4-year terms for National Assembly members (who may serve an unlimited number of terms). National Assembly elections are scheduled for March 1995, with presidential elections in 1996. More than a dozen new parties were created in 1994; others folded or merged. Voting is by secret ballot and the franchise extends to all adults. Women participate actively in political parties, but there are only 2 women in the 19-member Cabinet and 3 in the 64-member National Assembly. The President of the Constitutional Court is a woman, and the HAAC and the Economic and Social Council each have one female member. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights Several nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) monitor human rights without restriction or interference by the Government. These organizations 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 Human Rights Commission regularly investigated complaints it received about police violence, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, abuses of authority, and interference with labor rights. In 1994 the Government provided a detailed response to Amnesty International's 1993 report on the human rights situation in Benin. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. Women Although the Constitution provides for equality for women in the political, economic, and social spheres, women experience extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas, where they occupy a subordinate role and are responsible for much of the hard work on subsistence farms. In urban areas, women dominate the trading sector in the open-air markets. By law, women have equal inheritance and property rights, but local custom in some areas prevents them from inheriting real property. Women are underrepresented in government positions and do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as men. In some parts of the country, girls receive no education at all. While no statistics are available, violence against women, including wife beating, occurs. It is not considered widespread. The press sometimes reports incidents of abuse of women, but judges and police are reluctant to intervene, considering such abuse a family matter. Children The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is charged generally with the protection of children's rights and focuses primarily on education and health issues. There is no broad pattern of societal abuse against children, nor is there child prostitution. There are some traditional practices that inflict violence on children which the Government has been vigorous in its efforts to end, including prosecuting offenders. These practices include the killing of deformed babies (thought to be sorcerers in some rural areas) and a tradition in which a groom abducts and rapes the prospective (under 14 years of age) bride. In a much-publicized case in July, a criminal court sentenced a mother and her accomplices to 15 years in prison at hard labor for arranging the 1988 kidnaping and sale of her 8-year-old son. Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is condemned by international health experts as damaging to physical and mental health, is practiced on females at a young age as well as on teenage girls and women up to age 30. Studies suggest at least 4 percent of Beninese women are affected by this practice, mostly in the northern provinces. Recent research by an NGO 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 FGM by making available locally produced posters and pamphlets at government health clinics even though FGM is not illegal. National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities Benin has a long history of regional rivalry. Although southerners dominate the Government's senior ranks, northerners dominate the military. The south has enjoyed more advanced economic development, a larger population, and has traditionally held favored status. Religious Minorities There is no official religion and no single dominant religion. People with Disabilities Although the Constitution mandates that the State "look after the handicapped," the Government does not mandate accessibility for disabled persons. The Government operates a number of social centers for disabled persons to assist their social integration. Nonetheless, many are unable to find employment and must resort to begging to support themselves. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The Constitution provides workers with the freedom to organize, join unions, meet, and strike, and those rights are usually respected in practice. The 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 wage earners belong to labor unions. There are four union confederations; confederations and individual unions have the right to affiliate internationally. Unions are generally independent of the Government and political parties, but there were growing efforts by some members of the National Assembly to coopt the unions in their disputes with the Government. The Economic and Social Council, a constitutionally mandated body installed in 1994, includes four union representatives. There were several instances of labor unrest during 1994, and on two occasions the Government disbanded labor meetings. In July authorities denied permission for a labor demonstration owing to concern that it would disrupt normal business, then intervened when the demonstration was held anyway. In January the Government prevented a union from meeting despite the fact that the union had conformed to normal procedures. There was a legal 3-day general strike in March called by the four labor unions to protest devaluation. There were no incidents or government intervention, even though the strike was highly disruptive. There were no known efforts to retaliate against strikers. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively The Labor Code provides for collective bargaining, and workers freely exercised these rights. Wages in the private sector are set in negotiations between unions and employers. A tripartite group, composed of unions, employers, and the Government, discussed and agreed to revisions in the former labor code; these are now under consideration by the National Assembly. The Government sets wages in the public sector by law and regulation. The Labor Code prohibits employers from taking union membership or activity into account regarding hiring, work distribution, professional or vocational training, or dismissal. The Government levies substantial penalties against employers who refuse to rehire workers dismissed for lawful union activities. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor The Labor Code prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and it is not practiced. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The Labor Code prohibits the employment or apprenticeship of children under the age of 14 in any enterprise. However, the Ministry of Labor enforces the Code in only a limited manner. Child labor continues, on rural family farms, in urban areas, and as domestic servants. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Government administratively sets minimum wage scales for a number of occupations. The minimum wage is approximately $39 per month (20,300 CFA), not enough to cover the costs for food and housing of even a single worker living in an urban area. Many workers must supplement their wages by subsistence farming or in informal sector trade. Most workers in the wage sector, however, earn more than the minimum wage. The Labor Code establishes a workweek of from 40 to 56 hours, depending on the type of work, and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The authorities generally enforce legal limits on workweeks. The Labor Code establishes health and safety standards, but the Ministry of Labor does not enforce them effectively. The Labor Code does not provide workers with the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment. The Ministry of Labor has the authority to require employers to remedy dangerous working conditions, but does not do so effectively. (###)
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