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TITLE: MAURITIUS HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE DATE: FEBRUARY 1995 MAURITIUS Mauritius is a parliamentary democracy governed by a Prime Minister, a Council of Ministers, and a National Assembly. The Head of State is the President, who is nominated by the Prime Minister and confirmed by the Assembly, and whose powers are largely ceremonial. Fair and orderly national and local elections, supervised by an independent commission, take place at regular intervals. There are numerous political parties, both large and small, and partisan politics are open and unrestrained. Under civilian control, a paramilitary special mobile force and a special supporting unit are responsible for internal security. These forces, under the command of the Commissioner of Police, are backed by a general duty police force. They are largely apolitical and generally well trained, but police abuse of suspects in custody continued to be a problem. The economy is based on labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing (mainly textiles), sugar, and tourism. About 85 percent of cultivable land is planted with sugar cane. The country weathered well the global economic slowdown of the early 1990's and is now attempting to diversify its economy by promoting investment in new sectors, such as offshore companies and electronics, and developing Mauritius as a regional financial center. Although political and civil rights are protected under the Constitution and generally respected in practice, some human rights abuses occurred in 1994. One drug-trafficking suspect died under unexplained circumstances of injuries suffered while in police custody. In fighting drug trafficking, the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that would give the Government authority to detain without charge or trial those persons suspected of illegal drug operations. The Government controls the electronic media tightly, and it used the Official Secrets Act in October to detain briefly three journalists for publishing an internal memorandum which had long been in the public domain. Worker rights continued to be a controversial area, and the right to strike remains extremely limited. Several highly publicized court cases illustrated the problem of societal discrimination and violence against women. 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 killings, but a suspect in police custody on drug charges burned to death in his cell. The police initially called the death a suicide, but the circumstances surrounding the death led human rights groups to call for an independent investigation. As a result, the Commissioner of Police imposed disciplinary transfers on the two officers in charge of the station where the death occurred, and the Prime Minister called for a judicial inquiry into the death. This inquiry was scheduled to begin in early 1995. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment While torture and inhuman punishment are prohibited by law, there were regular well-founded reports of police brutality, involving mistreatment of individuals on the street as well as of suspects in custody. The newly appointed Commissioner of Police displayed a willingness to pursue such reports of abuse. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile Under the Constitution, detained persons have the right to a judicial determination of the legality of their detention. Although the time limit for making this determination is not specified in law, in practice it is usually made within 24 hours. Bail is commonly granted. In July the National Assembly passed legislation to amend the Constitution to allow the Government to detain suspected drug traffickers indefinitely without trial or the possibility of bail. At year's end, the President had not signed the legislation, and it had not come into force. Exile is legally prohibited and not practiced. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The judicial system consists of the Supreme Court, which has appellate powers, and a series of lower courts. Final appeal may be made to the Judicial Committee in the United Kingdom (the Privy Council), and this is routine in the case of death sentences. There are no military or political courts. The legal system has consistently provided fair, public trials for those charged with crimes. Defendants have the right to private or court-appointed counsel. The Supreme Court is also charged under the Constitution with ensuring that new laws are consistent with democratic practice. The new legislation allowing for the indefinite detention of drug traffickers (see Section 1.d.) would amend the Constitution and therefore not be subject to Supreme Court review. There were a number of drug trafficking trials held in 1994, and they were generally fair. There were no instances in 1994 of executive interference with the judiciary. While legal experts express few worries about overt manipulation of the judiciary by the executive, they are concerned about political influence over the Commissioner of Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and a newly established anticorruption tribunal. Nevertheless, the Government was responsive to publicity and public concern about particular instances of corruption and cronyism. There were no political prisoners in 1994. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The sanctity of the home is provided for in law and generally respected in practice. The search of personal property or premises is allowed only under clearly specified conditions by court order or by police action in stopping a crime in progress. There were reliable reports that the Government's intelligence apparatus continued to carry out illegal surveillance of local opposition leaders and other major figures. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press Freedom of speech and press is protected by the Constitution and local tradition and is largely respected in practice. Debate in the National Assembly is lively and open. While there are occasional complaints of government influence in editorial policies, over a dozen privately owned daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers present varying political viewpoints and freely express partisan views, most recently in articles hitting at corruption in government. The Government has the ability to counter press criticism by using strict libel laws; however, the Government did not use these laws to inhibit the press in 1994. The Director of Public Prosecutions dropped its appeal in the 1991 case of two journalists charged with giving out false information concerning a sea captain accused of fishing in Mauritian waters. Libel suits between private parties are quite common. The Government used the Official Secrets Act in October to arrest two editors and the managing director of the weekly magazine Le Mag, ostensibly for publishing an internal document. The document, which was embarrassing to a public official, had been in the public domain for over a year. Amidst an outcry from the opposition and the press, the Prime Minister subsequently said the Commissioner of Police had acted legally but overzealously. After less than 24 hours, the police released the three on bail, but with charges and possible court action still pending at year's end. The Government controls the most important media, television and radio. These remain an official political and cultural tool, with programming and editorial policies generally reflecting government interests. The Government gives opposition politicians negligible broadcast time. Although there has been much discussion about liberalization of the airwaves, private organizations (commercial or political) are not authorized to own or operate broadcast stations. In December the Government decided to authorize the importation of "television reception only" (TVRO) satellite dishes. Regulations implementing the decision, including provision for a registration fee, had not been issued at year's end. The Government generally respects academic freedom but from time to time censors books. In 1994 the Government banned the sale of the book "The Rape of Sita," charging that the title of the book (which refers to the Hindu goddess) would offend the country's Hindu population. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association Political, cultural, and religious assemblies are commonplace. Under the 1991 Public Gathering Act, police permission is required for holding demonstrations and mass meetings. The grounds for denial are very specific, and such permission is rarely refused. Groups have the right to challenge police denials but complain that the time involved in the appeals process often renders the final outcome moot. The police did not interfere with an unauthorized gathering in front of Parliament of journalists and others who were protesting the arrest of three media colleagues (see Section 1.d.). Mauritians enjoy the right to form associations, including political parties, trade unions, and religious organizations, although in practice such organizations need government approval in order to operate officially. There are six political parties represented in the National Assembly and a comparable number of smaller parties without Assembly seats. There are a multitude of other private organizations in the country. c. Freedom of Religion There is no state religion, and the Government does not restrict or interfere with worship by any religious denomination. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation There are no restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, or emigration. However, there is no blanket guarantee of repatriation of former citizens of Mauritius. Applications from Mauritians abroad who lost their citizenship after acquiring a second nationality are handled on a case-by-case and sometimes arbitrary basis. There are no refugees in Mauritius. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens have the right and ability to change their government through democratic means. Parliamentary, municipal, and village council elections are held at regular intervals. All citizens 18 years of age and over have the right to vote and run for office. In the National Assembly up to eight members are appointed through a "best loser" system, designed in part to ensure that all ethnic groups are represented. Political parties often match the ethnicity of their candidates to the ethnic composition of particular electoral districts. While there are no legal impediments to women assuming leadership roles, there are practical barriers. Only 2 of the National Assembly's 66 members are women, and there are few women in leadership positions. Neither the Government nor the political parties have seriously tried to address this imbalance. There has been little public pressure for change in this area, and few women are eager to enter the political fray, preferring to pursue other careers. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights Local human rights groups monitor developments without governmental restriction or interference. There have been no known requests by international organizations to investigate human rights violations in Mauritius. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, caste, place of origin, political opinion, color, or creed. It is silent on questions of sex, disability, or language (although the latter is essentially covered under the provisions concerning race and place of origin). Women Women have traditionally occupied a subordinate role in society, and legal and societal discrimination continue. Mauritian women cannot transmit citizenship to their foreign-born children (as can Mauritian men), and foreign husbands of Mauritian women cannot automatically obtain residence and work permits (as can foreign wives of Mauritian men). Violence against women is widespread, particularly wife beating, according to the Ministry of Women's Rights and Family Welfare, attorneys, and nongovernmental organizations. There are no special provisions in Mauritian law concerning family violence. The police are generally reluctant to become involved in cases of spousal abuse. The issue received some attention during 1994 through several highly publicized court cases of alleged spousal murder. The Government has tried to promote equality by eliminating legal differentiations based on gender, e.g., in laws dealing with emigration, inheritance, and jury service. The Government has appointed "desk officers" in most ministries who are responsible for ensuring that gender issues are taken into account in policy decisions, but it has undercut their effectiveness by failing to give them enforcement powers. Children Reported incidents of child abuse are infrequent and isolated, though private voluntary organizations claim that the problem is more widespread than publicly acknowledged. At present, most government programs are administered by the state-funded National Children's Council, which provides counseling and investigates reports of child abuse. At the end of the year the Government passed legislation which should provide it with improved means of protecting child welfare. National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or caste is prohibited by law, actively discouraged by the Government, and not generally practiced. People with Disabilities Mauritian law requires organizations which employ more than 10 people to set aside at least 3 percent of their positions for people with disabilities. The law does not, however, require that work sites be accessible to the disabled, making it effectively impossible for people with disabilities to fill many jobs. There is no law mandating access to public buildings or facilities. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The Constitution explicitly protects the right of workers to associate in trade unions. Mauritius has an active trade union movement. Almost 300 unions represent over 100,000 workers, more than 25 percent of the total work force. With the exception of essential workers, including police and military, workers are free to form and join unions and to organize in all sectors, including in the export processing zone (EPZ). Labor unions are independent from the Government. Unions can and do press wage demands, establish ties to domestic political parties, and address political issues. Unions are free to establish federations or confederations. Under the industrial relations act (IRA), unions have the legal right to strike. In practice, however, the IRA requires a prestrike 21-day cooling-off period, followed by binding arbitration, which has the effect of making most strikes illegal. Moreover, the IRA states that worker participation in a strike not approved by a court is sufficient grounds for dismissal. According to Ministry of Labor statistics, there were four strikes in 1994. Under the law, unions may and do establish ties with international labor bodies. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively The right of employees to bargain collectively with their employers is protected by law. However, the collective bargaining process is weakened by excessive government intervention in the form of wage-setting in the state sector, which is generally used as the basis for private-sector pay. Wages are set by the National Remuneration Board (NRB), whose chairman is appointed by the Minister of Labor. About 12 percent of the labor force (480,000) works for national or local government. The IRA prohibits antiunion discrimination. There is an arbitration tribunal which handles any such complaints. Mauritius has an export processing zone (EPZ) which currently employs about 90,000 people. While there are some EPZ-specific labor laws, such as provisions allowing EPZ employers to require up to 10 hours per week of paid overtime from their employees, workers in this sector enjoy the same basic protections as non-EPZ workers. Statutory minimum wage levels in the EPZ are somewhat lower than elsewhere, but due to the country's labor shortage actual wage levels are nearly double the minimum wage. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law and not practiced. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The legal minimum age for employment of children is 15. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement. Reports of underage children working illegally are uncommon. While there have been cases of children under 15 working in the EPZ, the large, established EPZ factories do not hire children under 15. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Government administratively establishes minimum wages, which vary according to the sector of employment, and it mandates minimum wage increases each year based on inflation. The minimum wage for an unskilled worker in the EPZ is $11 (188 Mauritian rupees) per week, while the lowest weekly wage for a non-EPZ worker is about $12 (200 rupees). While this is significantly below the level needed to provide an acceptable standard of living, the actual market wage for most workers is much higher due to the present labor shortage. The standard legal workweek in the industrial sector is 45 hours. In the EPZ an employee may be required to work an additional 10 hours per week, although at a higher hourly wage. The Government sets health and safety standards, and Ministry of Labor officials inspect working conditions. The small number of inspectors limits the Government's enforcement ability. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.(###)
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