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Title: Benin Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 BENIN The Republic of Benin is a constitutional democracy headed by President Nicephore Soglo. The Government respects the constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary in practice, including the Constitutional Court's ruling upholding the National Assembly's establishment of a new autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA). Elections held in March for the National Assembly were generally free and fair and open to international observers. There were, however, a few instances of government interference with opposition political campaigning, and the Constitutional Court annulled the results in 2 of the 18 electoral districts, resulting in a special round of elections in May for these 2 districts. There are 18 political parties represented in the new National Assembly whose membership was increased from 64 to 83 by a new electoral law. No party or grouping commands a majority of seats. 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. The military continued to play an apolitical role in government affairs, but there were some concerns about morale within its ranks, its ethnic imbalance, and the depth of its commitment to constitutional rule. Benin is a poor country with an annual per capita Gross National Product of approximately $400. The economy is largely characterized by subsistence agriculture in rural areas and informal services in urban areas. Approximately 70 percent of the population is engaged in farming, fishing, forestry, and livestock raising. The leading exports are cotton and crude oil from small-scale offshore oil production. The Government continued implementing an austere economic policy to privatize state-owned enterprises, eliminate price controls, increase exports, and reduce fiscal expenditures. Its policy is aimed at setting the foundation for a market economy and fostering growth in the private sector. Foreign aid is an important source of national income. The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens as 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 some abuse of children. 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 killings. However, a rising crime rate and a lack of police responsiveness led to more reports of mob justice. There was an increase in citizen groups killing or inflicting 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. The government investigation into the killing of seven nomadic children in the interior in 1994 is apparently closed and did not result in any prosecutions. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no confirmed reports that government forces employed them. The Government continued to make payments to victims of torture under the previous military regime which ruled from 1972 to 1989. Prison conditions continue to be harsh. Extensive overcrowding and lack of proper sanitation and medical facilities pose a risk to prisoner's health. The prison diet is grossly inadequate, and malnutrition and disease are common among prisoners. Prisoners are allowed to meet with visitors. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government generally observes this prohibition. The Constitution prohibits detention of persons for more than 48 hours without a hearing before 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 long 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. The Constitution prohibits forced exile of its citizens, and many who went into exile under previous governments have returned. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary and the right to a fair public trial, and the Government generally respects these provisions in practice. Judges are answerable only to the law in carrying out their duties. However, the executive has important powers in respect of the judiciary. The President appoints career magistrates as judges in civil courts, and the Constitution gives the Ministry of Justice administrative authority over judges, including the power to transfer them. A civilian court system operates on the national and provincial levels. Military disciplinary councils deal with minor offenses by military members. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in all administrative and judicial matters. The Constitutional Court is charged with passing on the constitutionality of laws and decides disputes between the President and the National Assembly. Its rulings against both the executive and legislative branches of government indicated its independence from these two branches of government. The Constitution also provides for a High Court of Justice to convene in the event of crimes committed by the President or government ministers against the State. The legal system is based on French civil law and local customary law. A defendant enjoys the presumption of innocence and has the right to be present at trial, to have an attorney--at public expense if necessary-- to confront or question witnesses, and to have access to government-held evidence. Despite constitutional safeguards, defendants do not always receive timely trial. 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. There were no reports of political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution prohibits such practices, and government authorities generally respect these prohibitions. 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 respects these rights in practice. An independent and active private press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom. Nevertheless, 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. There is no government censorship of the media, books, or art. The High Authority for Audio-Visual and Communications (HAAC), a new constitutionally mandated body, requires broadcasters to submit weekly lists of planned programs and requires publishers to deposit copies of all publications with them. The HAAC solicited bids from private operators to develop private radio stations but at year's end had not approved any licenses. Journalists criticized the HAAC's published criteria for awarding licenses. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. The Government requires permits for use of public places for demonstrations and requires associations to register. Although it routinely grants both permits and registrations, the Government in some instances interfered with activities of political candidates during the campaign for legislative elections. For example, the Government seized the vehicles of an opposition party during the campaign period. It also broke up a political rally held by another opposition figure. The Constitutional Court has consistently and effectively ruled against government interference with the freedom of assembly and association. 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 respects this right in practice. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The presence of police, gendarmerie, and illegal roadblocks, however, 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 announced a more restrictive policy toward transhumance and attempted to enforce it against nomadic herders at more strictly designated entry points. Previous policy allowed migratory Fulani herdsman from other countries to enter freely. Friction between native farmers and foreign herders occasionally leads to violence. The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status. At the end of 1995, there were less than 40,000 refugees in Benin, mainly from Togo, compared to about 60,000 at the beginning of 1995. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government The Constitution provides citizens with the right peacefully to change their government. Citizens exercised this right by secret ballot on the basis of universal suffrage in free and fair elections in 1991 and legislative elections in 1995. A new law, upheld by the Constitutional Court in 1995, created an independent National Electoral Commission (CENA) which effectively improved the fairness and transparency of the voting process. There were a few instances of government interference with these political rights during the legislative campaign (see Section 2.b.), and a lack of coordination between the Government and CENA resulted in administrative deficiencies at some polling stations, e.g., some voting stations ran out of ballots. The Constitutional Court proclaimed the winners only after judging whether the irregularities were so widespread as to warrant a new election. In two of the electoral districts, including the Cotonou district, the Court annulled the results and ordered new elections. This second round of elections was much more orderly, and the Court proclaimed the results officially a few days after the vote. The Constitution provides for a 5-year term of office for the President (who is limited to two terms) and 4-year terms for National Assembly members (who may serve unlimited numbers of terms). Thirty-one political parties fielded candidates for the legislative elections, and 18 parties won seats. In a fluid political environment, three major political groupings have formed in the National Assembly, but none has a majority. Presidential elections are scheduled for 1996. The National Assembly has demonstrated its independence by passing laws, such as the new election laws, which have been upheld by the Constitutional Court against challenges by the President. Women participate actively in the political parties but are underrepresented in government positions. There are now 4 women (there were previously 2 in 1994) in the 20-member Cabinet. There are 6 female deputies in the 83-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. The Government and National Assembly appointed women to 7 of the 17 positions in the National Electoral Commission. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human Rights A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, and religion, but societal discrimination against women continues. Women While no statistics are available, violence against women, including wife beating, occurs. The press sometimes reports incidents of abuse of women, but judges and police are reluctant to intervene in domestic disputes, considering such abuse a family matter. 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 labor 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 do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as men, and female literacy is about 16 percent (male 32 percent). There are active women's rights groups that have been effective in drafting a family code which would improve the status of women under the law. The Government approved the draft family code, but the National Assembly had not passed it by year's end. Children The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for the protection of children's rights, primarily in the areas of education and health. In particular, the Government is trying to boost primary school enrollment which is only about 66 percent. In some parts of the country, girls receive no education at all. 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. Criminal courts mete out stiff sentences to criminals convicted of crimes against children. The Government has been less successful in combating female genital mutilation (FGM), which is not illegal. FGM is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. In Benin it is practiced on females at a young age as well as on teenage girls and women up to age 30. Studies suggest that at least 4 percent of Beninese women are affected by this practice, mostly in the northern provinces. Recent research by a nongovernmental organization found that those who perform such operations, 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 FGM by making available locally produced posters and pamphlets at government health clinics. People With Disabilities Although the Constitution mandates that the State "look after the handicapped," the Government does not mandate accessibility for disabled persons. It does operate 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. 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. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The Constitution provides workers with the freedom to organize, join unions, meet, and strike, and the Government usually respects these rights in practice. The labor force of about 2 million is primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture and other primary sector activities, 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 are four union confederations, and unions are generally independent of government and political parties. The Economic and Social Council, a constitutionally mandated body installed in 1994, includes four union representatives. In 1995 the Constitutional Court overruled a 1994 government decision blocking the formation of a national student union. There were several instances in which labor unions threatened to go on strike, and there were a number of orderly sit-ins (measured in hours), but there were no strikes. There were no known instances of efforts by the Government to retaliate against union activity. Laws prohibit employer retaliation against strikers, and the Government enforces them effectively. Unions may freely form or join federations or confederations and affiliate with international bodies. 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 Labor Code, but the new code had not yet been enacted into law by the end of the year. 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 such labor 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 (and then only in the modern sector), due to the lack of inspectors. Child labor continues on rural family farms, on construction sites in urban areas, and as domestic servants. Children also commonly work as street vendors. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Government administratively sets minimum wage scales for a number of occupations. The minimum wage is approximately $40 per month (CFA20,300 ), which is insufficient 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 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 work conditions but does not do so effectively. (###)
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