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Title: Gabon Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 GABON A one-party state until 1990, Gabon held its first multiparty elections in 1991, with President Omar Bongo's party retaining a large majority in the National Assembly. President Bongo, in office since 1967, was reelected in 1993 in an election marred by serious irregularities. After several months of contention and civil unrest, parties supporting the President and the principal opposition parties negotiated in October 1994 the "Paris Accords," which included promises of reforms to amend electoral procedures, to include opposition leaders in the Government and to assure greater respect for human rights. More than 96 percent of citizens voting in a national referendum in July endorsed laws and constitutional amendments codifying these reforms. The 27-member Cabinet includes 6 opposition leaders. Municipal and legislative elections are scheduled for 1996. The judiciary is generally independent, but remains vulnerable to government manipulation. The national police and the gendarmerie enforce the law and maintain public security. In accordance with the Paris Accords, the National Assembly reassigned authority over the security forces from the Ministry of Defense to the civilian Ministry of the Interior and redesignated as the "Republican Guard" the elite heavily-armed corps which protects the President. In 1994 the Defense Minister used this corps for violent repression of public dissent, but in 1995 there were no instances in which it acted with undue force. The Government generally adheres to free market principles, particularly in the export sector, which is dominated by petroleum, timber, and minerals. A majority of workers in the formal sector are employed by the Government or by large, inefficient parastatal organizations. Per capita income is approximately $5,000 annually, but income distribution is badly skewed in favor of urban dwellers and a small economic elite. Immigrants from other African countries dominate the informal sector. The rural population is poor and receives little in social services. Financial mismanagement and corruption in earlier years have resulted in significant arrears in domestic and external debt. The Government has begun a 3-year Structural Adjustment Program with the International Monetary Fund. The Government's human rights performance improved, with no use of deadly force to control crowds, a significant reduction in killings, and initiatives to promote democratic electoral practices. Civil peace generally prevailed as the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and its coalition partners conducted negotiations with the opposition parties, appealed to legal institutions, and used international mediation to resolve differences over interpretation and implementation of the Paris Accords. The Government reinforced its control over illegal immigration and repatriated undocumented aliens. This was carried out with abuses limited to demands for bribes by some minor officials. However, the Interior Minister personally intimidated the management of the only rotary printing plant into refusing to print three editions of certain weekly independent newspapers which he found offensive to the Government. On one occasion he briefly blocked imports of French newspapers and magazines. Other longstanding human rights abuses included security forces' beatings of prisoners and detainees, abysmal prison conditions, and 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 instances of political killing. In January policemen in Libreville pursued two armed individuals suspected of car theft. After wounding one of them, police appeared to carry out a summary execution of the other at a distance of 58 meters from eyewitnesses. They also hunted down and shot to death a third armed suspect in bushes nearby. The chief of police later said that he would order an investigation into the circumstances, but he did not subsequently publish or divulge the results of an inquiry. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Constitution prohibits the use of torture and inhuman or extreme punishment. However, security forces often beat prisoners and detainees as punishment and to exact confessions. Conditions in most prisons are abysmal and life threatening. Sanitation and ventilation are poor, and medical care is almost nonexistent. Prisons rarely provide food for inmates. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The law provides for up to 48 hours of initial preventive detention, during which time police must charge a detainee before a judge. In practice, however, police rarely respect this provision. Bail may be set if there is to be a further investigation. The Government gave illegal aliens a 6-month period--initially until January 31, 1995, but extended to February 15--to legalize their status. It then reinitiated measures to detect and detain aliens without approved residence papers. The police generally released illegal aliens only after the embassies of their countries of origin confirmed that the aliens would be repatriated at their government's expense. Exile is not used as a punishment nor as a means of political control, and there are no opposition leaders currently living in exile. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The judicial system includes the regular courts, a Military Tribunal, and a civilian State Security Court. The regular court system includes trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court is a separate body charged with examining constitutional questions, including the certification of elections. There are no traditional or customary courts. In some areas minor disputes may be taken to a local chief, but the Government does not recognize such decisions. The State Security Court, last convened in 1990, is constituted by the Government on an ad hoc basis to consider matters of state security. The Constitution provides for the right to a public trial and the right to legal counsel. These rights are generally respected in criminal cases. Nevertheless, procedural safeguards are lacking, particularly in state security trials, and the judiciary remains vulnerable to government manipulation. The law still applies the concept of presumed guilt. A judge may thus deliver an immediate verdict at the initial hearing if sufficient evidence is presented by the State. There were no reports of political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution provides for protection from surveillance, from searches without warrant, and from interference with private telecommunications or correspondence. As part of criminal investigations, police may request search warrants from judges, which they obtain easily, sometimes after the fact. The Government has used them in the past to gain access to the homes of opposition figures and their families. Government authorities also routinely monitor private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movements of citizens. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Constitution provides for the right of free speech and press, and in practice, citizens speak freely and criticize leaders. Legislators in the National Assembly openly criticize government policies, ministers, and other officials. The only daily newspaper is the government-owned L'Union, but there are more than a half-dozen weekly or periodical publications in newspaper format, representing independent views and those of various political parties. All--including L'Union--actively criticized the Government and political leaders of all parties. Most also criticized the President. On three occasions, the Minister of the Interior prohibited the publication or distribution of editions which he judged offensive, issuing extralegal instructions directly to the country's only industrial press instead of seeking an injunction from the National Communications Counsel, as required by law. The Government controls national electronic media, which reaches all areas of the country. It announced the award of licenses for three private radio stations. As part of the Paris Accords, the Government undertook to obtain authorization from the National Assembly to compensate those who suffered damages in the 1994 rioting and riot control actions, including the owners of the political opposition's Radio Liberty. The National Assembly approved a code of rights and responsibilities of journalists and broadcasters after the Government carried out extensive consultations with media industry representatives. The Government does not interfere with broadcasts of international radio stations Radio France 1, Africa No. 1, and Voice of America, but it did very briefly censor international printed media. Although foreign newspapers and magazines were widely available, for a period of several weeks in April the Minister of the Interior imposed an extralegal ban on foreign publications containing news articles which he judged to be offensive to the President. There are no restrictions on academic freedom, including research. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association Citizens and recognized organizations normally enjoy freedom of assembly and association. Groups must obtain permits for public gatherings in advance, and the Government usually grants them. c. Freedom of Religion The Constitution provides for religious freedom, and authorities do not engage in religious persecution or favoritism. While the Government has not lifted its ban on Jehovah's Witnesses, it has not enforced this ban. There is no state religion. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation There are no legally mandated restrictions on internal movement, but police and gendarmes frequently stop travelers to check identity, residence, or registration documents, and members of the security forces routinely harass expatriate Africans working legally as merchants, service sector employees, and manual laborers, extorting bribes and demanding services with the threat of confiscation of residence documents or imprisonment. Residence permits cost approximately $1,000. An unevenly enforced law requires married women to have their husband's permission to travel abroad. An exit visa for citizens is no longer required for travel abroad. Aliens legally resident in the country must obtain a visa in order to leave and return. The Government still controls the process of refugee adjudication, and its policy is strict. Coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has improved, however, and there were no credible reports that the Government forcibly repatriated illegal aliens. There were about 200 refugees at year's end. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government The 1991 Constitution explicitly provides this right, but mismanagement and serious irregularities in both the 1990 and the 1993 presidential elections called into doubt the extent to which this right existed in practice. However, in July citizens approved in a constitutional referendum by a 96 percent majority to adopt changes previously agreed in the Paris Accords, including most significantly the establishment of an independent National Electoral Commission. The July election was carried out under arrangements which assured that all political parties could monitor voting and the vote count. Later in the year, the National Assembly passed laws authorizing the National Electoral Commission. Municipal elections were scheduled for 1996. There are no restrictions on the participation of women and minorities in politics. There are 6 women among the 120 National Assembly deputies and 1 in the Cabinet. Women serve at all levels within the various ministries, the judiciary, and the opposition. Despite governmental protections, indigenous Pygmies rarely participate in the political process, and the Government has made only marginal efforts to include them (see Section 5). Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights The Government officially allows the existence of independent human rights groups. There are two human rights groups, neither of which was active. There were no reports of harassment by officials. There have been no active inquiries from foreign groups in recent years. The Government was responsive to the concerns expressed by foreign governments and by international observers in response to its announcement that immigration controls would be strictly enforced after January 31 (subsequently extended to February 15). The President and ministers issued specific instructions to assure humane and correct treatment for aliens arrested without proper documentation. These immigration controls resulted in the departure of between 30,000 and 50,000 undocumented aliens. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The 1991 Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, race, gender, or opinion. The Government does not uniformly enforce these constitutional guarantees, tolerating a substantial degree of discrimination against women, especially in domestic affairs. It has also not provided the same level of health and educational services to expatriate children that it provides to citizens. Women Violence against women is common and especially prevalent in rural areas. While medical authorities have not specifically identified rape to be a chronic problem, religious workers and hospital staff report that evidence of physical beatings of women is common. Police rarely intervene in these cases and women virtually never file complaints with civil authorities. Only limited medical and legal assistance is available. The law provides that women have rights to equal access in education, business, and investment. Women own businesses and property, participate in politics, and work throughout the Government and the private sector. Women nevertheless continue to face considerable societal and legal discrimination, especially in rural areas. By law couples must stipulate at the time of marriage whether they will adhere to monogamous or polygynous relationships. For monogamous married couples, a common property law provides for the equal distribution of assets after divorce. Wives who leave polygynous husbands suffer severe reductions in their property rights. In inheritance cases the husband's family must issue a written authorization before his widow can inherit property. Common law marriage, which is also socially accepted and widely practiced, affords a woman no property rights. A National Assembly committee proposed modification of the marriage law to allow husbands to change the legal status of the marriage from monogamy to polygyny without the consent of the first wife. The proposed text would have retroactive effect. If enacted, the proposed law, which the Assembly did not formally present to the Government, would significantly reduce women's rights by retroactively denying them the protection of a permanently monogamous marriage and could permit husbands to deny property rights previously conferred by the monogamous marriage. Women's rights groups vigorously oppose the proposal. There law still requires that women obtain their husband's permission to travel abroad although this law is not consistently enforced. Children The Government has used Gabon's oil wealth to build schools, pay adequate teacher salaries and promote education, even in rural areas. Even so, according to U.N. statistics, Gabon still lags behind its poorer neighbors in infant mortality and access to vaccination. Traditional beliefs and practices provide numerous safeguards for children, but children remain the responsibility of the extended family, including aunts, grandmothers, and older siblings. There is little recorded evidence of specific physical abuse of children. There is concern about the problems facing the large community of expatriate African children. Almost all enjoy far less access to education and health care than do nationals. These children are often victims of child labor abuses (see Section 6.d.). People with Disabilities There are no laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, nor providing for accessibility for the disabled. An Association of the Physically Handicapped carried out a campaign of demonstrations and public education to raise awareness of their situation. Indigenous People Several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in southern Gabon. In principle, they enjoy the same civil rights as other citizens. Pygmies are largely independent of formal authority, keeping their own traditions, independent communities, and local decisionmaking structures. Pygmies did not participate in government-instituted programs that integrated many small rural villages into larger ones along major roads; thus their access to government-funded health and sanitation facilities is limited. There are no specific government programs or policies to assist or hinder Pygmies. National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities Persons from all major ethnic groups continued to occupy prominent positions in government, the military, and the private sector. Credible reports suggest, however, that ethnic favoritism in hiring and promotion is pervasive. There was evidence, especially within the armed forces, that members of the President's ethnic group held a disproportionately large share of both senior positions and jobs within the ranks. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The 1991 Constitution places no restrictions on the right of association and recognizes the right of citizens to form trade and labor unions. Virtually the entire work force is unionized. Unions must register with the Government in order to be recognized officially. Public employees may unionize although their right to strike is limited if it could jeopardize public safety. Until 1990 there was only one recognized labor organization, the Gabonese Labor Confederation (COSYGA), to which all workers were required to contribute 4 percent of their salaries. In 1992 the Government accepted the establishment of independent unions and abolished the mandatory COSYGA contribution. In November 1994 the National Assembly passed an extensively revised version of the Labor Code, which was published and implemented in early 1995. The Code provides extensive protection of worker rights. Strikes are legal if they occur after an 8-day notice advising that outside arbitration has failed. The Labor Code prohibits direct government action against individual strikers who abide by its arbitration and notification provisions; it also provides that the Government cannot press charges against a group as a whole for criminal activities committed by individuals. Unions and confederations are free to affiliate with international labor bodies and participate in their activities. COSYGA is directly affiliated with the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, while the Gabonese Confederation of Free Unions (CGSL) is affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Both COSYGA and CGSL have strong ties with numerous other international labor organizations. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively The Labor Code provides for collective bargaining. Labor and management meet to negotiate differences, and the Ministry of Labor provides an observer. This observer does not take an active part in negotiations over pay scales, working conditions, or benefits. Agreements also apply to nonunion workers. While no laws specifically prohibit antiunion discrimination, the court may require employers found guilty by civil courts of having engaged in such discrimination to pay compensation. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor The law prohibits forced labor, and there are no reports that it now exists. d. Minimum Age for the Employment of Children Children below the age of 16 may not work without the express consent of the Ministries of Labor, Education, and Public Health. These ministries rigorously enforce this law with respect to Gabonese children, and there are few Gabonese under the age of 18 working in the modern wage sector. A significant number of children work in marketplaces or perform domestic duties. The U.N. Children's Fund and other concerned organizations have reported that government officials often privately use foreign child labor, mainly as domestic or agricultural help. These children do not go to school, have only limited means of acquiring medical attention, and are often victims of exploitation by employers or foster families. Laws forbidding child labor theoretically extend protection to foreign children as well, but abuses often are not reported. There is no compulsory education law. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Labor Code governs working conditions and benefits for all sectors and provide a broad range of protection to workers. The Code stipulates a 40-hour workweek with a minimum rest period of 48 consecutive hours. Employers must compensate workers for overtime work. Foreign and local companies in the modern wage sector pay competitive wages and grant generous fringe benefits, including maternity leave and 6 weeks of annual paid vacation. Traditionally representatives of labor, management, and the Government met annually to examine economic and labor conditions and to recommend a minimum wage rate within government guidelines to the President, who then issued an annual decree. This procedure was not followed in 1995, however, in part because the Government was pursuing a policy of wage austerity recommended by international financial institutions. The minimum monthly wage was kept at its 1994 level of about $125 (cfa 64,000). Wages do in fact provide for a decent standard of living. The Ministry of Health has established occupational health and safety standards, but does not effectively enforce or regulate them. Industry application of labor standards varies greatly depending upon company policy. The Government reportedly did not enforce Labor Code provisions in sectors where the bulk of the labor force is non-Gabonese. Foreigners, both documented and undocumented, may be obliged to work under substandard conditions, may be dismissed without notice or recourse or, especially in the case of illegal aliens, may be physically mistreated. Employers frequently require longer hours of work and pay less, often hiring on a short-term, casual basis only in order to avoid paying taxes, social security, and other benefits. In the formal sector, workers may remove themselves from dangerous work situations. without fear of retribution. (###)
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