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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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[end of document]

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