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Title: Belize Human Rights Practices, 1995
Author:  U.S. Department of State
Date:  March 1996




                           BELIZE


Belize is a parliamentary democracy with a Constitution enacted in 1981 
upon independence from the United Kingdom.  The Prime Minister, a 
Cabinet of Ministers, and a Legislative Assembly govern the country.  
The Governor General represents Queen Elizabeth II in the largely 
ceremonial role of Head of State.  Both local and national elections are 
scheduled on a constitutionally prescribed basis.

The Police Department has primary responsibility for law enforcement and 
maintenance of order.  The Belize Defence Force (BDF) is responsible for 
external security, but when deemed appropriate by civilian authorities 
may be tasked to assist the Police Department.  Both the police and the 
BDF report to the Minister of National Security and are responsible to 
and controlled by civilian authorities.  There were occasional reports 
of abuse by the police.

The economy is primarily agricultural, although tourism is now the 
number one foreign exchange earner.  The agricultural sector is heavily 
dependent on preferential access to export markets for sugar and for 
bananas.  The Government favors free enterprise and generally encourages 
investment, although domestic investors are given preferential treatment 
over foreign investors in a number of key economic sectors.  Preliminary 
estimates put 1995 gross domestic product growth at 2 percent in real 
terms.  Belize has an annual per capita income of $2,200.

The Constitution provides for, and citizens enjoy in practice, a wide 
range of fundamental rights and freedoms.  Principal human rights abuses 
include occasional use of excessive force by the police when making 
arrests, discrimination and domestic violence against women, and 
employer mistreatment of immigrant workers in the banana industry.

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.

  b.  Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

  c.  Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or 
Punishment

The Constitution forbids torture or other inhuman punishment.  Although 
there were several credible reports of mistreatment and abuse by police, 
no police or prison officer was charged with or convicted of such an 
offense in 1995.  The Police Department, the Police Complaints Board, 
and on occasion special independent commissions appointed by the Prime 
Minister investigate any allegations of official abuse.

The Hattieville prison opened 2 years ago and replaced the notoriously 
decrepit Belize City prison.  Although designed to hold 500 inmates, it 
now houses well over 900 or about 5 prisoners per 10- by 12-foot cell.  
There are no reports of human rights abuses at the prison.

  d.  Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, and the 
Government generally observes these prohibitions.  The law requires the 
police to inform a detainee of the cause of detention within 48 hours of 
arrest and to bring the person before a court within 72 hours.  In 
practice, the authorities normally inform detainees immediately of the 
charges against them.  Bail is granted in all but the most serious 
cases.  However, many detainees cannot afford bail, and backlogs in the 
judicial system often cause considerable delays and postponements of 
hearings, resulting in an overcrowded prison and prolonged incarceration 
before trial.

 The Constitution forbids exile, and it does not occur.

  e.  Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the 
Government generally respects this provision in practice.  Persons 
accused of civil or criminal offenses have constitutional rights to 
presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, defense 
by counsel, a public trial, and appeal.  Trial by jury is mandatory in 
capital cases.  Those convicted by either a magistrate's court or the 
Supreme Court may appeal to the Court of Appeal.  In some cases, 
including those resulting in a capital sentence, the convicted party may 
make a final appeal to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom.  The 
Privy Council has agreed to hear several such appeals in 1995, thereby 
delaying execution of the capital sentences.

The authorities respect the constitutional guarantees in practice, 
although the fact that prominent government leaders continue to practice 
law while in office brought the judiciary's independence into question 
on several occasions.  

For example, when the Speaker of the House was photographed in the 
company of a client reputed to have direct links to the Cali cocaine 
cartel by a journalist from an opposition newspaper, a dispute ensued 
and the Speaker was accused by the journalist of misdemeanor assault.  
Although a police official corroborated the journalist's version of 
events, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence and the 
charges against the Speaker were dismissed.

The appearance of judicial independence from the executive branch is 
compromised because judges and the Chief Prosecutor must negotiate 
renewal of their employment contracts with the Government and thus may 
be vulnerable to political interference.  The Supreme Court and 
magistrate courts suffer backlogs aggravated by the inability to 
maintain a full complement of judges.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

  f.  Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or 
Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits such practices, government authorities 
generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to 
effective legal sanctions.

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 generally respects this right in practice.  A wide range 
of viewpoints is publicly presented without government interference in 
six privately owned weekly newspapers (there is no daily press), half of 
which are directly subsidized by major political parties.  All 
newspapers are subject to the constraints of libel laws.

Since Belize's first privately owned commercial radio station began 
broadcasting in 1990, other stations have since been established, 
broadening the audience's choices.  Popular radio call-in programs are 
lively and feature open criticism of and comment on government and 
political matters.  Through financial subsidies, the Government 
continues to exert substantial editorial influence over the nominally 
autonomous Broadcasting Corporation of Belize (BCB) and its two radio 
stations; BCB once held a monopoly on radio in the country.  The 
Government utilizes BCB studios and facilities to produce partisan 
advertisements and party propaganda.

There are eight privately owned television broadcasting stations, 
including several cable networks in Belize City and the major towns.  
The Government's Belize Information Service 

and the independent television stations--Channels 5 and 7--produce local 
news and feature programs.  The Belize Broadcasting Authority (BBA) 
regulates broadcasting and asserts its right to preview certain 
broadcasts, such as those with political content, and to delete any 
defamatory or personally libelous material from political broadcasts.  
As far as is known, the BBA did not exercise this authority during 1995 
although there appeared to be ample opportunity to do so in the face of 
the aggressive and negative media campaigns each party waged against the 
other's political leadership.

The Belize Press Association was formed in 1995 and is seeking to find 
common, professional ground among the disparate, usually partisan 
members of the press.  One of the new association's main goals is to 
obtain increased access to government information.  The association 
hopes to utilize the country's Freedom of Information Act in this 
effort.  However, this act as well as the Constitution permit the 
Government to withhold information for a wide variety of reasons, 
including public safety, health, and national security.

When the Government decided to repatriate several Cuban families by 
airplane to Havana (see Section 2.d.), the BDF barred the press from 
covering the story at the airport.  The BDF arrested a reporter and 
seized her video tape after she gained access to the airport and 
ventured onto the tarmac where the Cubans were being loaded onto a 
Cubana aircraft by BDF troops.  Formal charges against the reporter were 
not filed and the video tape was eventually returned.

The owner of a Cayo district radio station identified with the 
opposition party filed criminal charges against two Cabinet Ministers.  
He alleged that the Ministers broke into the station, beat him, and 
destroyed equipment.  At year's end, the case was pending in court.

The law provides for academic freedom and the Government respects it in 
practice.

  b.  Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and the authorities 
honor it in practice.  Political parties and other groups with political 
objectives freely hold rallies and mass meetings.  The organizers of 
public meetings must obtain a permit 36 hours in advance of the 
meetings; such permits are not denied for political reasons.  In July 
the opposition People's United Party (PUP) held a mass street 
demonstration and political rally in downtown Belize City drawing 
thousands of participants (many brought in from outlying districts).  
The Constitution permits citizens to form and join associations of their 
choice, both political and nonpolitical.

  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.

In the wake of the civil conflicts in Central America during the 1980's, 
over 40,000 mostly Hispanic immigrants came to Belize, many of them 
entering illegally and living in the country without documentation.  The 
Government generally cooperates with the United Nations High 
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations 
in assisting refugees.  The UNHCR provides the majority of funding for 
refugee programs in the country, including the salaries of most of the 
employees in the Government's Department of Refugees.  The UNHCR is 
concerned about the ambiguity of the immigrants' status; less than one-
fifth are documented.

During the banana harvest season, the Government deported many 
undocumented agricultural workers, mostly Guatemalans and Hondurans.  In 
the process, a number of persons with legal resident status were also 
deported.  The Government is investigating the matter.

Several boatloads of Cuban immigrants arrived in Belize early in the 
year.  After the first group arrived in Belize City harbor aboard an 
unseaworthy vessel and applied for refugee status, there followed almost 
a month of intense policy debate within the Cabinet (during which time 
the immigrants were detained in a military camp).  The Government 
decided to deny their application and to repatriate them by air to 
Havana.  Subsequent Cuban immigrants' boats were intercepted offshore, 
repaired, reprovisioned, and asked to leave Belizean waters.

Section 3  Respect for Political Rights:  The Right of Citizens to 
Change Their Government

Belize is a democracy governed by a Legislative Assembly, with executive 
direction from a Cabinet of Ministers headed by Prime Minister Manuel 
Esquivel.  The law requires national elections at least every 5 years.

All elections are by secret ballot, and suffrage is universal for 
citizens 18 years and older.  National political parties include the 
People's United Party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the 
National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR).  The nation's ethnic 
diversity is reflected in each party's membership.  The Government 
changed hands (for the third time since independence in 1981) in 1993 
when a coalition of the UDP and the NABR won 16 of 29 seats in the House 
of Representatives.

Women hold a number of appointive offices, including three of nine 
Senate seats.  One member of the House of Representatives is a woman, 
but women in elective office are the exception rather than the rule.  
None hold senior positions higher than membership on the executive 
committees of the political parties.  No laws impede participation of 
women in politics; their scarcity in electoral politics can be 
attributed to tradition and socioeconomic factors.

Section 4  Governmental Attitude Regarding International and 
Nongovernmental Investigation 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 
activities.  The Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB), a 
nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliated with regional human rights 
organizations and partly funded by the UNHCR, operates free of 
government restriction on a range of issues, including refugee and 
agricultural workers' rights, cases of alleged police abuse, and cases 
of alleged illegal deportations of Central American nationals.  The HRCB 
publicizes, and urges police and other government bodies to act upon, 
complaints it receives.  Local and international human rights groups 
operate freely, and the Government cooperates with independent 
investigations of human rights conditions.

Section 5  Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, 
Language, or Social Status

Belize is a multiracial, multiethnic country, and the Government 
actively promotes tolerance and cross-cultural understanding.  
Discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds is illegal and not common, 
although ethnic tension, particularly resentment of recently arrived 
Central American and Asian immigrants, continued to be a problem.

  Women

Domestic violence against women is a chronic problem.  Women Against 
Violence, an NGO with branches throughout the country, runs a shelter 
for battered women and a hotline for rape victims.

Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women face social and 
economic prejudices.  For example, women find it more difficult than men 
to obtain business and agricultural 

financing and other resources.  Most employed women are concentrated in 
female-dominated occupations with traditionally low status and wages.  A 
Women's Bureau in the Ministry of Labor and Social Services is charged 
with developing programs to improve the status of women.  A number of 
officially registered women's groups work closely with various 
government ministries in promoting social awareness programs.  Women 
have access to education and are active in all spheres of national life, 
but relatively few are found in top managerial positions.  While the law 
mandates that women receive equal pay for equal work, women wage earners 
often earn less than men in similar jobs.  There are no legal 
impediments to women owning or managing land or other real property.

  Children

There is a Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Resources 
devoted primarily to children's issues.  The division coordinates 
programs for children who are victims of domestic violence, advocates 
remedies in specific cases before the Family Court, conducts public 
education campaigns, and works with NGO's and the United Nations 
Children's Fund to promote children's welfare.  There is also a National 
Committee for Families and Children, chaired by the Minister of Human 
Resources.  There is no pattern of societal abuse of children.

  People with Disabilities

The law does not mandate specifically the provision of accessibility for 
disabled persons nor prohibit job discrimination against them.  The 
Government's Disability Services Unit, as well as a number of NGO's such 
as the Belize Association of and for Persons with Disabilities and the 
Belize Center for the Visually Impaired, provide assistance to 
physically disabled persons.  Disabled children have access to 
government special education facilities.

Section 6  Worker Rights

  a.  The Right of Association

By statute and in practice, workers are free to establish and join trade 
unions.  Eleven independent unions, with an estimated 9 percent of the 
labor force, represent a cross-section of white-collar, blue-collar, and 
professional workers, including most civil service employees.  Several 
of the unions, however, are moribund and inactive.  The Ministry of 
Labor recognizes unions after they file with the Office of Registry.  
The law empowers members to draft the by-laws and constitutions of their 
unions, and they are free to elect officers from among the membership at 
large.  Unions which choose not to hold elections may act as 
representatives for their membership, but the National Trade Union 
Congress permits 

only unions which hold free and annual elections of officers to join its 
ranks.  Both law and precedent effectively protect unions against 
dissolution or suspension by administrative authority.

Although no unions are officially affiliated with political parties, 
several are sympathetic to one or the other of the two main parties (the 
UDP and the PUP).  Unions freely exercise the right to form federations 
and confederations and affiliate with international organizations.  The 
law permits unions to strike, but unions representing essential services 
may strike only after giving 21 days' notice to the ministry concerned.  
The Public Service Union, which is the bargaining unit for some 1,400 
civil servants, is at loggerheads with the Government over the latter's 
decision earlier this year to withhold a promised pay raise.

  b.  The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides for collective bargaining and unions freely practice it 
throughout the country.  Employers and unions set wages in free 
negotiations, or, more commonly, employers simply establish them.  The 
Labor Commissioner acts as a conciliator in deadlocked collective 
bargaining negotiations between labor and management, offering 
nonbinding counsel to both sides.  Historically, the Commissioner's 
guidance has been voluntarily accepted.  However, should either union or 
management choose not to accept the Commissioner's decision, both are 
entitled to a legal hearing of the case, provided that it is linked to 
some provision of civil or criminal law.

The Constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination both before and 
after a union is registered.  Unions may freely organize, but the law 
does not require employers to recognize a union as a bargaining agent.  
Some employers have been known to block union organization by 
terminating the employment of key union sympathizers, usually on grounds 
purportedly unrelated to union activities.  Effective redress is 
extremely difficult in such situations.  Technically, a worker may file 
a complaint with the Labor Department, but it has been virtually 
impossible to prove that a termination was due to union activity.

The Labor Code applies in the country's two export processing zones 
(EPZ's).  There are no unions in the EPZ's, however, reflecting the 
general weakness of organized labor in the country.

  c.  Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution forbids forced labor, and it is not known to occur.

  d.  Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 14 years, or 17 years for employment 
near hazardous machinery.  Inspectors from the Ministries of Labor and 
Education enforce this regulation, although in recent years school 
truancy officers, who have historically borne the brunt of the 
enforcement burden, have been less active.  The law requires children 
between the ages of 5 and 14 to attend school, but there are many 
truants and dropouts.

  e.  Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage is $1.12 (BZ$2.25) per hour, except in export 
industries where it is $1.00 (BZ$2.00) per hour.  For domestic workers 
and shop assistants in stores where liquor is not consumed, the rate is 
$0.87 (BZ$1.75) per hour.  The minimum wage law does not cover workers 
paid on a piecework basis.  The Ministry of Labor is charged with 
enforcing the legal minimum wage, which is generally respected in 
practice.  The minimum wage as a sole source of income is inadequate to 
provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.  Most 
salaried workers receive more than the minimum wage.

The law sets the normal workweek at no more than 6 days or 45 hours.  It 
requires payment for overtime work and an annual paid vacation of 2 
weeks.  A patchwork of health and safety regulations covers numerous 
industries, and the Ministries of Labor and Public Health enforce these 
regulations in varying degrees.  Enforcement is not universal 
countrywide, and the ministries commit their limited inspection and 
investigative resources principally to urban and more accessible rural 
areas where labor, health, and safety complaints have been registered.  
Workers have the legal right to remove themselves from a dangerous 
workplace situation without jeopardy to continued employment.

The exploitation of undocumented Hispanic workers, particularly young 
service workers and workers in the banana industry, continues to be a 
major issue for the Government, the HRCB and other concerned citizens.  
Undocumented immigrants working in the Stann Creek area banana industry 
for years have cited poor working and living conditions and routine 
nonpayment of wages.  However, little progress has been made in 
resolving or precluding these systemic problems.

(###)

[end of document]

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