The Bahamas is a stable democracy where political rights and civil liberties are generally respected. However, the islands have a relatively high homicide rate. Harsh immigration policies, which mainly affect Haitian-Bahamians and Haitian migrants, are often executed in the absence of due process. Government corruption is a serious problem that is thought to have had significant economic consequences.
- The Bahamas received emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of receiving these funds, the government committed to publishing public procurement contracts intended to address the public health emergency, the ownership information of the companies receiving those contracts, and the results of a specific audit of COVID-19 expenditures. According to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 7,800 people tested positive for coronavirus and 170 people died during the year.
- In November, Peter Turnquest, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, resigned after allegations emerged that he was involved in a fraud scheme worth over $20 million, though he was not charged. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis assumed the finance minister role and appointed Desmond Bannister as the new deputy.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The Bahamas is governed under a parliamentary system, and a mostly ceremonial governor-general is appointed by the British monarch as head of state. The prime minister is head of government and is appointed by the governor-general; the office is usually held by the leader of the largest party in Parliament or the head of a parliamentary coalition. Hubert Minnis became prime minister following the victory of his party, the Free National Movement (FNM), in the May 2017 legislative elections.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Members of the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, the 39-member House of Assembly, are directly elected to five-year terms. The 16 members of the Senate are appointed for five-year terms by the governor-general based on recommendations made by the prime minister and the opposition leader.
In the May 2017 general elections, the ruling Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was defeated by the FNM, which won 35 out of 39 seats in the House of Assembly; Minnis, the FNM leader, was then appointed prime minister. International monitors praised the electoral process but expressed concern about an outdated voter-registration system, the replacement of the parliamentary commissioner—a key administrative official—and the redrawing of electoral districts before the polls.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The electoral process is regulated by the Parliamentary Elections Act and generally well managed by the Parliamentary Registration Department. The parliamentary commissioner heads the department and is appointed by the governor-general acting on the recommendation of the prime minister after consultation with the opposition leader. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted passage of legislation that established a permanent voter register to reduce in-person registration.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political parties may organize freely and operate unhindered. However, as electoral financing is not regulated, there is no legal obligation to disclose funding sources and no limit on campaign spending.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Opposition parties operate without undue interference. Political power has alternated between the PLP and the FNM since the country achieved independence in 1973.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Voters and candidates are generally able to exercise their political choices freely. However, a lack of campaign-finance regulations leaves open avenues for the outsized role of money in politics.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Only citizens may vote, and protracted citizenship and naturalization proceedings make achieving citizenship difficult for children born in the Bahamas to foreign parents. This predominately affects children of Haitian immigrants. Though women and women’s interests remain underrepresented in politics, 7 out of 16 Senators are women, including both the Senate president and vice president. LGBT+ people are underrepresented in politics but continued to be more visible. Advocates for LGBT+ rights reported productive engagement during 2019 with the Office of the Attorney General.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Freely elected officials are generally able to determine national policies in a free and unhindered manner. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parliament approved the prime minister’s state-of-emergency declaration, which implemented a lockdown in the country. Emergency measures remained in place at year’s end.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
The country’s anticorruption mechanisms are relatively weak, and there is no agency specifically empowered to handle allegations of government corruption. Rates of reporting corruption are low, as whistleblowers fear retaliation.
In November 2020, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, Peter Turnquest, resigned after allegations emerged that he was involved in a fraud scheme worth over $20 million, though he was not charged. Prime Minister Minnis assumed the finance minister role and appointed Desmond Bannister as the new deputy. In February, members of the former PLP government were named in a federal lawsuit in the United States alleging they were paid to ignore a decades-long sex trafficking operation. Separately, bribery cases against former labor minister Shane Gibson and former housing and environment minister Kenred Dorsett were dismissed, decisions widely viewed as politicized.
Legislation to establish an independent anticorruption body and an ombudsman remained stalled in 2020. The government committed to anticorruption safeguards that would prevent misuse of public funds intended to handle the COVID-19 public health crisis.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Government procurement processes lack transparency, and political parties and campaigns are not required to disclose their finances. The 2017 Freedom of Information Act and its whistleblower protections were still not fully implemented in 2020. Legislators and other high-ranking public officials must disclose their income and assets under the Public Disclosure Act but often fail to submit the required information on time, without penalty.
A 2019 Fiscal Responsibility Law aims to improve transparency of public sector spending, but its independent oversight and enforcement body was not operational at the end of 2020. Additional bills to manage public debt, improve transparency in public finance and comply with international best practices were opened for consultation.
The Bahamas received emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of receiving these funds, the government committed to publishing public procurement contracts intended to address the public health emergency, publish the ownership information of the companies receiving those contracts, and publish the results of a specific audit of COVID-19 expenditures.
|Are there free and independent media?
Press freedom in the Bahamas is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. The country’s privately owned newspapers and radio broadcasters freely express a variety of views, although partisanship is common.
Libel is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison. Though rarely enforced, Gorman Bannister, who ran news and commentary pages on social media, was charged with libel in 2019 for allegedly posting insults and defamatory statements against a former cabinet minister. He was again arraigned in 2020 for a threatening Facebook voice note against another minister. He was released on bail on both occasions. The Supreme Court also upheld a criminal libel charge related to an acrimonious Facebook exchange.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is generally respected.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic institutions are generally free from political pressure and other interference.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
People can freely express personal views in private and in public without fear of retribution or surveillance. Correctional officers were warned they might lose their jobs for complaining about COVID-19-related prison safety issues.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is protected by the constitution, and the government respects this right in practice. Protests sometimes faced police opposition and restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic led to some arrests in 2020.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Freedom of association is generally protected, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country. A new 2019 NGO registration law required NGOs to declare sources of contributions and donations and account for annual income and expenditures. Many NGOs failed to register by the 2020 deadline and faced fines; their members faced possible imprisonment.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Labor, business, and professional organizations are generally free from government interference. Unions have the right to strike, and collective bargaining is prevalent, but union organizers met government resistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2020, a Supreme Court injunction prevented members of the Bahamas Utilities Services and Allied Workers Union from striking. Related litigation and proceedings before the industrial tribunal were ongoing at the end of the year.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and a court of appeals, with the additional right of appeal to the Privy Council in London under certain circumstances. The Bahamian judiciary is predominantly independent. There have been no major reports in recent years of attempts by powerful figures to use their influence to secure favorable rulings. The Bahamas Bar Association called for a transparent and merit-based selection process for judicial officers; the Inter-American Development Bank suggested separating the Offices of the Public Prosecutor and the Attorney General to ensure independence.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Due process in civil and criminal matters generally prevails. However, the government only appoints counsel to defendants in capital cases, leaving some people without legal representation. Generally, noncitizens, asylum seekers, and migrants do not enjoy due process before detention or deportation. In February 2020, the prime minister created a “strike force” to pursue Haitian migrants. Reports of long-term detention of immigrants and arbitrary detention of asylum seekers persisted.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Homicide and violent crime rates in the Bahamas remain among the highest in the Caribbean. In 2019, murders increased, though initial reports from 2020 suggest that the crime rate is down. However, state security agents generally do not engage in the illegal use of force against civilians, and the population is not threatened by large-scale violence or insurgencies.
Prison conditions are poor. Violence against prisoners by guards continued to be reported in 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
The constitution does not prohibit gender-based discrimination and discrimination based on sexual orientation. LGBT+ people continue to report discrimination in employment and housing. Advocates for LGBT+ rights celebrated the country’s first Pride week in October 2020, despite backlash from religious groups.
Harsh immigration policies enacted in 2014 target Bahamian-Haitians and Haitian migrants, requiring them to carry a passport and residency permits. The government prioritizes Bahamian citizens for hiring, land grants, and shelter in hurricane relief centers, and pursued removal of shantytowns that primarily house migrants.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
The freedom of movement is protected. However, curfews during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the arrests of homeless people and migrants. Migrants’ and Haitian-Bahamians’ lack of Bahamian identity documents affected their ability to move freely; choose their places of residence, employment, and education; and seek medical attention during the coronavirus health crisis.
Roadblocks have been erected as part of immigration enforcement actions.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The country has a strong private sector, and the economy relies mostly on tourism and financial services. Individuals are free to establish businesses, subject to generally non-onerous legal requirements.
Efforts to get rid of shantytowns continued in 2020. Emergency powers were invoked to defend demolitions on land impacted by the hurricane but an injunction halting service disconnections or evictions in shantytowns remained in effect.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
The government does not place explicit restrictions on social freedoms. However, the Bahamian constitution distinguishes between Bahamian men and women in the transmission of citizenship to a spouse or child, resulting in distinctions in treatment of married Bahamian women’s children and their foreign-born husbands. A May Supreme Court decision granting Bahamian citizenship to a Bahamian-born child regardless of the gender of their Bahamian parent was appealed by the government.
Violence against women, including domestic violence and marital rape, is a serious issue. Same-sex marriage is not legalized.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
The Bahamas is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children for forced labor and sexual exploitation. According to the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, the government fully complies with minimum international standards to address the problem. Migrant workers, many of whom arrive in the Bahamas to work in the agricultural sector and in domestic services, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
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