Belize is a democracy that has experienced regular rotations of power through competitive elections. Civil liberties are mostly respected. Government corruption is a concern, as is the high rate of violent crime. Authorities have been slow to address persistent problems of police brutality and human trafficking within the country’s borders.
- Belize was seriously affected in 2020 by both the COVID-19 pandemic and a sharp economic contraction that accompanied it. By year’s end, the country had registered over 10,000 COVID-19 cases and over 240 deaths, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.
- A series of high-profile cases of misuse of public funds and corruption made headlines during the year, with several prominent scandals and court rulings involving the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP).
- In general elections held in November, the opposition People’s United Party (PUP), under the leadership of Johnny Briceño, won an overwhelming 26 of parliament’s 31 seats, garnering nearly 60 percent of the vote.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The prime minister, usually the leader of the largest party in the parliament, is head of government. Formally, the prime minister is appointed by the governor general, who represents the British monarch as head of state. The legitimacy of the prime minister is largely dependent on the conduct of legislative elections, which are typically credible and well administered. After 17 years in opposition, the PUP, under the leadership of Johnny Briceño, won a convincing victory in the November 2020 elections.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The 31 members of the House of Representatives are directly elected to five-year terms. The Senate has 12 seats. The ruling party, the opposition, and several civil associations select the senators, who are then appointed by the governor general.
In the 2020 legislative polls, the opposition PUP won a landslide victory, taking 26 of the 31 seats. Turnout was over 81 percent, the highest since 1998. Observers from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) commended “the smooth and timely opening of the polls; the seamless voting process, and the efficient closing of the polls and tallying of votes.” The observers also noted that “there were no incidents of intimidation of voters inside or outside of the polling stations,” and that the COVID-19 safe-voting protocols were effective, even as the country dealt with widespread damage inflicted by Tropical Storm Eta.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Electoral laws are generally fair. The Organization of American States (OAS) has suggested that the role of the Elections and Boundaries Commission and the Elections and Boundaries Department be strengthened, and that authorities work to reduce partisanship associated with the confirmation of their appointees. In 2019 opposition parties and civil society groups brought a case to force a revision of Belize’s highly malapportioned constituencies, but an opposition-party request for an injunction stopping the 2020 elections pending resolution of the redistricting issue was denied in October 2020.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties can organize freely. The effects of the country’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system have entrenched the two largest parties. While a number of smaller parties have competed, only the PUP and UDP have won seats in the parliament.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The political system allows for opposition parties to increase their support or gain power through elections. Since 1984 there have been fairly regular transfers of power between the two main parties.
B3. 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? 4 / 4
Recent elections, including those in 2020, have been viewed as generally free of undue interference from entities outside the democratic political sphere. However, the OAS has raised concerns about the potential impact of unregulated campaign financing on the transparency of the political process.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||2.002 4.004|
Women are reasonably well represented in the political system, holding four seats in the current House of Representatives and five seats in the Senate. There were 13 women candidates out of a total of 88 in the 2020 elections. In municipal elections held in March 2018, women won 18 of the 67 seats, though no mayorships.
Indigenous people, particularly those of Mayan descent, are not well represented in politics. Mestizo Belizeans and Afro-Indigenous peoples are better integrated into the political system. LGBT+ people face discrimination, and this affects their ability to engage fully in political and electoral processes. A collection of religious denominations nominate one member of the Senate, but non-Christian groups are not included in the process.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The elected prime minister, cabinet, and national legislative representatives are duly seated following elections and are able to freely determine the policies of the government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Belize continues to struggle with corruption, and there is little political will to address the problem. Anticorruption laws are poorly enforced; for example, no one has ever been prosecuted under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act, which has been on the books for over 20 years.
Several high-profile cases of corruption and fraud in 2020 were connected to the UDP. John Saldivar resigned as leader-elect of the party in February after allegations that he had received payments from a US businessman accused of fraud. Another case involved businessman Nestor Vasquez, the owner of television station Channel 7 and a prominent UDP member, who resigned in September from the boards of several national agencies after being accused of charging personal expenditures to the state-owned Belize Telemedia Limited. In July, a Belizean businessman was found liable in a United States court and ordered to pay $120 million in connection with a massive real estate scam; in 2019 a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filing had highlighted government officials’ ties to the scheme.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
The government generally engages in policymaking with openness and transparency. However, a Supreme Court ruling in January 2020 that the UDP government improperly spent $645 million highlighted the sidelining of the legislature on budgetary and finance matters. The court stated that the spending violated both the constitution and the Finance and Audit Reform Act. There are also persistent problems with procurement processes and officials’ financial disclosure statements. While the law requires public officials to submit annual financial disclosure statements for review by the Integrity Commission, the body was defunct for years until members were finally appointed in 2017, and its resources remain limited. There is little chance for the public to challenge disclosures.
Members of Belize’s business community allege that favoritism influences the government’s awarding of licenses and public contracts. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its 2019 mission report recommended that authorities implement and enforce asset declaration rules and strengthen the rules on conflicts of interest.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to a Supreme Court ruling that the government had engaged in $645 million dollars’ worth of spending without having secured parliamentary approval, in violation of the constitution and statutory law.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, though it includes exceptions for interests such as national security, public order, and morality. While reporting generally covers a wide range of viewpoints in practice, journalists sometimes face threats, physical harassment, or assault in the course of their work.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because have been no significant constraints on independent media in recent years.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Religious freedom is constitutionally protected and largely respected in practice. Religious groups must register with the authorities, and foreign missionaries are required to obtain a visa and permit, but the procedures are not onerous.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant constraints on individual expression regarding politics or other such matters, whether in private discussion or on social media.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected, and the government generally respects this right.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations are generally free from government interference.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Unions are free to form and operate, and employers have been penalized for violating union rights under the labor code. However, while labor unions are active and politically influential, their ability to protect workers’ rights is limited in practice. There are some restrictions on the right to strike, including an official definition of “essential” workers that is broader than the International Labour Organization’s standard. In July 2020, the police’s Gang Suppression Unit fired rubber bullets and tear gas to suppress a labor protest by union workers at the Port of Belize.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is generally independent, despite inadequate resources and periodic attempts by political and business interests to interfere with its composition. In a dispute that stretched from 2012 to 2018, a group of companies controlled by businessman Michael Ashcroft tried unsuccessfully to have Samuel Awich removed as a judge on the Court of Appeal, Belize’s highest judicial body, on the basis of excessive delays in Awich’s judgments. In December 2020, the new PUP government stated that Supreme Court judges would be required to deliver judgments within a set time limit, and pledged to provide greater resources to the judiciary.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no major incidents in which judicial independence was compromised.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Detainees and defendants are guaranteed a range of legal rights, which are mostly respected in practice. However, police have reportedly detained suspects without charge for longer than is permitted by the law, and have used the threat of extended detention to intimidate suspects. Judicial delays and a large backlog of cases contribute to lengthy trials and other procedures, with many defendants spending years in pretrial detention.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Belize is free from major threats to physical security, such as war and insurgencies, but the long-running border dispute with Guatemala remains unresolved. Tensions have lessened in recent years, but there are occasional incidents.
Belize remains among the countries with the highest per capita murder rates in the world, although authorities recorded 102 homicides in 2020, a significant decrease from the 134 in 2019—likely due to lockdown restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The violence is localized around the south side of Belize City, though some violent crime has spread to other parts of the country. From July to October 2020 a state of emergency was imposed on the south side of Belize City in response to gang violence.
Cases of police brutality continue to be reported. The Police Amendment Act, promulgated in April 2018, was designed to improve disciplinary procedures and increase penalties for police misconduct. In August 2020, three high-ranking police officers were suspended for two months in connection with police violence against protesting port workers in July.
In October, the largest prison break in Belizean history took place when 28 prisoners staged a violent escape from the Belize Central Prison. News reports suggested that two prison guards helped to abet the escape.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution and laws protect against many forms of discrimination, but there are no specific provisions addressing sexual orientation or gender identity.
Discrimination against LGBT+ people persists. In 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the criminal code that outlawed same-sex sexual activity. The government accepted the decriminalization, but in September 2017 it appealed the portion of the judgment finding that unconstitutional discrimination based on sex includes sexual orientation. In December 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld the unconstitutionality of the criminal code article and confirmed that constitutional freedom of expression and antidiscrimination protections include sexual orientation. Following the ruling, the government proposed the Equal Opportunities Bill, which would have ensured explicit protections against discrimination for all Belizeans, but the bill was withdrawn in September 2020 after encountering strong opposition from religious groups.
Women face employment discrimination and are less likely than men to hold managerial positions. However, the government has actively pursued programs aimed at encouraging gender equality and protecting women’s rights.
No separate legal system or laws specifically protect Indigenous people.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally respects freedom of internal movement and foreign travel.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses. However, legal regulations are at times poorly enforced. Leaders of the Indigenous Maya community say their ancestral land rights are not protected, particularly with regard to oil exploration and logging activities. In 2016 the Belizean government responded to a Caribbean Court of Justice ruling requiring recognition of Mayan land rights by setting up a commission to facilitate implementation of the court’s decision, but progress has been slow. The government responded dismissively to reports by Mayan communities that illegal surveying activities were being conducted on their traditional lands in October 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are generally respected, though domestic violence remains a serious problem despite government measures to combat it. Rape is illegal, but reporting and conviction rates are low, and sentences are sometimes light.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Some legal protections against exploitative working conditions are respected and enforced. However, Belizean and foreign women and girls are vulnerable to sex trafficking, and migrant workers are sometimes subjected to forced labor in agriculture, fisheries, and retail businesses. The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2020 acknowledged the government’s “significant efforts” to combat trafficking, but noted that “the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts” and stated that “alleged trafficking-related complicity by government officials remains a problem.”
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