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.
- In April, the country’s parliament passed new legislation mandating that Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges deliver written judgments within six months of hearing a case or face dismissal.
- A state of emergency was declared for the south side of Belize City in August following a sharp increase in shootings in the area. The state of emergency remained in place until mid-September.
|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 People’s United Party (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.
|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. In December 2021, the Elections and Boundaries Commission announced that the redistricting process would begin in 2022.
|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 United Democratic Party (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.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
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 2021, 24 women were elected, and the capital city, Belmopan, elected its first woman mayor.
Indigenous people, particularly those of Mayan descent, who make up 11 percent of the population, are not well represented in politics. Mestizo Belizeans and Afro-Indigenous peoples are better integrated into the political system. LGBT+ people face discrimination, which 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.
Several high-profile cases of corruption and fraud in 2020 were connected to the UDP, including that of John Saldivar, who resigned as leader-elect of the party due to allegations that he had received payments from a US businessman accused of fraud. In September 2021, a former UDP minister, Rene Jaime Montero, was charged with corruption for allegedly using ministry employees, heavy machinery, and fuel for his personal farms. Montero allegedly left Belize the day after his arrest warrant was issued in September; he had not returned by year’s end.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
The government generally engages in policymaking with openness and transparency. However, a January 2020 Supreme Court, which found that the UDP government improperly spent $645 million, highlighted the UDP government’s 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. Members of Belize’s business community allege favoritism influences the government’s awarding of licenses and public contracts. In May 2021, the PUP government introduced the Protected Disclosures Bill, “to combat corruption” in both the public and private sectors. If passed, the bill would offer protection to whistleblowers.
In August, the governor of Belize’s Central Bank, Gustavo Vasquez, was dismissed by the government only four months after his appointment to the role. Vasquez later implied that the termination came as a result of his attempts to “restore the integrity and operational autonomy” of the bank despite alleged opposition from the Ministry of Finance and certain interest groups within the economic sector.
|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.
|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 December 2021, plans to implement a COVID-19-related vaccination mandate for public sector workers were postponed due to opposition from the Public Service Union (PSU).
|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. After coming to power in 2020, the newly elected PUP government pledged to provide greater resources to the judiciary. In April 2021, the parliament passed new legislation requiring Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges to deliver written judgments within six months or face dismissal.
|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. There was a 24 percent decline in recorded homicides in 2020—likely due to lockdown restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. However, as of the end of 2021, recorded homicides had increased by 23 percent compared to the same period in 2020. Violence is localized around the south side of Belize City, where, in August 2021, a state of emergency was declared due to a spike in shootings. The state of emergency, which increased police authority to investigate and detain any person thought to be participating in criminal activity, remained in place through mid-September.
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. Between January and August 2021, 14 police officers accused of misconduct were dismissed from the country’s police force. However, some critics highlighted that only low-ranking officers were terminated, saying that higher-ranking police officials should face the same scrutiny.
|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. 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.
Migration into Belize has increased significantly in recent years, and government estimates suggest that up to 15 percent of the country’s population is without official documentation. Migrants face legal and social challenges to integration into Belizean society, and some immigrants have faced detention in Belize Central Prison for entering the country illegally. In December 2021, the government announced that an amnesty program would be introduced to allow undocumented immigrants to gain permanent residency under certain conditions.
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 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) 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. In June 2021, the government was ordered to pay US $6.3 million to the residents of a Maya village after using the village’s communal lands for the construction of a road without first acquiring the community’s approval as mandated by the CCJ. The following month, Belize tourism authorities removed all references to Maya temples from official websites, allegedly in an attempt to separate Maya imagery from the country’s tourism promotion. The decision was reportedly made to more fully comply with the 2015 consent order.
|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 2021 acknowledged the government’s “significant efforts” to combat trafficking but noted that “the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts” and stated that “reports of official complicity in trafficking crimes were common.”
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