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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Belize's civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to strong anti-foreigner sentiment resulting in harassment and government inaction following attacks, as well as to increases in reports of police abuses.
Throughout 2001, Prime Minister Said Musa carried out his policy of holding weekly clinics in Belize City as a means of staying in touch with people's needs. However, hostility rose significantly against foreign residents and entrepreneurs--many of whom hail from Britain, Canada and the United States, and who are attracted both by the country's legal system, which is based on English common law, and the usually harmonious relations between Belize's diverse racial groups. Underlying the seething resentment particularly directed against foreign investors is a differing opinion on the meaning of property rights. Meanwhile, Belize's Mayan peoples continued their decade-long fight to gain legal recognition of their ancestral lands. In October 2000, Musa's government signed an agreement recognizing for the first time "that the Maya people have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long-standing use and occupancy." Yet, the Maya are still treated under Belizean law as squatters on their own ancestral lands. In 2001, it remained uncertain whether the change in the government's Indian policy will be followed by reforms in discriminatory laws affecting indigenous peoples.
Belize is a member of the Commonwealth, and the British monarchy is represented by a governor-general. Formerly British Honduras, the name was changed to Belize in 1973. Independence was granted in 1981.
Since independence, the government has changed hands three times, alternating between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People's United Party (PUP). In the 1993 elections, the UDP and National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR) formed a coalition, winning 16 of the 29 seats in the house of representatives.
The August 1998 elections proved to be a referendum on Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel's largely unfulfilled pledge that his UDP would create jobs. Esquivel was successful in resisting a regional trend toward currency devaluation. Tired of a long-stagnant economy, voters carried opposition leader and former Attorney General Musa to the power, giving his PUP 26 out of 29 seats in parliament. Musa, who ran on an antitax, pro-jobs platform, pledged to make Belize a party to international treaties on indigenous and women's rights. Among Musa's early initiatives were the creation of a national health service and a pruning back of the power of cabinet ministers.
The government has approved logging and oil concessions on more than 700,000 acres of forests and coastal areas that surround Maya lands and that the Indians depend on for subsistence activities. In 1999, efforts by Indian groups to assure their land rights before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were effectively blocked by the Musa government. In August 2000, even as discussions were taking place over Maya rights, the government announced that a U.S.-based oil company registered in the Virgin Islands would begin widespread exploratory drilling in the southern region that includes Maya lands. A September 2001 court decision in favor of Nicaragua's Miskito-Indians by the San Jose, Costa Rica-based Inter-American Human Rights Court may signal an important precedent, as the Belizean Mayans asked that their government rescind all permits, licenses, and concessions for logging and oil exploration. These, they say, violate Indian rights by permitting development on their ancestral lands.
Citizens can change their government democratically in peaceful, fair, and open elections. The 29-seat house of representatives is elected for a five-year term. Members of the senate are appointed: 5 by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister; 2 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition; and 1 by the Belize Advisory Council. Since independence from Great Britain, each election in racially diverse Belize has resulted in the incumbent party's being ousted. In the 1998 elections there was a 78 percent turnout of a population that has swelled in recent years because of immigration from other Central American countries. There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, and there are Mestizo, Creole, Maya, and Garifuna in parliament. Civil society is well established, with a large number of nongovernmental organizations working in social, economic, and environmental areas.
In general, the judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is respected. However, judges and the director of public prosecutions must negotiate the renewal of their employment contracts, which renders them vulnerable to political influence. Lengthy backlogs of trials are in part the result of the low pay received by judges, which results in high turnover rates. Narcotics cases often go on for years while defendants are free on bail. Occasional reports of police misconduct and brutality can be investigated either by the police department's internal affairs office or by a recently created ombudsman's office. Police misconduct, including occasional extrajudicial killing and use of excessive force, is one of the country's primary rights concerns. Reports of abuses have nearly doubled in recent years, reflecting perhaps both an increase in incidents as well as a greater public willingness to bring forward complaints. Prison conditions do not meet minimum standards. The government opened a new facility in 1993 to alleviate overcrowding. However, this new prison, which houses death row inmates, provides in some cases one bed for six inmates, nonworking toilets, and inadequate protection from the weather.
Belizeans have suffered from an increase in violent crime, much of it related to drug trafficking and gang conflict. In February 1996 the U.S. government added Belize to its list of major drug-transit countries despite the anticrime measures undertaken in 1995, including the adoption of a quick-trial plan, and the country remained on the list in 1997.
The Belize Human Rights Commission is independent and effective. Human rights concerns include the plight of migrant workers and refugees from neighboring Central American countries, and charges of labor abuses by Belizean employers. Most of the estimated 40,000 Spanish speakers who have immigrated to the largely English-speaking country since the 1980s do not have legal status. Some have registered under an amnesty program implemented in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Reports continue of mistreatment of migrant workers, however.
There are judicial restrictions on freedom of the press, including prison terms for those who question the validity of financial disclosure statements submitted by public officials. Belize has six privately owned newspapers, three of which are subsidized by major political parties; there is, however, no daily press. The mostly English-language press is free to publish a variety of political viewpoints, including those critical of the government, and there are Spanish-language media. Belize has a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. Radio and television are saturated with political advertising during elections. Fourteen private television stations operate, including four cable systems. There is an independent board to oversee operations of the government-owned outlets.
There is freedom of religion, and the government actively discourages racial and ethnic discrimination. More than half of the Belizean Maya live in the Toledo district, where they form nearly two-thirds of the population. Despite their claim to be the original inhabitants of Belize, they have no secure title to their ancestral lands, which include some 700,000 acres of rain forest and which have been targeted by foreign, mostly Malaysian, investors. This land, for thousands of years, has provided Maya Indians with food, medicinal plants, building materials, and hunting grounds. In addition to seeking to protect their lands through titling, the Maya are working with the Washington, D.C.-based Indian Law Resource Center to convince the Inter-American Development Bank to challenge a plan to pave the Southern Highway. Indian advocates say that an improved roadway would open Maya lands to large-scale economic development, which threatens to dispossess the Maya and cause great harm to the rain forests, the coastal areas, and the nation's extensive coral reefs.
Amnesty International cited instances of mistreatment of asylum seekers by police during the year. Police allegedly sometimes beat foreigners in custody, and employ painful restraint methods when detaining or transporting illegal immigrants.
Labor unions are independent and well organized and have the right to strike, but the percentage of the workforce that is organized has declined to 11 percent. Unionized workers earn two to three times as much as their neighbors. Disputes are adjudicated by official boards of inquiry, and businesses are penalized for failing to abide by the labor code. Violence against women is a problem.