Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The long-running border dispute between Belize and Guatemala appeared to near a peaceful resolution after the August 2002 announcement that both governments would submit to popular vote the decision rendered by mediators of the Organization of American States. In September 2002 the government of Prime Minister Said Musa proposed a constitutional amendment to end appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, located in the United Kingdom. The Belize Court of Appeals would be established as the final court of appeals for cases carrying a mandatory death sentence. There has been a moratorium on executions since 1985, but there is concern that a change in the law could lead to a resumption of capital punishment. In recent years Belize has experienced increases in the rates of violent crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Corruption and fraud continue to haunt the Immigration and Nationality Department over nationality applications and passport processing.
Belize achieved independence in 1981 and is a member of the Commonwealth. Formerly British Honduras, the name was changed in 1973. 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 1993, the UDP and the 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. The PUP won 26 out of 29 seats in parliament. Said Musa, a former attorney general, promised adherence to international treaties on indigenous and women's rights. His government later blocked efforts by Indian groups to make claims on their land rights before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Democratic government change takes place with free and fair 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. There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, and there are mestizo, Creole, Maya, and Garifuna parties in parliament. A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active in social, economic, and environmental areas.
The judiciary is independent and nondiscriminatory, and the rule of law is generally respected. Judges and the director of public prosecutions negotiate the renewal of their employment contracts which makes them vulnerable to political influence. There are lengthy backlogs of trials, in part due to the high turnover of judges, the result of their low pay. Cases often go on for years while defendants are free on bail. Reports of police misconduct are investigated by the department's internal affairs office or by an ombudsman's office. Extrajudicial killing and use of excessive force are the country's primary rights concerns. Reports of abuses have nearly doubled in recent years. Prisons do not meet minimum standards. Drug trafficking and gang conflict have contributed to an increase in crime. An antinarcotics agreement was signed with the United States in September of 2002. Projects aimed at suppressing the cultivation, processing, and trafficking of drugs, curbing violent crime, and eliminating money laundering will be funded.
The Belize Human Rights Commission is independent and effective. Human rights concerns include the conditions of migrant workers and refugees from neighboring 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.
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. 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. 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. Although the Maya 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. Labor unions are independent and well organized and have the right to strike, but the percentage of the workforce that is organized has declined. Unionized workers can 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 and children is a serious problem.