Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Suriname's political rights score declined from 1 to 2 due to increased levels of political corruption and the government's continued failure to observe the political rights of the Amerindian minority.
President Ronald Venetiaan's New Front for Democracy and Development (NF) coalition roared to victory in Suriname's May 25, 2005, parliamentary elections, winning 23 of 51 parliamentary seats. Venetiaan was subsequently confirmed as president by the People's Assembly. The year 2005 was marked by corruption scandals in the executive branch, as well the government's continued failure to observe the political rights of the country's indigenous peoples.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, which had acquired it as a result of the Treaty of Breda with the British in 1667. Five years after independence, a military coup, which brought Desi Bouterse to power as the head of a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition, initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bouterse permitted elections that were won handily by the center-right New Front for Democracy and Development (NF), a four-party coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP), organized by the military, won just three seats.
In 1990, the army ousted President Ramsewak Shankar, and Bouterse again took power, this time in a bloodless putsch popularly known as the "telephone coup." International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The NF won a majority, although the NDP increased its share to 12. The National Assembly selected the NF's candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president. Bouterse quit the army in 1992 to lead the NDP. In the May 25, 2000, legislative elections, the NF won the majority of 51 National Assembly seats-three times as many as its closest rival.
The May 2001 death of a labor leader, the star witness in a trial against Bouterse and others accused of 15 political killings committed in December 1982, initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony. However, the government vowed that testimony given by the witness during a preliminary hearing would be submitted in the trial by the judge who questioned him. The death of the lone survivor of the massacre came amid a renewed push by the Dutch to bring Bouterse to account for the murders and for his role in the 1980 coup. He had already been tried and convicted by a Dutch court in absentia on charges of having introduced more than two tons of cocaine into the Netherlands between 1989 and 1997. Suriname did not extradite Bouterse to the Netherlands because of a bilateral agreement not to extradite their own citizens to each other's country.
In October 2002, authorities from neighboring Guyana complained that Suriname was a major supply route for illegal arms used in a crime wave gripping the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. The spillover effects of narcotics trafficking and the drug trade's ties to top political leaders-including Bouterse-continued to make the news.
In 2004, the following year's legislative elections dominated Suriname's political debate, with Venetiaan's NF coalition appearing posed to capitalize on the country's newfound price and exchange-rate stability. However, a July public opinion poll by the Institute for Demographic Research in Suriname (IDOS) showed surprising strength for Bouterse's NDP, which placed less than 1 percentage point behind the NF. The relatively weak showing by the NF reflected voter discontent, in part, with the side effects of the government's fiscal austerity program, which helped to stabilize both prices and the economy generally.
In the 2005 election, the NF coalition managed to remain the country's single largest political force, winning 41 percent of the votes, compared to the NDP's 23.1 percent, which nevertheless was eight points higher than in the 2000 contest. However, the NF failed to win an absolute majority, falling far short of the two-thirds necessary to elect a president in the National Assembly either alone or in alliance with other parties. On August 3, a People's Assembly consisting of 891 members- made up of representatives of the National Assembly and district and local council-ors-gave Venetiaan his third term as president, giving him 560 votes to 315 for the NDP candidate, Rabindre Parmessar.
Also in August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed "deep concern" about information alleging that Suriname was actively disregarding the committee's recommendations on a revised version of the draft Mining Act, which was approved by Suriname's Council of State at the end of 2004. The government allegedly authorized additional resource exploitation and associated infrastructure projects that "pose substantial threats of irreparable harm to indigenous and tribal peoples, without any formal notification to the affected communities and without seeking their prior agreement or informed consent."
Corruption in government was a major problem in 2005. In May, the National Assembly lifted the immunity of former Minister of Public Works Dewanand Balesar due to allegations of forgery, fraud, and extortion related to his stint in government; sixteen other suspects were involved in the investigation. In addition, the director of fisheries was being investigated for corrupt practices, while police arrested a Ministry of Interior employee in July for embezzling pension benefit funds.
In 2005, Suriname's economy received a boost from strong commodity prices and significant direct foreign investment, with gross domestic product (GDP) expected to expand by an annual average of 4 percent in the 2005-2006 biennial. In October, however, Venetiaan announced a 2006 deficit of $164 million, 9.3 percent of GDP and an increase of 43 percent over the 2005 deficit.
Citizens of Suriname can change their government democratically. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51seat National Assembly, directly elected by proportional representation, which serves a five-year term and selects the state president. A Council of State (Raad van State), consisting of the president and representatives of the major political groupings-including unions, business, the military, and the leg-islature-has veto power over legislation deemed to violate the constitution.
Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname's ethnically complex society, although political-racial discord is much less than in neighboring Guyana. Suriname's major parties include the NDP, the National Party Suriname (NPS), and the People's Alliance for Progress (VVV).
The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, which ranked the country 140 out of 155 nations surveyed, found that corruption is rampant in Suriname, there is a generally high level of regulation, and that regulations are applied randomly. Favoritism, particularly at elite levels, is common in business and government. Suriname was ranked 78 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights. However, some media engaged in occasional self-censorship due to fear of reprisal from members of the former military leadership and in reaction to pressure by senior government officials and others on reporters producing critical stories about the administration. There are two privately owned daily newspapers, De Ware Tijd and De West. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government-owned radio and television broadcasting systems, and the mixture of viewpoints that results is generally pluralistic. Public access to government information is recognized in law; however, it is very limited in practice. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The government generally respects freedom of religion and does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly and association is provided for in the constitution, and the government respects these rights in practice. Although civic institutions remain weak, human rights organizations function freely. Workers can join independent trade unions, and the labor movement is active in politics. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. Civil servants have no legal right to strike.
The judiciary is weak and susceptible to political influence and suffers from ineffectiveness, a significant shortage of judges, and a large backlog of cases. The courts and the prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. The civilian police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests; guards mistreat prisoners; and prisons are dangerously overcrowded. Military personnel generally are not subject to civilian criminal law. In October, the government signaled its intention to move forward with the process of becoming a member of the appellate jurisdiction of the new Caribbean Court of Justice, to replace the London-based Privy Council.
Discrimination against indigenous and tribal peoples is widespread, and Suriname law offers no special protection for, or recognition of, indigenous peoples. As a result, Amerindians-who live mostly outside urban areas-have only marginal ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions and natural resources. Tribal peoples, called Maroons, are the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the rain forest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their rights to their lands and resources, to cultural integrity, and to the autonomous administration of their affairs are not recognized in Surinamese law.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not enforced. Several organizations specifically address violence against women and related issues. Despite their central role in agriculture and food production, 60 percent of rural women, particularly those in tribal communities, live below the poverty level. In the absence of a comprehensive law against trafficking in persons, the practice remains a problem.