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Ronald Venetiaan, serving his third term as president, was confronted with several high-level government corruption scandals in 2006. Meanwhile, opposition leader and former military ruler Desi Bouterse was indicted for the “December murders” of 15 political opponents in 1982. The government in July issued an official apology and offered compensation to the families of 39 people slain in a 1986 massacre by the military government of the time.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, after more than three centuries of colonial rule. In 1980, a military coup led by Desi Bouterse established a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition and 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 coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP), organized by the military, won just three out of 51 seats in the National Assembly.
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 in Parliament, although the NDP increased its share of seats to 12. The National Assembly selected the NF’s candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president. Bouterse quit the army in 1992 in order to lead the NDP. In the May 2000 legislative elections, the NF again secured a majority of the National Assembly seats—and three times as many as its closest rival.
In May 2001, the fatal heart attack suffered by labor leader Fred Derby, who was to be the star witness in the trial of Bouterse and others for 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 at trial by the judge who questioned him. The death of the witness, the lone survivor of the massacre, came amid a parallel 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 in absentia by a Dutch court for trafficking 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 barring extraditions of citizens from their home country.
In 2004, the upcoming 2005 legislative elections dominated Suriname’s political scene. The NF coalition government’s fiscal austerity program had helped to stabilize prices and the economy generally, but there were signs that the policy’s negative side effects had increased voter discontent. 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.
In the 2005 elections, the NF coalition managed to remain the country’s single largest political force, winning 41 percent of the vote. The NDP took 23 percent, 8 points more than in the 2000 contest. However, the NF failed to win an outright majority and fell well 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 United People’s Assembly consisting of 891 members—including national, regional, and local lawmakers—gave Venetiaan his third term as president, with 560 votes for the incumbent and 315 for the NDP candidate, Rabindre Parmessar.
Corruption in government was a major problem in 2006. In June, former minister of public works Dewanand Balesar was placed on trial for corruption, having been stripped of his immunity by the National Assembly in 2005. Balesar was charged with awarding more than 30 fraudulent contracts worth a total of about $36,000 to friends, family, and party loyalists and is thought to be the leader of a national corruption ring. His trial was delayed until the end of 2006.
Much of the corruption in Suriname was drug related. According to the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, in 2006, Suriname remained a major transit point for cocaine en route to Europe and lacked the law enforcement capabilities to stem the tide of drug money entering the country.
In July 2006, the government of Suriname officially apologized for a 1986 massacre in the village of Moiwana, in which 39 people were murdered by the military regime. In order to comply with a prior decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the government paid $13,000 to the 130 survivors and relatives of victims and held a public ceremony to accept responsibility for the crime.
The same year, Bouterse was formally charged for his role in the “December murders” of 1982, but his trial continued to be delayed by his still-strong political presence. The Venetiaan administration, however, pledged to “bring justice to the victims” but the case remained in judicial gridlock.
Suriname’s economy continued to benefit from strong commodity prices and significant direct foreign investment in 2006, with gross domestic product expected to expand by an average of 3 percent annually. However, massive flooding caused by torrential downpours in May left more than 20,000 people homeless, and the rebuilding process has been slow.
Suriname is an electoral democracy. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly, elected by proportional representation to five-year terms. The body elects the president to five-year terms with a two-thirds majority. If it is unable to do so, a United People’s Assembly—consisting of lawmakers from the national, regional, and local levels—convenes to choose the president by a simple majority. A Council of State (Raad van State), made up of the president and representatives of major societal groupings—including labor unions, business, the military, and the legislature—has veto power over legislation deemed to violate the constitution.
Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname’s ethnically diverse society, although political-racial discord is much less acute 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 current administration has support from the NF, a political alliance of which the NPS is a leading member.
Corruption remains rampant, due in part to onerous and erratically applied regulations. Suriname was ranked 90 out of 163 surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. However, some media outlets engage in occasional self-censorship due to fear of reprisal from members of the former military leadership or pressure from senior government officials and others who object to 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, resulting in a generally pluralistic range of viewpoints. Public access to government information is recognized in law, although it is very limited in practice. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The authorities generally respect freedom of religion and do not infringe on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are 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 susceptible to political influence and suffers from 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 police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests. Prison guards mistreat inmates, and prisons are dangerously overcrowded. Military personnel generally are not subject to civilian criminal law. The government in 2006 continued to move forward with the process of becoming a member of the appellate jurisdiction of the new Caribbean Court of Justice, which was established to serve as a final venue of appeal for member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Discrimination against indigenous and tribal groups is widespread, and Surinamese law offers such groups no special protection or recognition. As a result, Amerindians, who live mostly outside urban areas, have only a marginal ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and natural resources. Tribal people known as Maroons are the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the interior in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their rights to 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. Trafficking in persons remains a problem, and the country lacks a comprehensive law specifically banning the practice. Some progress was made in February 2006, when a special police unit dealing with the trafficking of persons arrested a prominent brothel owner for smuggling six women into Suriname.