Freedom in the World
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In 2007, Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur prepared to seek a fourth term in 2008 elections, while opposition leaders vowed to unseat him. Separately, a new prison facility was opened to relieve overcrowding following riots in 2005 that destroyed a previous prison.
Barbados gained its independence from Britain in 1966 and is a member of the Commonwealth. The governing Barbados Labour Party (BLP) has been in power since 1994 under the leadership of Prime Minister Owen Arthur. During the most recent elections in 2003, the BLP won a clear majority of 23 seats in the lower house of Parliament, while the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) won the remaining 7 seats. In June 2007, the DLP launched its campaign to unseat Arthur in the upcoming 2008 elections, with opposition leader David Thompson calling the prime minister a “politically spent force.” The People’s Empowerment Party (PEP), established by the Clement Payne Movement in 2006, announced its first parliamentary candidate but appeared unlikely to get much traction at the polls.
In 2007, Barbados was an active member of the Caribbean Community and enjoyed warm relations with most of its neighbors. Relations with Trinidad and Tobago improved following the resolution of a bitter struggle over their maritime boundary and associated fishing rights. The final verdict, delivered in April 2006 by the UN-supported Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, was seen as a victory for both parties because it recognized the rights of Barbadian fishermen to fish in Trinidadian waters but rejected a claim by Barbados to exclusive maritime access. Meanwhile, heavy migration flows from Guyana to Barbados remained a source of tension between the countries, and Barbados remained outside the Venezuelan-backed regional energy pact known as PetroCaribe due to concerns about accumulating additional debt. The pact offered Caribbean countries a guarantee of Venezuelan oil shipments on favorable financial terms. In June 2007, Prime Minister Arthur traveled to China to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic relations.
Barbados has been more successful than other Caribbean countries in combating violent crime, which remained at low levels in 2007. Joint patrols of the Royal Barbados Police Force and the all-volunteer Barbados Defence Force have been successful in containing the problem, often linked to narcotics trafficking, which had begun to emerge as a major concern. In January 2007, the Barbados Coast Guard confiscated 629 pounds of marijuana following a high-speed chase, which was seen as evidence of successful drug interdiction efforts.
Barbados is an electoral democracy. The 30-member House of Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral Parliament, is elected for a five-year term. The governor-general, who represents the British monarch as head of state, appoints the 21 members of the Senate: 12 on the advice of the prime minister, 2 on the advice of the leader of the opposition, and the remaining 7 at his own discretion. The prime minister is the leader of the political party with a majority in the House.
Political parties are free to organize. Historically, power has alternated between two centrist parties—the DLP and the BLP. In addition to the parties holding parliamentary seats, other political organizations include the small, left-wing Worker’s Party of Barbados. In 2006, the Clement Payne Movement established the PEP as an opposition force favoring trade union rights and greater state intervention in the economy. The party’s leader, David Comissiong, claimed that the current two-party system did not adequately address the full spectrum of the population’s needs. The PEP got off to an inauspicious start when its founding members clashed over the new party’s direction. In 2007, it continued to limp along and seemed unlikely to be a durable force in Barbadian politics, although it did begin fielding candidates for the elections expected in 2008.
Barbados was ranked 23 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is fully respected. Public opinion expressed through the news media, which are free of censorship and government control, has a powerful influence on policy. Newspapers, including the two major dailies, are privately owned. Four private and two government radio stations operate. The single television station, operated by the government-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, presents a wide range of political viewpoints. There is unrestricted access to the internet.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is widely respected for mainstream religious groups, although members of Barbados’s small Rastafarian community have protested prison regulations that require inmates to have their long dreadlocks cut off while in detention. Academic freedom is fully respected.
Barbados’s legal framework provides important guarantees for freedom of assembly, which are upheld in practice. The right to form civic organizations and labor unions is respected. Two major labor unions, as well as various smaller ones, are active. In 2007, a general strike shut down the Port of Barbados when workers banded together to support an employee who had been dismissed for security lapses.
The judicial system is independent, and the Supreme Court includes a high court and a court of appeals. Lower-court officials are appointed on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission. There are occasional reports and complaints of the use of excessive force by the Royal Barbados Police Force to extract confessions, along with reports that police do not always seek warrants before searching homes.
The prison system has taken steps to relieve overcrowding, including the construction of new facilities. A new prison facility with the capacity to house 1,250 inmates was completed in October 2007. The island’s largest penitentiary had burned down in March 2005, after a prison riot caused a fire and forced the Barbadian government to summon 120 security personnel from its Caribbean neighbors to help restore order. Barbados is considering judicial reform that would reduce overcrowding by keeping courts open longer to hear more cases per year; implementation was stalled due to the lack of available judges. Although the authorities have made significant efforts to discharge prison personnel alleged to have beaten inmates, their prosecution has not made significant progress.
The country’s crime rate, fueled by an increase in drug abuse and narcotics trafficking, has given rise to human rights concerns. The number of murders has remained constant over the last several years, and an execution has not been administered in more than two decades, but juries are increasingly sentencing violent criminals to death. Meanwhile, a proposed constitutional change would allow convicts to be hanged as soon as possible after their appeals are exhausted. In an effort to restore the death sentences of two convicts who had received commutations to life imprisonment from the Barbados High Court in 2002, the government in 2005 appealed the case to the newly formed regional Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which Barbados has ratified as its highest appellate court. In November 2006, the CCJ dismissed the government’s case and rejected efforts to impose the death penalty on the convicts. In 2007, a UN panel criticized Barbados’s stance on the death penalty.
Barbados has refused to sign a bilateral agreement granting U.S. military personnel immunity from proceedings in the International Criminal Court. The United States initially responded by suspending military education programs and military equipment sales but is now seeking ways to bridge the impasse. Barbados’s attorney general in 2007 called for greater cooperation among Caribbean police forces, building on the mechanisms for coordination that had been developed to provide security for the Cricket World Cup, which the region hosted in May.
The 2007 UN Human Development Report gave Barbados the 31st highest ranking in the world for economic and social development, the best score in Latin America and the Caribbean. The report measured life expectancy, educational attainment, per capita income, and other important indicators. Women comprise roughly half of the country’s workforce. A domestic violence law passed in 1992 gives police and judges greater power to protect women. Violence against and abuse of women and children continue to be serious social concerns.