Freedom in the World
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Former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, who had been evicted to Mauritius by Britain to make way for a military base in the 1960s, continued their legal battle with Britain in 2007. Separately, the Mauritius National Assembly moved toward establishing a Truth and Justice Commission to examine the country’s history of slavery and indentured servitude and consider possible reparations.
Mauritius’s ethnically mixed population is primarily descended from immigrants who were brought as laborers from the Indian subcontinent during the island’s 360 years of Dutch, French, and British colonial rule. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1968, Mauritius has maintained one of the developing world’s most successful democracies.
In August 2000, President Cassam Uteem called early elections after a series of corruption scandals led to the resignation of several cabinet ministers. Outoing prime minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam had served since 1995. The opposition alliance, led by the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM), won the vote, and its leader, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, returned to the premiership, having last held the post between 1982 and 1995. The MSM was allied with the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM). In a planned power shift, MMM leader Paul Berenger became prime minister in September 2003, becoming the first person from outside the island’s Indian-origin majority to hold the post.
Parliamentary elections in 2005 resulted in victory for the opposition Social Alliance, led by Ramgoolam. Frustration with rising unemployment and inflation, which had followed the loss of preferential trade deals with the United States and the European Union, apparently contributed to the outcome. The Social Alliance, which included the Labor Party and the Mauritian Party, drew most of its support from the ethnic Indian majority. Municipal elections in October 2005 further cemented the Social Alliance’s hold on power. In 2006, however, rising prices for a wide range of products and concerns about increased criminal activity diminished the popularity of the new government, which adopted a number of policies designed to further liberalize the economy, including the sale of government assets and reforms of the labor market, the pension system, social security, taxation, and facilities for foreign investors. That year, the country achieved a growth rate of about 4.3 percent.
Mauritius continued to enjoy political and economic stability in 2007, and pursued a plan to promote itself as an economic gateway to Africa. The country has reportedly attracted more than 9,000 offshore entities, and the banking sector alone has drawn more than $1 billion in investment. Also during the year, the Mauritius National Assembly moved toward establishing a Truth and Justice Commission to examine the country’s history of slavery and indentured labor and to consider possible reparations; it named a director in June.
Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, which are controlled by Britain. In 2007, former Chagos inhabitants, who had been evicted in the 1960s to make way for a joint U.S.-British military base, continued their legal battle with Britain. In 2007, the U.K. Court of Appeals upheld the islanders’ claim of an unjust eviction, but the government was permitted to file an appeal and did.
Mauritius is an electoral democracy. The head of state is a largely ceremonial president elected by the unicameral National Assembly for a five-year term. Executive power resides with the prime minister, who is appointed by the president from the party or coalition with the most seats in the legislature. Of the National Assembly’s 70 members, 62 are directly elected and 8 are appointed from among unsuccessful candidates who gained the largest number of votes. All members serve five-year terms.
Since independence, Mauritius has regularly chosen its representatives in free, fair, and competitive elections. Decentralized structures govern the country’s small island dependencies. The largest of these is Rodrigues Island, which has its own government, local councils, and two seats in the National Assembly. The main political groupings in Mauritius are the ruling Social Alliance coalition, which depends largely on the ethnic Indian majority, and the opposition alliance of the MMM and MSM. The two blocs have alternated in power for decades.
There have been a number of corruption cases in recent years, and efforts to market Mauritius as an international financial center have been impeded by domestic banking scandals. The Independent Council Against Corruption has investigated both government and opposition political figures. Mauritius was ranked 53 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and several private daily and weekly publications are often highly critical of both government and opposition politicians and their policies. The state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) operates radio and television services and generally reflects government viewpoints. A small number of private radio stations have been authorized, but the state-run media enjoy a monopoly in broadcasting local news.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom, although recent reforms designed to make education more competitive have proven controversial. The rights to freedom of assembly and association are respected, but police occasionally refuse to issue permits for demonstrations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations operate freely, as do trade unions. The island’s 9 labor federations include 300 unions.
The generally independent judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, administers a legal system that is an amalgam of French and British traditions. Civil rights are for the most part well respected, although cases of police brutality have been reported. There are no known political prisoners or reports of political or extrajudicial killings. In 2006, the National Commission on Human Rights issued a report that criticized prison conditions.
Various ethnic cultures and traditions flourish in peace, and there is general respect for constitutional prohibitions against discrimination. However, Mauritian Creoles, descendants of African slaves who comprise about a third of the population, live in poverty and complain of unfair treatment. In addition, tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority persist, constituting one of the country’s few potential ethnic flashpoints.
Women make up approximately 20 percent of the paid labor force and generally occupy a subordinate role in society. Domestic violence against women has continued to be a major problem. In 1997, Mauritius became the first country in the region to pass a Protection from Domestic Violence Act. After the 2005 parliamentary elections, 17 percent of the seats in the National Assembly are held by women. However, women occupy only 5 percent of the senior positions in the 100 top companies.