Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
President Ronald Venetiaan remained firmly in control of the country in 2007, but his relations with parliament grew more contentious. Also during the year, Suriname’s courts ordered the prosecution of 10 suspects, including opposition politician and former coup leader Desi Bouterse, for the “December murders” of 15 political opponents in 1982.
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.
The army ousted President Ramsewak Shankar in 1990, 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, a 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. The death of the witness, the lone survivor of the massacre, came amid a parallel push by the Netherlands to bring Bouterse to account for the murders and 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 because of a bilateral agreement barring extraditions of citizens from their home country.
In 2004, the NF government’s fiscal austerity program helped to stabilize prices and the economy generally, but there were signs that the policy’s negative side effects had increased voter discontent. In the 2005 elections, the NF managed to remain the 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. In August, 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.
Former minister of public works Dewanand Balesar was put on trial for corruption in June 2006, having been stripped of his immunity by the National Assembly in 2005. He was charged with awarding more than 30 fraudulent contracts worth a total of about $36,000 to friends, family, and party loyalists, and he was thought to be the leader of a national corruption ring. In August 2007, police arrested two suspects in a corruption probe of the Ministry of Finance. In response, Venetiaan criticized the parliament for not putting his anticorruption bill on the agenda, but the scandal cut into his popular support.
Also in 2007, Suriname’s courts ordered officials to proceed with the long-delayed prosecution of Bouterse and nine other suspects for the 1982 “December murders.” The trial began in November and was expected to stretch well into 2008.
Strong commodity prices helped to spur the economy’s 5 percent growth rate in 2007. Future growth could be affected by a UN tribunal’s September decision to partially recognize Guyana’s claims to offshore energy resources, which Suriname had long contested.
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 a serious problem, but the country scored better in international rankings in 2007. Suriname was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, and its score improved to 3.5 from 3.0 in 2006.
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. In June 2007, Suriname’s vice president personally intervened to prevent a state television program from broadcasting a discussion on China and Taiwan, prompting cries of censorship. 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 prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. The police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests, and prison guards mistreat inmates. Military personnel generally are not subject to civilian criminal law. In 2007, Suriname continued to move forward with the process of joining 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). Suriname is a major transit point for cocaine en route to Europe, and poor law enforcement capabilities resulted in a rising tide of drug money entering the country in 2007.
In July 2006, the government 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.
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 during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their rights to lands and resources, cultural integrity, and 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. In June 2007, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report categorized Suriname as a Tier II country, which meant it had serious problems but was making efforts to meet minimum standards.