Freedom in the World
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In 2008, Barbadian voters elected opposition leader David Thompson of the Democratic Labour Party as the new prime minister, putting an end to Barbados Labour Party leader Owen Arthur’s 14 years in office.
Barbados gained its independence from Britain in 1966 but remained a member of the Commonwealth. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) under Prime Minister Owen Arthur governed from 1994 to January 2008, when the opposition Democratic Labour Party (DLP) won a clear majority of 20 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The BLP was left with the remaining 10 seats. Despite this stunning upset, the new government led by David Thompson of the DLP did not break markedly from the policies pursued by the Arthur government.
In 2008, Barbados was an active member of the Caribbean Community and enjoyed warm relations with most of its neighbors. Relations with Trinidad and Tobago cooled as the two countries attempted to implement a resolution of their bitter struggle over their maritime boundary and associated fishing rights. The verdict, delivered in April 2006 by the UN-supported Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, had been 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. However, the two countries then called upon the UN to study the movement of fish through these waters in order to assess the equality of the earlier agreement. While waiting for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization study on fish resources in the region, minor skirmishes have occurred between the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and Barbadian fisherman who are unwilling to wait until the issue is settled.
Separately, heavy migration flows from Guyana to Barbados continued to cause 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 May 2008, Prime Minister Thompson traveled to China to promote tourism and lay the groundwork for a future embassy in Beijing.
Barbados has been more successful than other Caribbean countries in combating violent crime, which remained at low levels in 2008. Joint patrols of the Royal Barbados Police Force and the Barbados Defence Force have managed to contain the problem, which was often linked to narcotics trafficking. The drug trade had begun to emerge as a major concern.
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 People’s Empowerment Party (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, and it played a negligible role in the 2008 parliamentary elections.
Barbados was ranked 22 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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, although no major strikes were reported in 2008.
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. In 2008, four members of the police were charged with crimes against persons or property.
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 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 substantial 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 not risen for several years, however, and an execution has not been administered in more than two decades, though 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 2008, the death penalty remained a hot issue in Barbados, with the new DLP government arguing for it to be implemented but achieving little progress with the CCJ.
The 2008 UN Human Development Report gave Barbados the best score in Latin America and the Caribbean for economic and social development. 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, but violence against and abuse of women and children continue to be serious social concerns.