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)
Following controversies and delays, the trial of opposition politician and former coup leader Desi Bouterse for the “December murders” of 15 political opponents in 1982 remained the top political issue in Suriname in 2009. Meanwhile, the forced deportations of Guyanese migrants from Suriname heightened tensions between the two countries.
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 the elected government in 1990, and Bouterse again took power in a bloodless coup. International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The NF won a majority in parliament, and the NF’s candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, was selected 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 strong majority of National Assembly seats.
In May 2001, Fred Derby—the star witness in the trial of Bouterse and others for 15 political killings committed in December 1982—suffered a fatal heart attack that initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony. However, the government vowed that testimony given by Derby during a preliminary hearing would be submitted at trial.
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, although its failure to win a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly prevented it from electing a president. 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.
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.” Bouterse has denied any involvement in the killings, although in March 2007, he accepted political responsibility for the slayings while offering a public apology.The trial, which is regarded as a landmark test of Suriname’s judicial system, began in November 2008 and has dominated the political debate over the past two years. In 2009, following frequent delays, the Bouterse trial advanced, including the testimony of six bystanders who had fled the country and settled in the Netherlands after witnessing the executions. The former dictator, who consistently failed to appear in court, faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
President Venetiaan announced that legislative elections would be held on May 25, 2010 and called for a peaceful electoral campaign, although the political climate with the opposition remained tense.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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.
Suriname has been plagued by corruption cases in recent years, and organized crime and drug networks continue to hamper governance. 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. In late 2008, Balesar was sentenced to jail for 2 years under charges of forgery, fraud, and conspiracy to commit theft, and was banned from holding a public office for a period of five years.In May 2009, Siegfried Gilds, a former trade minister in President Ronald Venetiaan’s administration, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for money laundering and bribing a witness. Suriname was ranked 75 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedoms 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. In 2009, the trial of Desi Bouterse for the “December murders” was freely covered by the local press. 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, though civil servants have no legal right to strike. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. The labor movement is active in politics.
The judiciary is susceptible to political influence and suffers from a significant shortage of judges and a large backlog of cases. In 2009, the Ministry of Justice and Police added six new judges in order to address the shortage. The courts and prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. Police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests, and prison guards mistreat inmates. Suriname is a signatory to the 2001 agreement establishing the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the final venue of appeal for member states of the Caribbean Community, but has yet to ratify the CCJ as its final court of appeal. Suriname is a major transit point for cocaine en route to Europe, and poor law enforcement capabilities have resulted in a rising tide of drug money entering the country.
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. In September 2009, around 65 Guyanese migrants were forcefully deported from the western districts of Suriname during “Operation Koetai.” The deportations, while aimed at cracking down on smuggling and other illegal border activity, fueled tensions between the two countries.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not adequately enforced. 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. However, several organizations specifically address violence against women and related issues.