Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The May 2010 parliamentary elections were led by a coalition consisting of former dictator Desiré Bouterse’s National Democratic Party and three smaller parties. Bouterse was subsequently elected president in July. The murder trial against him, for the 1982 execution of 15 political opponents, was suspended in October. As president, he will not be required to testify, and could engineer a pardon if convicted.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, after more than three centuries of colonial rule. The 1980 military coup led by Desiré 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, which were handily won 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 2000 legislative elections, the NF again secured a strong majority of seats.
In 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, though the policy’s negative side effects led to increased voter discontent. In the May 2005 elections, the NF managed to remain the single largest political force, 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 to 315 for the NDP’s 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 denied involvement in the killings, although in March 2007, he accepted political responsibility while offering a public apology.The trial, which is regarded as a landmark test for Suriname’s judicial system, began in November 2008, and has since dominated the political debate. In 2009, following frequent delays, the trial advanced, featuring the testimony of six bystanders who had fled the country and settled in the Netherlands after witnessing the executions.
Bouterse’s Mega Combination coalition—comprising the NDP and three smaller parties—won legislative elections held in May 2010, capturing 40 percent of the vote and 23 seats in parliament. The NF placed second, with approximately 32 percent of the vote and 14 seats. In the July presidential election, Bouterse was elected with 70.6 percent of the vote, defeating NF candidate Chandrikapersad Santokhi.As president, Bouterse has the power to grant amnesty to those involved in the 1982 murders, but the charges had not been dropped by year’s end. Some analysts fear that as president Bouterse would not be required to testify, or that he could use his elected position to receive a pardon. However, the trial was suspended again in October when 19 defense witnesses failed to appear.
Foreign relations remained contentious for the remainder of 2010, with only Bharrat Jagdeo, neighboring Guyana’s president, in attendance at Bouterse’s inauguration. International travel was also difficult for Bouterse, with an Interpol warrant out for his arrest and a drug trafficking conviction in the Netherlands still outstanding. However, he remained protected from arrest because Suriname does not have an extradition treaty.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Suriname is an electoral democracy. The Organization of American States reported that the 2010 legislative and presidential elections met international standards. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly, elected by proportional representation for 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 NF is a coalition of the NPS and several smaller parties.
Suriname has been plagued by corruption cases in recent years, and organized crime and drug networks continue to hamper governance. In December 2010, President Desiré Bouterse fired Martinus Sastroredjo, his minister of Spatial Planning, Land, and Forestry Management,after Sastroredjo refused to resign over a controversy involving his wife and a land application.
The constitution provides for freedoms of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. 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. However, the trial of Bouterse for the “December murders” has been freely covered by the local press. 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 legally recognized, although it is very limited in practice. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and it is becoming more accessible.
The authorities generally respect freedom of religion and do not infringe on academic freedom. Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for by 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 own final court of appeal. Surinameis 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 Guyana and Suriname. However, a November 2010 agreement to seek Chinese investment to build a bridge between the two countries indicated that the incident had not damaged relations.
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. Human trafficking remains a problem, and the country lacks a comprehensive law specifically banning the practice. However, several organizations address violence against women and related issues.