Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Belize received a downward trend arrow due to reports of corruption across several government ministries related to the sale of passports and other documents, as well as an inadequate response by law enforcement agencies.
Like other Central American countries, Belize struggled with the negative effects of organized crime, gang violence, drug trafficking, and corruption in 2013. Criminal trafficking networks involved in the sale of illegal narcotics, counterfeit merchandise, timber, exotic animals, humans, and weapons were uncovered last year. Several corruption cases were uncovered, including one involving the illegal sale and distribution of Belizean nationality documents and passports to people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and another involving alleged extortion from a government contractor.
Political Rights: 36 / 40 (-1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 but has remained a member of the British Commonwealth. The head of state is the British monarch, who is represented by a governor general. Members of the 31-seat House of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. The 12 members of the Senate are currently appointed to five-year terms, though Belizeans voted in a 2008 referendum to change to an elected Senate following the 2012 general elections.
Control of the government has alternated between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People’s United Party (PUP). The UDP swept the 2008 national elections, amid public dissatisfaction with corruption, increased taxation, and rising crime rates under a PUP government; the UDP’s Dean Barrow became prime minister. The UDP narrowly held on to power in 2012 when it captured 50.4 percent of the national vote and 17 seats in the House of Representatives to the PUP’s 47.5 percent and 14 seats; turnout was 73.2 percent. The PUP alleged that the elections were not free and fair, claiming that there were credible, documented reports of abuse and illegality in the electoral process. The Organization of American States’ first ever Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) to Belize noted similar problems, including complaints of voter-list irregularities and concerns that party activists were electioneering outside of polling centers. Although the EOM still characterized the elections as free and fair, it did call on the government to pass campaign finance legislation, noting that political financing is unregulated in Belize.
C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12 (-1)
Given the recent increase in corruption, gang violence, organized crime, and drug trafficking, there has been an inadequate response by law enforcement agencies. Government corruption is a serious and growing problem. Belize is the only country in Central America that is not a party to the UN Convention against Corruption. Since 2009, Transparency International has not had enough access to data that would allow Belize to be included on the organization’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. After running on an anti-corruption platform and winning the 2008 election, Dean Barrow’s popularity suffered as the result of several corruption scandals involving members of his administration. Corruption scandals have continued in Barrow’s second term. A UDP member from the Corozal District allegedly stole $50,000 from the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. Allegations pertaining to the misallocation of funds committed to the repair of San Estevan Road continue. The Minister of State in the Immigration Ministry, Elvin Penner, was fired from the cabinet in September after he was found to have been involved in the illegal issuance of a Belizean passport to a South Korean man who had never been to Belize and who was incarcerated in a Taiwanese jail at the time of the passport’s issuance. Three immigration officers were also suspended and investigations into former deputy mayor of Belize City Eric Chang, an alleged accomplice of Penner’s, are ongoing. The media has also reported on allegations that more than 150 nationality applications were also signed by Penner. In October and November, a whistleblower accused Minister of State Edmund Castro of having been involved in visa irregularities as well. The Ministry of Natural Resources was hit with allegations of questionable payments to UDP-connected individuals. In September, four employees of the Social Investment Fund (SIF) were fired and its executive director resigned amid an extortion scandal involving a contractor hired to renovate the Dangriga market.
Civil Liberties: 51 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16
Belize has a generally open media environment. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but there are exceptions in the interest of national security, public order, and morality. Journalists or others who question the financial disclosures of government officials may face up to three years in prison or up to US$2,500 in fines, but this law has not been applied in recent years. The Belize Broadcasting Authority has the right to prior restraint of all broadcasts for national security or emergency reasons, though this too is rarely invoked. Despite the availability of diverse sources of media, including privately-owned weekly newspapers, radio and television stations, concerns over government control of the broadcast industry remain after the attempted nationalization of Belize Telemedia Limited, the country’s largest telecommunications company. While the government does not restrict internet access or use, internet penetration is low due to lack of infrastructure and high costs.
Residents of Belize enjoy full freedom of religion, and academic freedom is respected.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and demonstrations are usually peaceful. A large number of nongovernmental organizations are active, and labor unions remain politically influential despite their shrinking ranks. Official boards of inquiry adjudicate labor disputes, and businesses are penalized for labor-code violations. However, the government has done little to combat antiunion discrimination, and workers who are fired for organizing rarely receive compensation.
F. Rule of Law: 12 / 16
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law is generally respected. However, concerns remain that the judicial system is vulnerable to political interference. A 2011 report by the American Bar Association scored Belize poorly on 16 out of 28 factors in evaluating its prosecutorial and criminal justice system, and it found that only one in ten murders leads to a conviction. Defendants can remain free on bail or in pretrial detention for years amid a heavy case backlog; about one-fifth of the country’s detainees are awaiting trial.
Although overall crime decreased in 2013, violent crime, money laundering, gang violence, and drug trafficking remain serious concerns. Extrajudicial killings and the use of excessive force by police remain concerns, and Belizeans lack confidence in a police force they perceive as highly corrupt. Belize has been on the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries since 2011 because of large numbers of drugs and weapons traveling across its border with Mexico and weak anticorruption measures. The government established a committee to investigate decriminalizing marijuana in 2012. Belize agreed in 2013 to share tax information with international officials. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the world’s 9th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio, with about 476 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Its prisons do not meet minimum international standards, although prison conditions are generally better than its neighbors.
While the government actively discourages ethnic discrimination, some Spanish-speaking immigrants in the country lack legal status and face discrimination.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 /16
The Barrow government faced criticism for its 2009 takeover of Belize Telemedia. Although the Supreme Court upheld the nationalization in 2010, the Belizean Court of Appeals ruled in June 2011 that the move was unconstitutional. The Belizean government nationalized Telemedia a second time in July 2011, believing that it had addressed the issues that the court had found to be illegal; in June 2012, however, the Court of Appeals once again found the nationalization unconstitutional. The government has appealed the Court’s decision and litigation remains pending as of September 2013.
In June 2013, the government took control of the International Business Companies Registry and the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize, both of which were being managed by a private company. The company, Belize International Services Limited, launched legal action, saying it had an agreement with the government to manage the registries until 2020; the government claimed that the agreement was invalid and resisted the characterization of the take-over as nationalization.
In a long-awaited decision on government appeals to 2007 and 2010 Supreme Court rulings, the Belizean Court of Appeals ruled in July that more than 30 Mayan communities in southern Belize have rights to their ancestral lands, but that the government is not responsible to provide documentation of that ownership or to prevent third parties from using the land. Indigenous communities continue to criticize the government’s concessions that permit foreign corporations to exploit their lands.
Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does the prevalence of child labor in agriculture. Gender disparities are profound; Belize ranks 107 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor and there is concern that Belize is emerging as a sex tourism destination.
There have been reports of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) persons face legal and societal discrimination. The Belizean Government revised its gender policy in May 2013 to include sexual orientation. While female same-sex sexual activity is legal, male same-sex sexual activity is illegal and can result in 10 years imprisonment. The Supreme Court is still considering the constitutionality of this provision. Gay and lesbian foreigners are legally prohibited from entering Belize.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year