St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a parliamentary democracy that holds regular elections, though aspects of the most recent legislative polls have been disputed in court by the opposition. While civil liberties are generally upheld, journalists face the possibility of criminal defamation charges, and same-sex sexual conduct remains illegal. Violent crime is a growing concern.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In September, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was forced to deny the existence of a police “Black Squad” supposedly tasked with intimidating government opponents. The issue was raised after the US government evacuated 23 Peace Corps volunteers in August, apparently in response to reported threats and attacks.
- The country recorded 34 murders during the year, a decrease from unusually high totals of 39 in 2017 and 40 in 2016.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 36 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party in the parliament, is appointed by the governor general, who represents the British monarch as the largely ceremonial head of state. Ralph Gonsalves retained his position as prime minister following the victory of his incumbent Unity Labour Party (ULP) in the 2015 legislative elections, which were considered generally free and fair.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The constitution provides for the direct election of 15 representatives to the unicameral House of Assembly. In addition, the governor general appoints six senators to the chamber: four selected on the advice of the prime minister and two on the advice of the opposition leader. All serve five-year terms.
The 2015 legislative elections resulted in a narrow victory by the social democratic ULP, which took eight seats in the House of Assembly; the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) won the remaining seven elected seats. International and domestic observers deemed the polls generally competitive and credible. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) observer mission expressed concerns about partiality of the presiding officer at the final vote count in the constituency of Central Leeward. According to the OAS report, the returning officer there continually refused requests for information or access from representatives of the NDP, while responding to requests from representatives of the ULP.
The NDP mounted several mass protests alleging electoral irregularities and initiated two legal complaints regarding the conduct of polling in Central Leeward and North Windward. In July 2017, the High Court ruled that the petitions should be allowed to proceed, and both cases were ongoing at the end of 2018.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
Electoral laws are generally fair and impartially implemented. Efforts to update voter lists were initiated in 2013, and ahead of the 2015 elections the legislature passed an amendment to the election law that removed almost 24,000 names from the lists. The amendment had bipartisan support. The 2015 OAS election monitoring mission welcomed the change, but said that authorities should implement a continuous updating and cleansing process; this has not yet been done. It also called for better standardization of voting procedures across polling sites.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Political parties can organize freely. While there are a number of smaller political parties in the country, since 1998 only the ULP and NDP have won seats in the parliament. The “first past the post” electoral system has contributed to this pattern, but there are also concerns that unregulated private campaign financing puts smaller parties at a disadvantage. The limited state funding that is available goes only to parties represented in the previous parliament.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The country has experienced multiple peaceful transfers of power between rival parties after elections, including two since it gained full independence in 1979. The ULP has been in government since 2001, but it has had only a narrow majority over the opposition NDP since 2010.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
The political choices of candidates and voters are generally free from interference by extrapolitical forces. However, the OAS raised concerns in 2015 about the lack of transparency regarding party and campaign financing, which could enable undue influence by private actors.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
All citizens are formally entitled to full political rights and electoral opportunities, but women remain significantly underrepresented in the legislature and in politics generally. No women were elected to the House of Assembly in 2015; three were appointed. In its report on the 2015 elections, the OAS noted that there was a “pervasive reluctance” on the part of potential women candidates to take part in harsh political campaigns.
The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community is marginalized, and this affects the ability of LGBT people to engage fully in political processes.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
The elected prime minister, cabinet, and House of Assembly members are able to determine the policies of the government without improper interference from unelected entities.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Corruption-related offenses by public officials are prohibited by law, and the independent judiciary and media provide additional checks on graft. However, there is no specialized national anticorruption agency, and claims of petty corruption continue to be reported.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The government generally operates with openness and transparency. Nevertheless, freedom of information legislation that was passed in 2003 has yet to be fully implemented, and there is no active legislation requiring government officials to disclose assets, income, or gifts.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 55 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
The constitution guarantees the freedoms of expression and communication, and these rights are usually upheld in practice. The state owns the main local broadcaster, but a number of private newspapers are available, and news consumers also have access to foreign media and online outlets.
Journalists remain subject to criminal and civil defamation laws, and the 2016 Cybercrime Act broadened the definition and scope of defamation to include online publications; violation of its often vaguely worded provisions can carry a fine of as much as EC$500,000 (US$185,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally upheld.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on individuals’ ability to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected and generally upheld in practice. There were reports of police using excessive force to disperse peaceful protests during the 2015 election period, but similar incidents have not been reported in recent years.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights–and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations operate freely. However, reported security threats including a physical attack on a volunteer apparently prompted the US Peace Corps to withdraw 23 people from the country in August 2018. Responding to allegations that a police-affiliated “Black Squad,” supposedly tasked with intimidating government opponents, was responsible for the pressure on the Peace Corps, Prime Minister Gonsalves denied that such a group existed.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
The constitution protects the right to form or join trade unions and other such associations. Unions are permitted to strike and engage in collective bargaining. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and dismissal for engaging in union activities. The right to collective bargaining is generally upheld, though public-sector unions have recently criticized the government for failing to respect the bargaining process.
F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16 (+1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4 (+1)
The judiciary generally operates independently. Judges are appointed through an impartial Judicial and Legal Services Commission and cannot be dismissed arbitrarily. The country is subject to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and recognizes the original jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice, but the Privy Council in London remains the final court of appeal.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to further long-term consolidation of an independent judiciary and a lack of tangible political interference in recent years.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
Detainees and defendants are guaranteed a range of legal rights, which are mostly respected in practice. However, there is a significant case backlog, which leads to prolonged pretrial detention. According to the US State Department, about 20 people had been held in pretrial detention for longer than two years as of 2017, with many of the cases featuring delays in obtaining psychiatric evaluations of the defendant.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
While the population is free from war and other acute threats to physical security, the homicide rate has reached unusually high levels in recent years, with 40 murders in 2016 and 39 in 2017; the number fell to 34 in 2018, though for the previous decade it had most often been in the 20s. Prison conditions have improved since the opening of a new correctional facility in 2012, but the old prison in Kingstown is still in use and features substandard conditions. The government has strongly denied allegations in recent years that a supposed extralegal unit affiliated with the police is used to intimidate its perceived opponents.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and other such categories, but sexual orientation and gender identity are not similarly protected. Same-sex sexual conduct is illegal and carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison. While the law is rarely enforced, societal discrimination against LGBT people persists. Women reportedly face sexual harassment in the workplace, which is not specifically addressed by law.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 14 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on freedom of movement, and individuals are able to change their place of residence, employment, and education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or non-state actors? 4 / 4
Individuals are free to own property and to establish and operate businesses. The government has actively encouraged both domestic and foreign investors to do business in the country, though the World Bank has reported some regulatory difficulties with respect to registering property, obtaining credit, and resolving insolvency.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Individual rights with respect to personal status matters like marriage and divorce are generally protected by law, though same-sex marriage is not recognized. The Domestic Violence Act of 2015, which went into effect in 2016 and provides for protective orders, offers some tools and resources to victims of domestic violence. However, such violence remains a serious and widespread problem, as does sexual assault.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
The law provides safety and other basic protections against labor exploitation, and these are typically upheld, though there are some reports of inadequate enforcement. The Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2011 criminalizes forced labor and sex trafficking, and the government has increased its efforts to investigate violations and improve prevention and victim protection, but it has yet to secure any trafficking convictions, according to the US State Department.