Trinidad and Tobago | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago

Free
82/100
Overview: 

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a parliamentary democracy with vibrant media and civil society sectors. However, organized crime contributes to high levels of violence, and corruption among public officials remains a challenge. Other security concerns center on local adherents of Islamist militant groups. There is discrimination against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, though a 2018 court ruling effectively decriminalized same-sex sexual conduct.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • Parliament elected the country’s first woman president, Paula-Mae Weekes, in January.
  • In February, security forces arrested several people suspected of planning a terrorist attack on that month’s Carnival festivities.
  • The High Court ruled in April that sections of the Sexual Offences Act, which prohibited “buggery” and “serious indecency,” were unconstitutional. In September the court changed the law to decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults. The government said it would appeal the judgment to the Privy Council in London.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 33 / 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 president, the largely ceremonial head of state, is elected to a five-year term by a majority of the combined houses of Parliament. Paula-Mae Weekes, an independent former judge, was elected unopposed in January 2018 and took office in March.

The prime minister, who serves as head of government and is typically the leader of the majority party in Parliament, is appointed by the president. Keith Rowley became prime minister in 2015, after parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for his party, the center-right People’s National Movement (PNM).

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Parliament consists of the directly elected, 41-member House of Representatives and the 31-member Senate, with members of both houses serving five-year terms. Of the 31 senators, 16 are appointed on the advice of the prime minister, 6 are appointed on the advice of the opposition leader, and 9 are appointed at the president’s discretion based on merit.

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the center-left People’s Partnership (PP) coalition led by then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar took 18 lower house seats and was defeated by Keith Rowley’s PNM, which won 23. Election observers expressed confidence in the overall conduct of the balloting.

The semiautonomous island of Tobago has its own House of Assembly, with 12 members elected directly, 3 appointed on the advice of the chief secretary (the island’s head of government), and 1 appointed on the advice of the minority leader. Elections took place in 2017, with the PNM taking 10 of the 12 elected seats and the Progressive Democratic Patriots taking the remainder.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

Electoral laws are largely fair. The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) is in charge of organizing elections, and it is generally trusted by the public to fulfill its mandate impartially.

After the 2015 elections, observation missions from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Commonwealth recommended that officials take steps to strengthen the transparency and accountability of campaign funding processes, and ensure that adequate training is provided for polling officials.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 13 / 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? 3 / 4

Trinidad and Tobago has a number of political parties. While the PNM dominated the political landscape in the decades following independence, it has weakened somewhat in the last two decades, allowing greater competition. The national political arena is now largely divided between the PNM and the PP, a coalition that includes the United National Congress (UNC) and the Congress of the People. Factors including the country’s first-past-the-post voting system have made it difficult for less established parties to gain seats in Parliament.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

The country has built a record of peaceful transfers of power between rival parties, with multiple changes in government through elections since the 1980s.

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? 3 / 4

People’s political choices are generally free from external pressure. However, observers have raised concerns about lack of transparency in campaign financing, which may enable improper influence and disadvantage opposition parties.

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 ethnic groups enjoy full political rights, and political parties are technically multiethnic, though the PNM is favored by Afro-Trinidadians and the UNC is affiliated with Indo-Trinidadians.

Women’s political participation has increased somewhat in recent years, but they remain generally underrepresented. In 2018, Weekes became the first woman to be elected president. Discrimination against LGBT people is widespread, affecting their ability to fully engage in political and electoral processes.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

The country’s freely elected executive and legislative officeholders generally determine and implement government policies without undue interference.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Corruption remains a pervasive problem, especially within the police force and among immigration officers. The government has sought to manage corruption through several pieces of legislation, but the laws are poorly enforced. During 2018, Prime Minister Rowley was accused of benefiting financially from the state-owned Petrotrin oil refinery, while Chief Justice Ivor Archie faced allegations that he had placed undue pressure on the Housing Development Corporation over the granting of a number of housing units. Both cases were unresolved at year’s end.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4

Public officials are required to disclose their assets, income, and liabilities, but penalties against those who fail to comply are limited. The Integrity Commission, which is tasked with overseeing these financial disclosures, has been criticized for its lack of effectiveness.

The public has the right to access government documents by law, although numerous public institutions are exempt. Furthermore, there is no enforcement of a provision that requires the government to respond to information requests within 30 days. A 2015 law regulating public procurements has not been fully implemented.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 49 / 60 (+1)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16 (+1)

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed and generally upheld in practice. Media outlets are privately owned and vigorously pluralistic. However, those regarded as most favorable to the government receive the bulk of state advertising. Under the 2013 Defamation and Libel Act, “malicious defamatory libel known to be false” is punishable by up to two years in prison as well as a fine, but prosecutions are uncommon.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4 (+1)

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally honors this provision. The requirements for registration of a religious organization, which confers tax benefits and other privileges, are not considered onerous. Some restrictions are placed on foreign missionaries; up to 35 per registered religious group are allowed in the country at one time, and they cannot stay longer than three consecutive years.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because religious freedom has generally been upheld in recent years, with major Christian, Hindu, and Muslim groups emphasizing interfaith tolerance and cooperation.

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

Individuals are free to express their opinions in private conversations, and the government is not known to monitor online communications.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respects this right.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights–and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Civil society is robust, with a range of domestic and international interest groups operating freely.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4

Labor unions are well organized and politically active, though union membership has declined in recent years. Strikes are legal and occur frequently. The law contains a provision allowing the labor minister to petition the courts to end any strike deemed detrimental to national interests. Walkouts by workers considered essential, including hospital staff, firefighters, and telecommunication workers, are punishable by up to three years in prison and fines. The government threatened to impose criminal penalties in September 2018 prior to a series of strikes in protest against the planned closure of the Petrotrin refinery.

F. RULE OF LAW: 9 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

The judicial branch is generally independent, but it is subject to some political pressure and corruption. Beginning in 2017, Chief Justice Ivor Archie was accused of placing undue pressure on the Housing Development Corporation regarding the granting of housing units. The Trinidad Express had also alleged that criminal elements had compromising information on him. In response, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT) created a special committee to investigate his conduct. Archie then sued LATT to prevent the committee from being established, but he lost on final appeal to the London-based Privy Council in August 2018. The underlying matter remained unresolved at year’s end.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Due process rights are provided for in the constitution, but they are not always upheld. Rising crime rates and institutional weakness have produced a severe backlog in the court system. Over 60 percent of the prison population is made up of pretrial detainees or remand prisoners. Defendants must wait many years for their cases to come to trial. Corruption in the police force, which is often linked to the illegal drugs trade, is endemic, and inefficiencies have resulted in the dismissal of some criminal cases. Intimidation of witnesses and jurors has been reported by judicial officials.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

The government has struggled in recent years to address criminal violence, which is mostly linked to organized crime and drug trafficking. There were a reported 517 murders in 2018, exceeding the figure for 2017 and approaching a record high set in 2008. The United Nations ranks Trinidad and Tobago just below the 10 countries with the world’s highest murder rates per capita. In 2017, the Organized Crime Intelligence Unit was established “to pursue, target, dismantle, disrupt and prosecute” organized criminal groups and networks. But the police have been criticized for excessive use of force, and many abuses by the authorities go unpunished.

Dozens of Trinidadian citizens have reportedly sought to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in recent years. Trinidadian security forces, supported by US military personnel, raided multiple locations in February 2018 and arrested several individuals suspected of planning a terrorist attack on that month’s Carnival celebration. The government also shared concerns that energy companies in the country might be targeted by local Islamist militants.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Despite legal protections against discrimination on various grounds, racial disparities persist, with Indo-Trinidadians accounting for a disproportionate share of the country’s economic elite. Women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation.

Human rights groups have criticized the government’s unwillingness to address discrimination and violence against the LGBT community. However, in April 2018, the High Court ruled that sections of the Sexual Offences Act, which prohibited “buggery” and “serious indecency,” were unconstitutional. In September the court changed the law to decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults. The government said it would appeal the judgment to the London-based Privy Council. Separately, Trinidad celebrated its first LGBT Pride festival in July.

Immigration law does not adequately protect refugees, and cases of asylum seekers being forcibly returned to their country of origin continue to be reported.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 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 constraints on freedom of movement or people’s ability to change their place of residence, employment, or 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? 3 / 4

While the government actively supports both domestic and foreign investment in the country, factors including corruption and weak state institutions can make it more difficult to start and operate businesses. There are particular problems associated with registering property and enforcing contracts.

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

Most individual rights with respect to personal status issues like marriage and divorce are protected by law. The 2017 Marriage Act raised the legal marriage age to 18, officially making child marriage illegal.

Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, and domestic violence is addressed by a specific law. However, enforcement of these provisions remains inadequate, with many perpetrators reportedly avoiding punishment.

Abortion is illegal in most cases, and there is reportedly little public awareness of legal exemptions for abortions to save a woman’s life or preserve her physical or mental health. A woman can be imprisoned for up to four years for obtaining an illegal abortion.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

The law provides basic protections against exploitative working conditions, though these do not apply or are poorly enforced for informal and household workers in particular. While the government has stepped up efforts to combat trafficking in persons, convictions have been lacking, and funding for victim services has been cut. Venezuelan women are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking in the country.