Freedom in the World
The government took steps in 2010 to confront Belize’s increasing violent crime, including the creation of a new Ministry of Police and Public Security. High-profile corruption cases continued to dominate the political scene during the year, particularly those involving Belize City officials. Also in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of indigenous Mayan communities’ constitutionally protected property and cultural rights, including the right to block development and mining activities on communal land.
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 but remained a member of the Commonwealth. The government has since changed hands a number of times, alternating between the center-right United Democratic Party (UDP) and the center-left People’s United Party (PUP).
Said Wilbert Musa of the PUP was elected as prime minister in 1998, and he became the country’s first prime minister to secure a second consecutive term after the PUP won again in 2003. However, the opposition UDP swept the 2006 local elections amid public dissatisfaction with corruption scandals, increased taxation, and rising crime rates. In 2007, public protests broke out, focusing on issues including education and financial mismanagement. The Musa government’s plan to take over the debt of Universal Health Services (UHS), a private company, was particularly controversial. Belize received a US$10 million grant from the Venezuelan government that year for the construction and repair of housing, but the funds were diverted to Belize Bank to assist in the repayment of a government-guaranteed loan to UHS.
The UDP, led by Dean Barrow, ousted Musa and the PUP in February 2008 parliamentary elections, taking 25 out of 31 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly and leaving the PUP with just six seats. Voter turnout was lower than in the last elections, but the balloting was determined to be free and fair.
In April 2008, the Barrow government proposed amendments to the constitution that would allow for wiretapping and preventative detention. The package also provided the government with the right to seize land where mineral resources are discovered. Opponents argued that this power could easily be abused and did not respect the land rights of Mayan minority groups. The amendments were passed by the National Assembly in August, but the Court of Appeal ruled in March 2009 that a referendum was required as well. The proposed changes remained stalled at the end of 2010. However, a separate ruling by the Supreme Court in June 2010 recognized the right of 38 Mayan communities to block extractive activities on their lands and potentially shielded them from the pending constitutional amendments.
The Barrow government had also been criticized for its August 2009 takeover of Belize Telemedia, the country’s largest telecommunications company. In reaction to a conflict with the company, lawmakers had quickly amended the Belize Telecommunications Act to allow for the takeover. In July 2010 the Supreme Court upheld the nationalization, but ordered the government to compensate shareholders immediately. This decision was under appeal at year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Belize is an electoral democracy. The head of state is the British monarch, represented by a governor general. The 31-seat House of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly, is elected for five-year terms. The 12 members of the Senate are appointed to five-year terms, with six appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister, three on the advice of the opposition leader, and three on the advice of major civil society groups. There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, and the interests of Mestizo, Creole, Mayan, and Garifuna ethnic groups are represented in the National Assembly. The country’s major parties are the center-right UDP and the center-left PUP.
Government corruption is a serious problem, but public intolerance for graft continued to grow in 2010. Belize City mayor Zenaida Moya, who was charged in 2009 with the alleged misappropriation of some US$140,000 in public funds, was expelled in May 2010 from the UDP’s Ethics and Integrity Committee. Later that month, three high-ranking Belize City Council members resigned due to allegations of misconduct. A January report by the auditor general had claimed that the council had misused or failed to account for millions of dollars in municipal funds since 2006. Separately, at least six immigration officers were arrested in October for alleged complicity in human trafficking that involved a group of 32 Japanese passport holders entering Belize en route to the United States. Belize was not included in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Belize has a generally open media environment. Journalists or others who criticize 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. Belize has one daily newspaper and 10 weeklies, including two that are supported directly by political parties. There are 10 radio stations and two television networks, along with a variety of cable outlets. The internet penetration rate is one of the highest in Central America.
Residents of Belize enjoy full freedom of religion, and academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, and demonstrations are usually peaceful, though protests by sugarcane workers in 2009 resulted in one death and injuries to at least 10 people after police attempted to break up a roadblock. 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. In a positive development, the Supreme Court in July 2009 ruled in favor of six banana workers who were fired for attempting to join a union.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law is generally respected. Defendants can remain free on bail or in pretrial detention for years amid a heavy case backlog. Police misconduct is investigated by the department’s internal affairs office or an ombudsman’s office. Extrajudicial killing and use of excessive force are among the country’s primary human rights concerns. In 2010, the government announced that Belize would join the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, leaving behind the colonial-era Privy Council in London. The Caribbean Court accepted its first Belizean case in October.
According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the world’s 12th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio, with about 476 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons do not meet minimum international standards, although the Hattieville Prison is now run by a nonprofit foundation that has improved conditions somewhat, and a number of prison officers have been dismissed for alleged brutality and bribery. The prison occupancy level is at 96.5 percent; about a quarter of detainees are awaiting trial.
As part of a broader anticrime strategy unveiled in June 2010, Prime Minister Dean Barrow created a new Ministry of Police and Public Security; previously, the police had fallen under the Ministry of National Security. Meanwhile, problems with violent crime, money laundering, and drug trafficking continued. Belize registered 140 homicides in 2010, compared to 97 in 2009 and 103 in 2008. Officials estimate that perpetrators are convicted in only about 7 percent of homicides.
The government actively discourages ethnic discrimination. Most of the indigenous Mayan population lives in the south, the poorest part of the country. The government has designated only 77,000 acres as Mayan preserves, and there has been little action on the 500,000 acres of disputed land following a 2004 Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruling in favor of Mayan property rights. However, the June 2010 Supreme Court ruling recognizing the land-use rights of 38 Mayan communities could allow them to block development on communal property.
Most Spanish-speaking immigrants in the country lack legal status and face exploitation. A number of cases involving the trafficking of workers from South Asia and China for forced labor have also been uncovered in recent years.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor, and the majority of women working in the country’s brothels are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report placed Belize on its Tier 2 Watch List for the second year in a row, citing the government’s failure to make progress in trying and convicting offenders.
Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does the prevalence of child labor in agriculture. According to UNAIDS, as of September 2009, the adult HIV prevalence rate had remained relatively unchanged at about 2.6 percent. There have been reports of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness.