Freedom in the World
In a controversial move, Belize’s government amended the constitution in 2011 in order to guarantee the state a majority stake in water, electricity, and telecommunications companies. Meanwhile, violent crime and drug trafficking remained serious concerns throughout the year.
Belize achieved independence from Britain in 1981 but has remained a member of the British Commonwealth. Control of the government has since alternated 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 prime minister in 1998, replacing George Cadle Prince, the co-founder of the PUP and Belize’s first prime minister. Musa 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 2008 national elections, capturing 25 out of 31 National Assembly seats, amid public dissatisfaction with corruption, increased taxation, and rising crime rates. The UDP’s Dean Barrow became prime minister.
The Barrow government proposed controversial amendments to the constitution in 2008 that would allow for wiretapping, preventative detention, and the right to seize land where mineral resources are discovered. Opponents argued that this latter measure 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 Appeals ruled in March 2009 that a referendum was required as well. The Interception of Communications Act, which would allow for wiretaps and was criticized by opponents for its potential for misuse by law enforcement officials, was enacted on December 2010.
The Barrow government also faced criticism for its 2009 takeover of Belize Telemedia Limited, the country’s largest telecommunications company. The Supreme Court upheld the nationalization in 2010, but ordered the government to compensate shareholders immediately. In June 2011, the Belizean Court of Appeals ruled that Telemedia’s nationalization was unconstitutional. The Belizean government nationalized Telemedia a second time in July, believing that it had addressed those issues that the court had found to be illegal during the first nationalization process. In July, Prime Minister Barrow also introduced a constitutional amendment to parliament that would ensure government control of all public utilities; the amendment became law in October.
Belize is an electoral democracy. 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 next general elections in 2013.
Government corruption remains a serious problem. Belize is the only country in Central America that is not a party to the UN Convention against Corruption. In 2010, three high-ranking Belize City Council members resigned due to allegations of misconduct. A report by the auditor general claimed that the council had misused or failed to account for millions of dollars in municipal funds since 2006.
Belize has a generally open media environment. 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 nationalization of Telemedia. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Violent crime, money laundering, gang violence, and drug trafficking continued to be serious concerns in 2011. Belize now has the sixth highest homicide rate in the world. Officials estimate the perpetrators are convicted in only about 10 percent of homicides. In September, the government brokered a truce among rival gangs in response to complaints made by residents and alleged gang members of police brutality by the Gang Suppression Unit. Extrajudicial killings and the use of excessive force remain concerns. Police misconduct is investigated by the department’s internal affairs office or an ombudsman’s office. Belize was added to the U.S. list of “major” drug producing and transit countries in 2011 because of large numbers of drugs and weapons seized along its border with Mexico and weak anticorruption measures. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, Belize has the world’s 9th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio, with about 439 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons do not meet minimum international standards.
While the government actively discourages ethnic discrimination, it has designated only 77,000 acres as Mayan reserves, 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 discrimination.
Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, as does the prevalence of child labor in agriculture. Gender disparities are profound; Belize ranks 100 out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report. There have been reports of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, despite the government’s efforts to educate the public about the illness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons also face legal and societal discrimination. While female same-sex sexual activity is legal, male same-sex sexual activity is illegal and can result in 10 years imprisonment. The United Belize Advocacy Movement is challenging the constitutionality of this law and is scheduled to go before the Supreme Court in early 2012. Belize is the only country in the Americas that has no women in its elected lower house of government.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labor. The majority of trafficked women are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The trafficking of workers from South Asia and China for forced labor has also been uncovered in recent years. There is also concern that Belize is emerging as a sex tourism destination. The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report removed Belize from the Tier 2 Watch List but continued to categorize it as a Tier 2 country.