UNITED NATIONS

Press Release



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HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE BEGINS REVIEW OF SURINAME’S REPORT, HEARING OF ‘STEADY

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Human Rights Committee                                     
Eightieth Session                                          
2173rd Meeting* (PM)

PROGRESS’ IN INVESTIGATION OF VIOLATIONS UNDER PREVIOUS REGIME

But Committee Experts Concerned at Lack
Of Concrete Results Regarding Murder Investigations


The Government of Suriname had made it a priority to conduct in-depth investigations into a series of human rights violations that had taken place under the previous military regime, Ewald Limon, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said this afternoon as he presented his country’s second periodic report to the Human Rights Committee.


Responding to concerns raised by the expert panel monitoring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he said there had been steady progress in investigations into the 1982 “December murders” and the “Moiwana massacre” of 1986.  However, Suriname faced serious difficulties in its efforts to track down perpetrators or identify witnesses to those crimes, which had taken place during a time of domestic political unrest.  Nevertheless, the remains of the victims had been exhumed, and several identifications had been made.


Experts on the 18-member expert panel had expressed concern about the lack of concrete progress reported by the Suriname delegation regarding human violations under military rule.  One expert noted that despite the vagueness of the delegation’s response, brutal details had emerged about the 1986 incident, including reports of the kidnap and murder of several police officers who had been looking into it.  He sought assurances that the Government was looking seriously into the matter after so many years of inaction.


Other experts questioned the dearth of detailed information on human rights issues, including the status of efforts to abolish capital punishment, the ill treatment of detainees, discrimination against indigenous minorities, gender-based violence and sexual abuse as well as trafficking in human beings.


When the Human Rights Committee reconvenes at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Friday 19 March, it will continue its consideration of Suriname’s second periodic report.


Background


The Committee on Human Rights continued its eightieth session today with a review of Suriname’s second periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (document CCPR/C/SUR/2003/2).  The experts last considered the situation in 2002 in the absence of Suriname’s second periodic report, but in the presence of a Government delegation.  Following the dialogue, the Committee adopted provisional concluding observations in a private session.  It decided that the conclusions would only be made public if the State party did not submit its second periodic report within a specified time frame.  Suriname submitted its second periodic report within that time frame.


According to the report, Suriname’s Constitution gave high priority to protecting and promoting personal rights and freedoms, as well as social, cultural and economic rights.  Among its various articles, the Constitution echoes many of the principles set out in international human rights instruments, including equality between men and women; non-discrimination on the grounds of birth, language, race or religion; right to fair trials; and the rights to life and freedom of expression.  It also includes the right to work in safe, humane conditions.  On Suriname’s Criminal Code, the report notes that all violations of human rights were punishable under the law.


Because Suriname’s Constitutional Court has not yet been established, human rights violations are currently submitted to the Court of Justice.  Once the Court comes into existence, it will have the task of reviewing laws to determine their compatibility with the Constitution as well as international human rights instruments.  The report states that Article 23 of the Constitution, in case of war, threat of war, martial law or for reasons of State security or public order, some constitutional rights can be restricted.  The abrogation of such rights would be for a limited period of time and the measures taken should adhere to international norms.


Shortly after Suriname’s initial compliance report was taken up by the Committee in 1980, an armed militia staged a coup and removed the elected Government from power.  From 1980 to 1987, Suriname was ruled by the military, and even though a new, democratically elected leadership took over after 1987, to all intents and purposes, the Government was still dominated and directed by the military.  The report says that in 1990, the military staged another coup, shattering the fragile nascent democracy and igniting paramilitary clashes and unrest in the country’s interior.  During the years of unrest, military rulers maneuvered themselves into key leadership positions, which further hampered the development of Surname’s democratic institutions, the report adds.


Since the current Government strongly believes human rights must be enjoyed by all citizens, it nevertheless has tried to achieve that goal despite the circumstances.  On Suriname’s efforts to comply with specific articles of the Covenant, the report notes that the Government’s plan to increase awareness of women’s rights and promote greater participation of women in society (Article 3) has yielded some positive results, with political parties placing more women on the ballots during elections in 2000, and the establishment of a special governmental committee devoted to identifying all statutory regulations that were discriminatory to women and working towards their elimination.


On the right to life (Article 6), the report says that although the Government remains open to discussions on abolishing the death penalty, it nevertheless firmly believes that no decision can be made without the broadest possible dialogue among the citizenry.  At present, capital punishment can be imposed for aggravated murder, premeditated murder and treason.  The report also says that Suriname is struggling to deal with cases of flagrant human rights violations committed during the country’s military rule.  Those cases were pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.  In the same vein, Suriname was also emerging from a period where the media had been heavily censored (Article 19).  Today, wide bodies of media operate in the country without restrictions.


Statement by Permanent Representative


EWALD LIMON (Suriname) outlined the political structure of his country, saying it was based on equal rights for all.  Suriname’s system was a multiparty democracy, which held elections every four years.  The President was chosen every five years by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.


He said that a military coup d’état on 25 February 1980 had resulted in the dissolution of the democratically elected government.  Despite the restoration of democracy after several years of military dictatorship, the military had retained significant power.  In 1990, it had once again succeeded in staging a coup, ousting the President who had been elected in 1987.  The subsequent disregard for the constitutional order and regular serious violations of human rights had been devastating to Suriname’s democracy and the will of its people.  Democracy had eventually been restored following general elections in 1991.


As an independent and sovereign State, he said, Suriname had adopted several human rights instruments, and the Government would continue to guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The country had presented its first periodic report in 1980.  In the intervening period the country had not reported to the Committee owing to the military insurgency and paramilitary disturbances in the interior.  Suriname’s commitment to report regularly to the Committee had materialized with the receipt of questions from the Committee in 2002.


Suriname’s Response to Written Questions


Turning next to questions submitted by the Committee on the status of the Covenant in his country, Mr. LIMON (Suriname) said that that thus far, no action had been taken by the National Assembly on the bill on the establishment of the Constitutional Court.  The Government intended to urge the Assembly to speed up the process.


The current Government had made it a priority to conduct in-depth investigations into a series of human rights violations that had taken place under the military regime.  Recalling the so-called “December Murders”, which had occurred in 1982, he said that investigations were steadily progressing.


He reminded the experts of the serious difficulties confronting Suriname -- or any other nations –- trying to track down perpetrators or identify witnesses regarding crimes that took place during a time of political or domestic unrest.  Nevertheless, the remains of the victims had been exhumed with the help of the Netherlands, and Surinamese authorities had been able to identify several suspects as well as witnesses.  The Government expected to be able to announce its convictions and decisions as soon as the investigations were closed.


As for ongoing investigations into the 1986 “Moiwana Massacre”, Ambassador LIMON said that some of the prospective witnesses had moved or died and others had been uncooperative with authorities.  The Government would do everything in its power to conclude the investigations.  But owing to the complexity of those and other pending cases, Suriname would welcome technical or other assistance from the international community in order to continue its work.


On the potentially discriminatory character of several domestic laws -– based on gender -- he said that the Minster of Home Affairs had adopted a gender-specific programme to address the perceived disparities.  Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies were also closely working with the Ministry.  As further details were received, the delegation would forward relevant information to the Committee.


On capital punishment, he said that the death penalty was still in effect in Suriname.  The Government believed that broad discussion on abolishing the practice must be held with the wider citizenry before it took any action.  There were differing views, particularly between and among victims of criminal acts and their families, the Parliament and religious leaders on the matter.  Here he added that serious discussion would also have to be undertaken before the Government moved to accede to the Convention on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman of Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


He went on to say that the Government was continuing its investigation into the 1990 murder of police Chief Inspector Herman Gooding, who had been killed while conducting an investigation into the Moiwana massacre.


Addressing the charges leveled by several civil society groups that suicide subsequent to sexual abuse was the main cause of death of girls between the ages of six and 12, he said that there were no cases of suicide of girls in that age range due to sexual abuse.  Even incidental cases concerning deaths of children -- between the ages of 12 and 14 -- were proved not to have occurred subsequent to sexual abuse.  The records at the office of the Attorney General did not corroborate the NGO’s claim that such suicides had occurred.  Further, when the Government had requested more information from the NGO making the claim, it had received no response. 


On the treatment of detainees, he said the State had established a Commission in order to look into the matter.  It had submitted its preliminary report to police and government authorities.  The Government believed that all accusations of mistreatment of detainees must be taken seriously and acted upon at once.  Several law enforcement officers implicated in the incidents had been immediately suspended.  He added that the Police Commission also had its internal investigation unit looking into the matter.


He said that police officers had received training on detainee care.  Suriname believed that the situation of detainees had improved significantly and would continue to work to see that its policies in that regard met the standards set by the Covenant and other international instruments.  Suriname was prepared to work closely with NGOs on the matter.


On domestic violence, the Ministry of Justice had established a commission to protect women against such violence.  Another commission had been established devoted to identifying all statutory regulations that were discriminatory to women and working towards their elimination.  That body had also held several gender-awareness sessions focusing on domestic violence.  Suriname realized that there might not be specific legislation in effect, but would stress that gender based violence could be prosecuted under several other laws elaborated in the Penal Code.


He said that the Government had also taken several steps to combat trafficking in women and girls.  The Ministry of Justice and Police had established a working group to look into the matter.  A preliminary report had been issued, and subsequently, the Government had taken a series of corrective measures.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


RAFAEL RIVAS POSADA, expert from Colombia and a Committee Vice-Chairman, said the Committee was not fully satisfied with measures being considered, which did not convey the real human rights situation.  The establishment of the constitutional tribunal continued to be delayed, and the legality of the relevant legislation remained up in the air.  While the idea of establishing a constitutional court was still alive, it had not yet been born.  It was therefore unable to decide whether laws were constitutional or not, and whether people would have proper recourse should they suffer from their application.


Investigations into the tragic events of December 1982 and the massacres of 1986 had not been resolved, he said.  After 20 years of searching for the culprits, the Committee had to express its concern since similarly tragic events appeared still to be taking place.  While efforts were being made to allocate guilt, they had not led anywhere, and it was not known whether the Committee’s recommendations regarding compensation for the victims had been implemented.


Recalling that the Committee had referred several times to discriminatory provisions in certain legislation, he said that in practice, there was discrimination against women.  There was a need to study the relevant norms as quickly as possible.  With the withdrawal of the legislative amendment to address gender discrimination, the situation continued, and gender equality was therefore not guaranteed by law.


Regarding prostitution and trafficking in human beings, he said there was nothing to link people profiting from those activities to any laws aimed at combating those modern forms of slavery.


HIPÓLITO SOLARI-YRIGOYEN, expert from Argentina, said the main point in each reply by the delegation had been the appointment of investigating officials who, however, had not yet arrived at conclusions as to violations that had taken place under military rule.  Time was running out.


With respect to the abolition of capital punishment, he said that the State party’s position on that subject could not be determined, even under the present democratic dispensation.  How was the crime of treason defined and what was the possibility of suspects being found guilty?


Regarding torture, he said that, it was appropriate for the Committee to ask whether the Convention against Torture was a useful way to combat that scourge as well as other cruel and degrading punishment.


With respect to investigations into the murder of Chief Inspector Herman Gooding, he asked why no information had been given as to the progress made.  More detailed information was required to convince the Committee.


There had also been no detailed information on measures to combat the ill treatment and sexual abuse of detainees.  While commissions had been established, did the report acknowledge that there had been beatings and sexual abuse?  Were there plans to protect women against domestic violence, sexual abuse and domestic rape?  Were amendments to the relevant laws being considered or were new offences to be established under a new code?


PRAFULLACHANDRA NATWARLAL BHAGWATI, expert from India, said the delegation had provided very general statements, which failed to detail legal norms for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of the Covenant.  No attempt seemed to have been made to end discrimination.  There was no reason why gender inequality could not have been prohibited.  If legislation was in conflict with the Constitution or the International Covenant, what remedy did citizens have?  How could they find relief if legislation was disregarded?  How was legislation to be enforced?  If the human rights of citizens were violated, to which court could they resort?


MAURICE GLELE AHANHANZO, expert from Benin, echoed the sentiments of the other experts that the information reported had been quite vague, and today’s oral presentation had been equally unsatisfactory.  Specifically, he asked the delegation to clarify the State’s action to deal with trafficking in women and forced labour, particularly regarding the sex industry.  What decisions had been taken by the Ministry of Justice on those matters, he wondered?


NISUKE ANDO, expert from Japan, said that the purpose of today’s exercise was not to accuse anyone but to work together with the delegation to help overcome the problems perceived by the experts.  On the 1986 Moiwana massacre, in which some 35 people -– mostly women and children –- had been killed in the eastern part of the country, he recalled that a human rights expert from the Geneva-based United Nations Commission for Human Rights had travelled there and carried out an investigation.


Brutal details had emerged, including reports of the kidnap and murder of several police officers that had been looking into the incident, including Police Chief Herman Gooding, who had been dragged from his car, beaten and shot in the head.  Those were the facts as he understood them.  Could the delegation ensure, in light of so many years of inaction, that the Government was looking seriously into the matter?


ABDELFATTAH AMOR, expert from Tunisia and Committee Chairman, said it was clear that the experts were dissatisfied with the information that had presented thus far. He hoped that the Surinamese delegation would provide detailed and concise answers to the Committee’s serious concerns. He reminded the Surinamese delegation that it was surely aware of the Committee’s guidelines and of its desire to hold constructive dialogue with States whose reports were under review.


Suriname’s Response


Responding to the questions, Mr. LIMON assured the Committee that whatever action was taken concerning the Moiwana massacre, the aim was to arrive at the prosecution of those responsible.  The Government had been trying to obtain relevant information as quickly as possible.  That case was still before the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights, with which the Government had been in constant consultation.


He said the delegation had submitted annexes containing periodic and intermediate reports by some of the investigating commissions established by the Government as well as their analyses and conclusions.  The delegation would attempt to obtain more such documentation from the relevant bodies and submit it to the Committee.


Regarding human trafficking, he said that due to actions taken by the Government, Suriname had been removed in a matter of weeks from the list of countries associated with the trafficking of women and young girls.  Steps had also been taken to provide citizens with the opportunity to alert the Government about such activities.  In addition, article 307 of the criminal code provided for a prison term of five years for trafficking in women and underage males. 


He said the Government had created a special assistance unit to assist victims of domestic violence and had established regional registration centres where such incidents could be reported, putting the relevant authorities in a position to react.


On the question of a constitutional court, he said Parliament would be asked to examine the Constitution and ensure that all measures taken were in conformity with it.  The people of Suriname were not without remedies under national law if they felt their rights were being violated and judges had honoured instances in which citizens had invoked those remedies.  National law also contained articles prohibiting and penalizing domestic violence, he said.


Regarding detainees, he said the Government had instructed the police force to take allegations of ill treatment seriously and to commence immediate investigations of such claims.  As a result, the Government had been able to dismiss correction officers involved in such practices.  The Government had shown its willingness to investigate its own officers and take action against them if they were found guilty.


Suriname’s Response to Committee’s Written Questions


Mr. LIMON next addressed a number of the Committee’s related concerns about Suriname’s detention procedures, chiefly the practice of not allowing criminal detainees to hold initial visits or meetings with judges for 44 days after being brought into custody, and frequent instances of excessively long pre-trial detention.  He said the State admitted that the practice did not appear to confirm with the “promptness” required in such instances under the Covenant.  But, allowing for paperwork, the majority of the cases came before investigating judges well under 44 days.


In exceptional cases, detainees could be held incommunicado for the first 14 days of incarceration, he said.  Otherwise Suriname did not hold detainees incommunicado.  Detainees were always allowed to have contact with one or more close family members.  As for the law that allowed prosecuting officers -- not judges -- to extend the initial period of custody for 30 days in cases of “urgent necessity”, he said that all detainees had the right to file a petition to the investigating judge, who would determine whether the extension was in conformity with the law.


Addressing the Committee’s concerns about prison overcrowding, Mr. LIMON said that a Commission had been created to look into that matter.  On the holding of under age persons in adult prisons, he said that only one under age girl was detained in the country’s prison for women.  The policy was to keep her separate from the general population.  The officers in the prison took special care of her.  Young boys were likewise kept out of the general prison population.  All minors had access to educational facilities, reading material and counsellors.


He next detailed the steps taken to improve the country’s educational system before moving on to discuss the situation of Suriname’s indigenous minorities, particularly descendants of Maroons and Amerindians.  He stressed that Suriname believed that all the country’s indigenous populations should be allowed to fully exercise their fundamental rights.  They had only limited ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands and natural resources.  He added that indigenous persons did participate in the wider socio-economic issues of the country through their representatives in Parliament.


He said there was no evidence that indigenous people were discriminated against or forced to move from their homes and villages in violation of their civil rights.  Indeed, it was Suriname’s priority to promote a respect for diversity and culture.  He added that there was no discrimination in the education system.  On steps taken to prevent mercury runoff near indigenous communities, he said that Suriname, together with Brazil and others, had formulated a regional project to monitor the effect of mercury and small gold mining operations in the country’s interior.


Finally, he said that training and education about the Covenant was ongoing, with courses and programmes focusing on human rights under way within the judiciary and law enforcement.

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*     The 2172nd Meeting was closed.