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Human Rights Committee considers the initial report of Belize

Human Rights Committee

16 October 2018

The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded its review of the initial report of Belize on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Introducing the report, Lois Young, Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, explained that the State party was late in submitting its initial report due to inadequate technical, financial and human resources.  The country’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1996 had been an important formality as the essence of the Covenant had already been incorporated into Belize’s Constitution adopted in 1981.  The domestic legal framework further entrenched specific rights and freedoms, and it provided for judicial recourse to secure the individual exercise of rights.  Where a right had been restricted as a matter of “public interest,” the Supreme Court had applied a three-pronged test to decide whether the legislative objective was sufficiently important to justify limiting a fundamental right.  The Government had taken steps to raise awareness of human rights in general through training sessions and workshops.  Since 2014, it had provided training for magistrates and judges on gender equality, juvenile justice, mental health in capital murder cases, refugee law, and human trafficking.  Although Belize did not have a single or overarching national human rights institution, it did have a number of specialized human rights institutions which focused on the implementation of specific conventions.

In the discussion, Committee Experts observed that the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Belize did not seem to be consistent with the Covenant, and they inquired whether there was any legal project to embrace a broader and more protective approach to the issue of non-discrimination.  The Experts also remarked the lack of a clear legal provision on the non-derogation of rights during the state of emergency.  Furthermore, they raised concern about section 5 of the Immigration Act of 2000, which denied the right to immigrate to certain groups of foreigners for reasons of health and health status, namely prostitutes and homosexuals.  The Experts further inquired about national courts directly invoking the Covenant, budgetary allocations for the Office of the Ombudsman, domestic violence, marital rape, discrimination on the basis of gender in access to employment, hate speech and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, the persisting gender pay gap, abolition of the death penalty, high homicide rates, the use of force and firearms by the police, efforts to define and criminalize torture, corporal punishment, prolonged pre-trial detention, independent investigation of police misconduct, juvenile justice, prison conditions, inter-prisoner violence, free legal assistance, the right to vote for persons with mental disabilities, trafficking in persons, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the rights of the Maya indigenous people, and early marriage. 

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Young noted that the dialogue with the Committee was a good exercise in accountability and capacity-building.  She thanked her young colleagues in the delegation and expressed hope that next time they would be better in conducting the dialogue with the Committee.  She also voiced hope that the experience was a win-win for both sides.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee, noted that there were many concerns about the implementation of the Covenant in Belize.  He expressed hope that the delegation had familiarized itself with the dialogue procedure, and that next time it would be up to the Committee’s expectations.  Mr. Fathalla encouraged Belize to contact the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and seek technical assistance and capacity-building.  

The delegation of Belize consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Permanent Mission of Belize to the United Nations.

The Committee will next meet in public today at 3 p.m. to consider the fourth periodic report of Bulgaria (CCPR/C/BGR/4).

Report

The initial report of Belize can be found here: CCPR/C/BLZ/1.

Presentation of the Report

LOIS YOUNG, Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, explained that the State party’s initial report covered the period between 1997 and 2014.  Belize was late in the submission of its initial report due to inadequate technical, financial and human resources.  To address the chronic problem of late reporting, the Government was partnering with the United Nations Development Programme to build capacity in that area.   The country’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1996 had been an important formality as the essence of the Covenant had already been incorporated into Belize’s Constitution adopted in 1981.  The Constitution enshrined that commitment and the fundamental rights and freedoms for any person in Belize.  The domestic legal framework further entrenched specific rights and freedoms, and it provided for judicial recourse to secure the individual exercise of rights.  Where a right had been restricted as a matter of “public interest,” the Supreme Court had applied a three-pronged test to decide whether the legislative objective was sufficiently important to justify limiting a fundamental right, whether the measures designed to meet the legislative objectives were rationally connected to it, and whether the means used to impair that right or freedom were no more than was necessary to accomplish the objective.  The Government had taken steps to raise awareness of human rights in general through training sessions and workshops.  Since 2014, it had provided training for magistrates and judges on gender equality, juvenile justice, mental health in capital murder cases, refugee law, and human trafficking.

Although Belize did not have a single or overarching national human rights institution, it did have a number of specialized human rights institutions which focused on the implementation of specific conventions.  The Government had commissioned a feasibility study for the establishment of a national human rights institute, and it had solicited the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The Constitution of Belize explicitly applied the non-discrimination principles and the Government was in the process of developing an anti-discrimination bill.  The representation of women in senior Government positions had been increasing incrementally, namely seven per cent between 2013 and 2018.  The Women in Politics project, administered by the National Women’s Commission since 2010, continued to work towards building confidence and improving the capacity of a critical mass of women in Belize to participate in and transform the political process at the highest level.  Since the launch of the programme, 98 women had received training on issues germane to politics and national development.  The Government and the Police Department took very seriously the issues of violence against women and domestic violence.  There were dedicated domestic violence units in police stations in the country.  Turning to the state of emergency, Ms. Young stressed that the rights set out in the Covenant could not be derogated from, except the prohibition of slavery or servitude.  Although the death penalty was in the law books, Belize had not implemented it for almost 30 years.  It was not a practice in Belize to detain persons as a means of intimidation.  To address any prolonged pre-trial detention, the criminal procedures rules had set out the time frame for custody.

Combatting trafficking in persons required constant vigilance and to address that scourge more robustly, in 2013 Belize had adopted the Trafficking in Persons Prohibition Act, which stipulated a punishment of up to 12 years’ imprisonment if the victim was a child, and up to 25 years’ imprisonment in cases involving sexual assault or other aggravating circumstances.  The act had elevated the offence of trafficking from that of a summary offence tried in lower courts to an indictable offence tried before the Supreme Court.  Moving on to migration, Ms. Young noted that the Government had engaged with migration, immigration and asylum issues since pre-independence days.  In April 2017, the Government had set up a technical working group to submit a written paper with input from all members of the Refugee Eligibility Committee to address recurring concerns and matters regarding the Refugees Act.  Freedom of expression was unfettered, except under the parameters set out in the Defamation and Libel Act.  Finally, with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms. Young informed that in 2015 the Government had agreed to a consent order before the Caribbean Court of Justice regarding the rights of the Maya people in villages of the Toledo District.  

Questions by the Committee Experts

Committee Experts asked about the cases in which national courts directly invoked the Covenant, and asked the State party to establish a national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles.  What was the percentage of the recommendations by the Ombudsman’s Office implemented by the authorities?  Were the budgetary allocations sufficient for the exercise of the mandate of the Ombudsman’s Office?
     
The prohibited grounds for discrimination in Belize did not seem to be consistent with the Covenant, the Experts observed.  The listed grounds appeared to be exhaustive rather than open-ended.  How was that dealt with from the policy and legislative point of view?  Was there any legal project to embrace a broader and more protective approach to the issue of non-discrimination?

The Experts remarked the lack of a clear legal provision on the non-derogation of rights during the state of emergency.  What steps had been taken to ensure clarity in the Constitution and laws on the rules governing the state of emergency?  What were the outcomes of the relevant legal review?

Turning to the Immigration Act of 2000 (section 5), the Experts inquired about the denial of immigration to certain groups of foreigners for reasons of health and health status.  What steps had been taken to review that section?  Was there a mechanism to examine complaints by individuals who had been denied entry under the act?

On domestic violence, the Experts inquired about the increase of femicide in past years.  What steps had been taken to address that problem and to combat domestic violence.  How had the Domestic Violence Act been implemented in practice?  How did the State party ensure the effective investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, and the effective protection of victims?  More than 70 per cent of victims withdrew their complaints before the cases entered into the legal procedure.

As for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, an Expert reminded that as of 2017 female unemployment rates had been triple those of men (almost 16 per cent).  What measures was the Government planning to take to address discrimination on the basis of gender in access to employment?

What measures was the State party taking to curb the proliferation of hate speech, particularly hate speech targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons?  A number of mass media outlets had been reported to have published and disseminated hate speech and had incited discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  The Committee also noted a very recent report that described numerous incidents of police intimidation based on gender orientation and gender identity.  Police officers had reportedly failed to effectively investigate many of the incidents and had perpetrated or contributed to the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  What measures was the State party taking to prevent and investigate the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, with particular attention to the actions of its law enforcement officials?

Currently, Belize’s Immigration Act explicitly named “any prostitute or homosexual” as prohibited immigrants.  There did not appear to be a need to specify “homosexual behaviour” within the text of the Immigration Act.  What were the plans to amend the Immigration Act and remove that reference?  What were the plans of the State party to implement public education or awareness raising campaigns to promote the full enjoyment of human rights for all people, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community?

Moving on to the issue of equality between men and women, the Experts reminded that elected women were routinely excluded from decisions once in office, making it difficult for female officials to make their voices heard equally with male officials.  What measures were in place to ensure that female elected officials enjoyed equal participation while in office?  Responsibility for unpaid domestic work and comparatively less access to financial resources than men contributed significantly to the additional burden and costs that prevented women from running for office.  What initiatives had the State party taken to develop gender-sensitive, family-friendly legislature in which women with child care responsibilities felt welcome to run for and serve in public office?  What measures had the State party taken to counter the persisting wage gaps between men and women?

As for the abolition of the death penalty, the Experts noted that Belize was “de facto abolitionist,” but it kept the capital punishment in the law books.  Could the State party make the moratorium official, or abolish the death penalty?  Belize had high homicide rates, which were often coupled with low prosecution rates.  What measures was the State party taking to adequately protect the right to life?  What legal standards applied in the State party for the use of force and firearms by the police?  What relevant training was received by law enforcement officials and what had its impact been?  What was the implementation in practice of the Commissioner of Police Guidelines for the Treatment of Persons in Detention promulgated in January 2016?

On the efforts to define and criminalize torture, what was the precise definition of that crime and the extent to which all acts of torture were covered by that crime?  Were confessions extracted under duress admissible in a court of law?  What was the incidence of torture?  What measures had been taken to provide training on the prohibition of torture?

With respect to corporal punishment, which was still recognized in the law, the State party had stated in its report that its last recorded use was in 2000.  Was it lawful in schools and at home?  If corporal punishment was no longer resorted to in custodial settings, could the law not be amended to abolish it?

The Experts further inquired about the balance between the interpretation of “public interest” and fundamental rights.  How did the State party interpret “injury to the physical and mental health of the pregnant women”?  What was the number of lawful and unlawful abortions performed in Belize?  What measures had the State party taken to ensure access to reproductive health services and education?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation clarified that the Ombudsman and the police often worked together.  After the end of each investigation of the Ombudsman into police misconduct, the police continued relevant work and issued administrative or criminal charges as seen necessary.  The national courts had always interpreted the grounds for discrimination more broadly than actually stipulated in the Constitution.  As for the state of emergency, the Constitution clearly outlined which rights could be derogated from, which was only the right to be free from slavery and servitude.

On violence against women, the delegation stressed that the Domestic Violence Act extensively dealt with that issue, and it reiterated that police stations across the country had domestic violence units.  The Police Act had been amended to stipulate that domestic violence was a major disciplinary infraction for police officers.  Victims were usually reluctant to pursue court proceedings against their spouses because of their financial dependence on them, or because they wanted to salvage the relationship.

As for hate speech and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, the national Constitution protected freedom of expression as far as it did not infringe on the rights of others.  The police could prosecute cases when that freedom of expression threatened others.  The Belize Police Department had been very receptive to the concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.  The death penalty was on the law books and it was for the people of Belize to decide whether to remove it.  The authorities were currently reviewing section 5 of the Immigration Act, but they did not have a timeframe for the completion of that review.

Training on the use of firearms was a regular part of police training, as were the Commissioner’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Persons in Detention since January 2016.  Belize did not tolerate or condone mistreatment of persons in custody.  The law stipulated that confessions from persons in custody needed to be obtained voluntarily.
 
Victims of rape or incest could obtain post-pregnancy contraceptives.  The Human Services Department dealt with pregnancies which resulted from rape or incest, and it usually provided specialized assistance on a case-by-case basis to mothers.  The State party did not have statistics on equal pay and gender pay gap.  However, inter-sectoral commissions had been set up to address all issues of gender equality across different sectors.  

Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts

Was the delegation implying that there was no police mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons?  If yes, then the situation was concerning.  Were there any problems with the treatment of detainees that the authorities were not aware of?

The Experts reiterated their questions about legal abortion and access to reproductive health services, budgetary resources for the Office of the Ombudsman, and the plans to establish a national human rights institution.

Were there any other reasons for the reluctance of victims of domestic violence to proceed with court proceedings against perpetrators?  The Experts observed that the definition of marital rape in the Criminal Code was inconsistent.

What was the basis for the derogation of rights under the state of emergency?

Replies by the Delegation

The police did receive complaints against law enforcement officers.  The Police Department dealt swiftly with police officers who mistreated persons in custody.  There were three safe houses for victims of domestic violence in the country.  There were instances in which victims of domestic violence were afraid of proceeding with the court process against perpetrators.  The courts would normally issue protection orders to protect victims from undue pressure from perpetrators.  The Criminal Code clearly stipulated what constituted marital rape in a way that spouses could not use the fact of being married as an excuse for having perpetrated unwanted sexual relations.    

Increases in the budgetary allocations to the Ombudsman’s Office had allowed it to hire more staff, including a legal expert, and the Office was able to perform its mandate.  In terms of balancing between “public interest” and fundamental rights under the state of emergency, Belize used jurisprudence set out by courts in the Caribbean region.  Persons affected by the state of emergency had a recourse for appeal.  
 
The delegation clarified that abortion was legal when the pregnancy posed a threat to the physical and mental health of the mother.  As for the gender pay gap, the Government used a gender-neutral pay scale.

Second Round of Questions by the Committee Experts

An Expert raised concern about prolonged pre-trial detention, particularly of persons accused of murder.  The Belize Police Department had faced allegations that its members had arbitrarily detained persons beyond 48 hours without charge and had used detention as a means of intimidation.  What measures were in place, both internal and external to the Belize Police Department, to effectively monitor law enforcement personnel?  What sanctions had been established to address behaviour that was not in line with the Covenant?

The Professional Standards Branch, which was mandated to investigate complaints from citizens alleging unlawful violations by law enforcement personnel, lacked adequate resources and required victims to file official complaints before investigation.  What additional resources, if any, had been allocated to that branch in the past five years?  There was a general feeling of distrust regarding the impartiality or fairness of the Professional Standards Branch in its investigations of colleagues.  Had any initiatives been taken to increase its independence?  What was the status of the Independent Complaints Commission or any other independent body through which citizens may file complaints about police misconduct?

Turning to the prison population, the Experts reminded that about one third of that population were persons on remand.  Pre-trial detention for those accused of murder averaged three to four years.  The adoption of the Criminal Procedure Rules in January 2016 had attempted to address the issue of delay.  What was the implementation of other initiatives on the right of the accused to trial within reasonable time and without undue delay?

Long delays in the delivery of justice had been attributed to the overwhelmed judiciary.  How did the State party track, maintain and analyse data that allowed for an assessment of the efficiency of new measures (i.e. the Criminal Procedure Rules)?  In 2007 the Committee on the Rights of the Child had issued a General Comment on children’s rights in juvenile justice, which urged States parties to avoid lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility to the age of 12.  In 2013, Belize received a recommendation during its Universal Periodic Review to raise the age of criminal responsibility.  What had the State party done to implement those recommendations?

What was behaviour that would indicate a lack of “sufficient maturity of understanding” in child offenders, as described in the Criminal Code?  How many juvenile prisoners were there in the Belize central prison?  What safeguards were in place to ensure that the detention of juveniles was used only as the measure of last resort?  Aside from the National Diversion Programme, what was the progress of other proposed legal reforms of the juvenile justice system?

As for the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, the Ombudsman’s report of 2016 had highlighted poor prison conditions, such as poor diet, water and sanitation, inadequate bedding, overcrowding, and lack of medical care.  What steps could the State party take to ensure that the Prison Rules were interpreted in a way that would improve the standards for prisoners’ accommodation?  How many prisoners had been subjected to solitary confinement in the past five years?

What was the frequency with which complaints submitted to a visiting justice proceeded to the prison’s internal tribunal system?  In light of the lack of visiting justices, what measures had the State party taken to record and investigate prisoners’ complaints?  The Experts further asked about measures to deter inter-prisoner violence.  What kind of legal assistance was available to prisoners in a hearing within the prison’s internal tribunal system?  What efforts were being made to separate female juvenile inmates from adult female inmates?

What was the utility of maintaining a blanket reservation on the Covenant provisions on the compensation for wrongful imprisonment?  What was being done to provide free legal assistance to the accused, especially to those accused of capital crimes other than murder?  What kind of financial assistance was given to juvenile offenders for legal assistance?

Moving on to the participation in public affairs, the Experts reminded that persons suffering from mental disabilities were disqualified from voting.  What institutional plans were underway to operationalize the right to vote for persons with disabilities?  It seemed that the income tax clearance certificate was used to restrict the right to free movement.  

In terms of trafficking in persons, Belize was a country of transit and destination due to sex tourism and the syndrome of “sugar daddy.”  To what extent did the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Prohibition Act provide for the payment of fines?  Had there been any prosecution of officials for active involvement in or tolerance of trafficking?  Did the State party intend to deal with propaganda for war and advocacy of religious and ethnic intolerance?

On the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the Experts reminded that Belize currently hosted about 3,000 registered asylum seekers and potentially thousands of others outside the asylum system.  The 1991 Refugee Act stipulated a strict 14-day deadline for persons entering Belize to apply for asylum.  The costs of alternative migration options were prohibitive, leading to the risk of deportation.  The asylum adjudication process itself raised concerns.  What safeguards were in place to expedite that process in a fair and transparent manner?  How did the State party plan to avoid lengthy delays and to increase the staffing of the Refugee Department?  There was information that the Refugee Department had begun pre-screening asylum applications.

Turning to the criminalization of irregular migrants under the Immigration Act, the Experts reminded of the problem of indefinite detention, lack of access to consular services, and detention of minors.  Was there a right of appeal against the order of immediate departure under Section 5 of the Immigration Act?

As for the rights of the Maya indigenous people with respect to the issuing of oil exploration licenses, the Government had accepted the consent order of the Caribbean Court of Justice.  However, Belize seemed to have been delaying the adoption of the necessary legislative measures on free, prior and informed consent.

Turning to the Defamation and Libel Act, the Experts wondered about the criteria for providing information “maliciously.”  How many persons had been criminally prosecuted under the act in the past five years?   What was the impact of the act on freedom of expression?  

Were births among asylum seekers and refugees also registered?  What steps was the State party taking to register children born in remote areas?  What measures were in place to prevent early marriage and would the State party consider raising the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18?  What measures were being taken to effectively investigate the abuse of children?  What was the number of prosecuted and convicted perpetrators of child abuse in the past five years?

How would the State party disseminate the concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee?  

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the Belize Police Department had recently been restructured, with four regions and two commissioners.  Each region was headed by a senior police officer/regional commander.  The Professional Standards Branch answered directly to the regional commanders who then, if necessary, referred the matter to the commissioners.  The recently amended Police Act had increased penalties for police officers who committed misconduct.

Nowadays there were Professional Standards Branch officers present in every district of the country thanks to increased human and technical resources.  There were clear procedures for the filing of complaints by citizens regarding police misconduct.  In order to make the Professional Standards Branch more independent, the authorities had moved its offices outside police stations.

As for the results of the Criminal Procedure Rules adopted in January 2016, due to the backlog of cases the authorities could not yet see the desired effects.  There were cases when fines were levied on judges for not having applied the Criminal Procedure Rules.  Temporary judges were employed to deal with the backlog of cases, primary murder cases.  In Belize there was no absolute guarantee of legal representation, except in capital offences, such as murder and treason.  The country’s reservation on the provision of free legal assistance was due to limited budgetary resources.  The Government preferred to use those limited resources on poverty alleviation.

The Criminal Code of Belize was in line with the Covenant provisions on the minimum age of criminal responsibility since no crime committed under the age of 12 was criminally prosecuted.  Sufficient maturity of the child to understand the consequences of his or her acts was determined by the judge in pre-trial proceedings.

Currently, prisons in Belize were not overcrowded.  There were two facilities for juvenile offenders in the country.  Female juvenile prisoners were normally kept in the youth hostel, and not with adult female inmates.  A non-governmental organization (Kolbe Foundation) supervised prison conditions in the Belize central prison and ran rehabilitation programmes for inmates.

The justices of the Supreme Court would normally visit prisons and inmates could then submit their complaints to them. Solitary confinement could be extended up to 20 days upon a court decision. Inter-prisoner violence was linked with the prevalence of gangs, and the Kolbe Foundation worked on separating prisoners from rival gangs.

Persons suspected of having committed trafficking in persons could be subject to fines.  There had been no prosecutions of police officers for having been involved in or tolerated trafficking in persons because such allegations had not been substantiated.

Turning to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the relevant technical working group was still working on submitting a written paper with input from all members of the Refugee Eligibility Committee.  The Committee met every month to consider asylum applications.  Unaccompanied minors were not detained; they were placed in the care of the Human Services Department.

Any individual born in Belize would automatically become a Belize citizen and parents were encouraged to register their children.  Midwives worked closely with the Ministry of Health to ensure that children born in remote areas were registered.  The Marriage Act stated that a person could marry at the age of 18, but that parents could provide consent for marriage at the age of 16.  Belize was taking steps to raise awareness about ending early marriages in cooperation with civil society.  Police stations did not have specialized units on child abuse, but the domestic violence units were being trained in that area.

LOIS YOUNG, Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, explained that the delegation would not be able to provide statistics on the impact of income tax clearance certificate on the freedom of movement.  Some Experts had asked for a lot of statistics and data.  However, data collection was a key challenge for developing countries, which lacked the relevant capacity-building.

Follow-up Remarks by the Committee Experts

The Experts acknowledged that the collection of data could be challenging for many countries.  Nevertheless, the Committee asked all countries to strengthen data collection as part of successful implementation of the Covenant.

Concluding Remarks    

LOIS YOUNG, Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, noted that the dialogue with the Committee was a good exercise in accountability and capacity-building.  She thanked her young colleagues in the delegation and expressed hope that next time they would be better in conducting the dialogue with the Committee.  She also voiced hope that the experience was a win-win for both sides.

AHMED AMIN FATHALLA, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee, noted that there were many concerns about the implementation of the Covenant in Belize.  He expressed hope that the delegation had familiarized itself with the dialogue procedure, and that next time it would be up to the Committee’s expectations.  Mr. Fathalla encouraged Belize to contact the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and seek technical assistance and capacity-building.  

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