POLITICAL AND LEGAL DEVELOPMENTS IN SURINAME
In order to analyze the current situation in Suriname, the observations made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its first report must be taken into account. The first on-site visit by the IACHR found that the legal and political system of Suriname was characterized by a concentration of political power in the hands of the military authorities. In fact, in summarizing the characteristics of the State organization in Suriname during the 1980-1983 period, the IACHR noted that:
“… political power in Suriname currently resides exclusively in the military authorities. The extensive executive and legislative powers held by the military authorities through the Policy Center, and the influence of the military upon the judicial branch, are also characterized by the lack of any higher evaluating body to determine the legality of actions taken by the authorities. Since there is no Constitution, every decree, for example, nullifies the one before in such a way that the law is transformed by the military’s will at any moment.”
In exercising these wide-ranging powers, the military authorities had proceeded to name successive governments which continued to perform their functions as long as the military could count on their complete allegiance.
The IACHR also reported that the promise to hold elections, made on the occasion of the military coup of February 25, 1980, had not been kept. In addition, the Commission at that time was unable to verify the existence of any real or effective intention to change the situation as it existed at the time in 1983.
A variety of plans for institutionalization had been proposed since the military coup and rejected by the military authorities. The Commission also took a negative view of the institutionalization plan included in the Program for the 1983-86 period under the new Government headed by Mr. L.A. Alibux, which was installed on February 28, 1983.
The Government program claimed as its intention the education of the Surinamese people for a new democracy that would enable them to participate in and effectively control the Government. It also announced the creation of commissions which would work to establish a Democratic National Congress and a State Council before the end of 1984. The Program, however, did not contemplate the people’s participation in the preparatory commissions for these projects that were so fundamental to the people of Suriname.
On the contrary, the institutionalization was seen in the context of the continuation of martial law and the absence of those fundamental rights and freedoms necessary for the full exercise of the population’s political rights. So, for example, with the exception of the participation of small, previously insignificant political parties in the operation of the Government, the normal functioning of political parties was prohibited and there was no freedom of the press or information.
The Program failed to make reference to the manner in which the projects to be adopted would be approved by the population. Nor did it guarantee that those institutions so created would be based on universal, secrete and informed suffrage in which all the citizens of Suriname would have the right to participate without discrimination.
The IACHR therefore concluded that the institutionalization process as outlined in the Government Program of 1083-96 did not guarantee compliance with Article XX of the American Declaration and did not offer “options to the people of Suriname that would allow them to freely choose their political future.”
Since the time of the first report, the matters of special interest in analyzing the political and legal system of Suriname are:
a) the dissolution of Mr. Alibux’s Government on January 7, 1984 and its replacement by Mr. Udenhout’s Interim Government, which continued to perform its functions until December 31, 1984, and
b) The initiation of a new transtional period, which is to last, this time, for 27 months starting on January 1, 1985.
B. Political and Legal Developments in Suriname during the period covered
by this Report
Primer Minister Alibux’s Government encountered wide-spread opposition to its policies on the part of the Surinamese people. That opposition culminated in the workers’ strike at SURALCO, the country’s largest bauxite company, in December 1983 and continued through February, 1984. The strike paralyzed the backbone of Suriname’s economy.
The direct cause of the strike was the proposed acceptance by the Alibux Government of an economic program that would qualify Suriname for a $100 million loan from the International Monetary Fund. The Government proposed and increase of up to 100% in the taxes on a variety of imported products and a restructuring of the income-tax system planned to go into effect on January 1, 1984.
The strike was led by the rank-and-file workers of the bauxite industry without the approval of its leadership. The workers’ strike action was supported by the rank-and-file in other unions, including the bank workers, the insurance agents and the private transportation companies. Political petitions were soon added to this economic action, including one for the military regime to be replaced by a civilian government. There were specific demands for the abolition of the curfew, the passage of a constitution and the initiation of free elections.
Both military authorities themselves and trade unionists told the special commission that the strike action convinced the military it could not rule without the participation and cooperation of the key sectors of the society. As a result of the events in December, 1983 and January, 1984, and as a attempt to placate the broad opposition that had developed around the country, particularly against radical elements in the Government, Lt. Col. Bouterse announced the withdrawal of the unpopular measures and price increases that had been the central complaints of the strikers. He also announced the dissolution of the Alibux Government, with the stated goal of finding a political solution to the country’s problems, and promised to seek advice from the key socioeconomic sectors or the formation of a new government.
Consequently, a new Government was formed under newly designated Prime Minister, Mr. Wim Udenhout. This Government was composed of representatives from the trade unions, the private sector and the February 25th Movement.
This latter movement is the only legal, political organization in the country and was founded by Lt. Col. Bouterse in 1983. According to Lt. Col. Bouterse, the movement is a political organization in which citizens of Suriname can meet and discuss matters of common interest for the purpose of finding solutions to the problems confronting the people of Suriname.
The Interim Government, headed by Mr. Udenhout, was installed on February 3, 1984. The Government was made up of nine ministers, five of whom had been proposed by the military authorities, two by the unions and two by the private sector.
Decree A-15, (dated February 3, 1984), establishing the Udenhout Government, stated that it would continue in office until December 31, 1084. Article 3 of Decree A-15 determined that the basic function of the Government would be to establish “permanent democratic structures”.
This mandate was to be carried out through consultation with the military authorities, the trade unions and the private sector. In addition, the Udenhout Government would bring about the conditions necessary to resolve Suriname’s social, economic and financial problems within a reasonable time.
The note accompanying Decree A-15 indicated that the democratic structures to be established would allow for the full participation of the Surinamese people in the decision-making process and that this participation would include the legislative and administrative levels of government. The same note added that in order to create such democratic structures within the designated term of the new Administration, it was vital to immediately commence with the preparatory work necessary.
Decree A-15 further stated that the Policy Center, the military’s administrative organ, would be dissolved as soon as the Decree entered into force. The powers of that agency would be assumed, by virtue of Article 6 of the Decree, by the military authorities in consultation with the Interim Government. The powers of the Policy Center included, among others, the exercise of high-level administrative power, approval of decrees and recommendations of key State officials and the right to approve nominations in every institution with which the State might be involved.
In fulfilling the intention to create permanent democratic structures, Decree A-16, dated July 13, 1984, proceeded to provide a legal basis for the “Think Tank” (Denkgroep) established earlier by the military authorities on January 25, 1984. The “Think Tank” was to be made up of seven members, three of whom represented the revolutionary Leadership, two the trade unions and two from the private sector. The president of the “Think Tank” was a representative of the Revolutionary Leadership, Mr. Frank Leeflang, the Minister of Justice.
The “Think Tank’s” central goal, according to Article 4 of Decree A-16, was to propose structures and institutions that would guarantee a level of social participation in the unfolding of the revolutionary process, the end result being some form of permanent democracy. The final report resulting being some form of permanent democracy. The final report resulting from their work would be reviewed by the military authorities and the Ministerial Council as a special project. This implied that the authorities could modify the report only if there were stated, serious reasons for doing so.
The “Think Tank” completed its work in December of 1984 and submitted to the Government its report on the “Establishment of Lasting Democratic Structures.” The Government accepted the report on December 31, 1984. Despite its mandate, the “Think Tank” did not propose permanent democratic structures, but rather another phase of transition which was to last for a 27 month period.
The members of the “Think Tank” unanimously maintained that the establishment of permanent democratic structures could not take place in a hurried manner. Among the reasons offered by the “Think Tank” for proposing a new transitional phase were the technical impossibility of organizing elections in a short time and the need to adopt a law for the functioning for political parties.
The “Think Tank” proposed that the Government create a new functioning body, the National Assembly, for the purpose of ensuring that the new transitional phase came to the desired conclusion. The Assembly would also be entrusted with preparing the measures that would permit the implementation of the last phase, specifically the enactment of a Constitution and the creation of those government organs established thereby.
“Think Tank” was unable to reach a consensus as to the number of representatives from each sector, since the private sector strongly opposed the formulas that left them with less representation than the trade unions and the Army.
Despite this opposition, the military authorities imposed their own solution. On December 13, 1984, in accordance with General Decree A-17, the Government accepted the report from the “Think Tank” and created the National Assembly. Its final composition was 31 members –14 appointed by the military authorities, 11 by the unions and 6 by the private sector.
As of July 1985 the officially titled Top Deliberation Council, the Government and the National Assembly are formed by six organizations, these being: the 25 February Movement, the Trade Union Organizations CLO (Central Organizations of Civil Servants), PWO (Progressive Workers Organizations) and De Moederbond, ASFA (the Manufacturers Association) and VSB (Association of Surinamese Trade and Industry).
The members of the national Assembly have been granted immunity as related to opinions expressed in either verbal or written form during the sessions. However, no such guarantees exist for their statements to the community or if they report on an in camera session of the Assembly.
The Assembly reaches decisions by an absolute majority of the votes, unless the issues being deliberated are matters of special importance, involving national interest. In such cases, a two thirds majority is required, the nature of which is to be determined at a later date by the Assembly’s regulating body.
Like the executive branch, the Assembly can initiate draft legislation. The National Assembly must act on a government-sponsored bill within 30 days –which can be extended a further 30 days—or the bill is understood to have been passed. The Assembly also has to approved the national budget and has the right to question the ministers of the Government, either collectively or through an individual member, in oral or written form.
Decree 17 makes no provision, judicial or otherwise, for instances in which there is a conflict between the National Assembly and the Government.
Another political-legal development in Suriname that merits comment is the creation by the Government of a National Commission on Human Rights and Information. Formed on august 6, 1984 at the same time the national curfew was lifted, the Commission charged with investigating and reporting on human rights violations by Government agents.
In August of 1985 the members of the Commission, now called the National Institute of Human Rights, were sworn in. In its observations on this report the Government indicated that the Institute works independently and has been assured by Lt. Col. Bouterse that it will be allowed to function in complete freedom.
The National Institute is chaired by Ishmed Phillip Akrum, who is also Director of Internal Affairs in the Government. The co-chairman is Ambassador E. R. Nahar and Dr. Loemban Toebing-Klein, servers as Secretary to the National Institute.
While the creation of the National Institute in principle is a positive development, it remains to be seen whether this new institution will be able to abate the abuses of recent years.
It should be further noted that there is no private human rights organization in Suriname, although the Council of Christian Churches has spoken out from time to time on human rights issues. It is hoped that some private initiative in this field will be undertaken in the future, since it has been the Commission’s experience that independent human rights commissions in various countries of the hemisphere have proven to be the most objective and effective bulwarks against massive and chronic human rights violations.
Nevertheless, in February of 1985 a number of representatives of religious organizations, among which the Hindu, Muslim and Christian Churches, organized a congress on religion and the future of Suriname, during which they also discussed the topic of religion and human rights. One of the members of the National Institute on Human Rights spoke on that occasion. In September of 1985 the Government informed the IACHR that “a form of cooperation between the religious organizations is being prepared, which will also be involved with setting up a program for teaching human rights.” Time will tell whether these initiatives will lead to improved respect for human rights.
C. Recent Political Developments in Suriname
Since the special commission visited Suriname in January a number of important events have taken place both within the country and abroad that have had or could have a bearing on the human rights situation there.
First, the mass expulsion of Guyanese immigrants from Suriname.
Second, attacks on political opponents living in exile and continued dissension within the armed forces.
Next, the withdrawal of the C-47 trade confederation from the Udenhout administration and the national Assembly process.
Finally, on June 26, 1985 Prime Minister Udenhout resigned and was replaced for a short time by eric Tjon Kie Sim. Thereafter, Mr. Udenhout was once again made Prime Minister.
D. Future Political and Legal Developments in Suriname
In the meeting with the special commission on January 17, 1985 in the Presidential Palace, Commander Desi Bouterse spoke frankly and openly for nearly two hours on a variety of issues concerning human rights. He told the Commission that the state of emergency, in force since September 1980, would remain in effect until the military is certain that the situation in the country has stabilized and Suriname was free from the various national security treats that had plagued it for the past five years. “Until we are certain that security of the country is no longer in danger, the state of emergency will continue,” he said. “These are measures we have to take until the situation is completely stabilized. As soon as the situation is normalized, these measures will be superfluous and unnecessary, and we will lift them.” He further informed the special commission that his intelligence services had information that the Surinamese opposition living in Holland had been plotting a series of arson attacks and assassination attempts against the leaders of Suriname. He also remarked on the criminal activity of the Guayanese aliens within the country.
Concerning the National Assembly process, Commander Boutherse maintained that despite differing concepts of a political system by those represented in the National Assembly, the process would probably be terminated in the allotted 27 months. However, he did not rule out extending the transitional period until the work is completed. He emphasized that any return to the past parliamentary system was to be rejected, since that system did not promote nation-building. “We found that the old system could not give the people any guarantees regarding the conduct of the State,” he maintained. “And we consider that the conduct of the State must be clear and predictable for the entire community. This can only be achieved if the people are totally involved and committed to the process.”
Commander Bouterse emphasized that the outcome of the National Assembly was not predetermined by any force in the society and that, even though there existed a possibility of conflict between the military and the other sectors, he anticipated no problems in solving these issues. He did indicate that the system approved by the National Assembly would allow for a multiparty system, as long as political parties were not organized along religious or racial lines. He told the special commission that parties of conflicting ideologies would be allowed to participate in the political system. There would be national elections in the future political system, and the Constitution would be subject to a national referendum. As to the future role of the military, Commander Bouterse asserted that the military would abide by the outcome of the National Assembly process.