Sao Tome and Principe

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
February 23, 2000

The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is a multiparty democracy. The Government is composed of an executive branch and a unicameral legislature (the National Assembly). The President appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints the ministers of the Government. Miguel Trovoada, leader of the Independent Democratic Alliance (ADI), was reelected President in 1996 for a second 5-year term in an election deemed generally free and fair by international observers, despite allegations of an unconstitutional modification of the voter lists between the first and second rounds. In the November 1998 legislative elections, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP) won an outright majority with 31 of 55 seats, and holds all 10 seats in the Cabinet. The judiciary is independent.

The Minister of National Defense, Security, and Internal Order supervises the military services and the police. Many members of the military are part-time farmers or fishermen. Since a military mutiny in 1995, the Government and international donors have dedicated resources to improving soldiers' living conditions. No defense expenditures have been used for lethal weapons since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1990.

The economy is based on the export of a single product, cocoa, produced in an archaic, state-run system of plantations called "rocas." The Government has privatized some of the state-held land but had limited success in privatizing state-owned enterprises. The Government faltered in its efforts at structural adjustment, and the economy continues to face serious difficulties. While the inflation rate has fallen to 10 percent per year and the currency has stabilized, the country remains highly dependent on foreign aid, and external debt is six times gross domestic product. Per capita income is less than $350 per year, and the economy is stagnant. Unemployment, although difficult to quantify, remained very high.

The Government continued to respect the rights of its citizens. The principal human rights problems continued to be an inefficient judicial system, harsh prison conditions, violence and discrimination against women, and outdated plantation labor practices that limit worker rights.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture or cruel and inhuman punishment. There were no reports of violations during arrests or interrogations.

Prison conditions are harsh but not life threatening. Human rights monitors are not known to have requested permission to make prison visits; it is believed that the Government would permit such visits if requested.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes these prohibitions.

Exile is not used as a punishment. All those exiled under the one-party regime of 1975-1990 are free to return, and several prominent politicians have done so.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary has returned verdicts against both the President and the Government. The legal system is based on Portuguese and customary law, with the Supreme Court at the apex. The Government has important powers relating to the judiciary, including setting salaries for judges and all ministerial employees in accordance with standard government salary guidelines. Government salaries are extremely low, and the authorities are concerned that judges may be tempted to accept bribes. The authorities maintain that they continue to respect the independence of the judiciary.

The Constitution provides for the right to fair public trial, the right of appeal, and the right to legal representation. In practice, however, the judicial infrastructure suffers from severe budgetary constraints, inadequate facilities, and a shortage of trained judges and lawyers, causing long delays in bringing cases to court and greatly hindering investigations in criminal cases.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the integrity of the person and the right to privacy of home, correspondence, and private communication. The Government does not engage in intrusive practices, such as surveillance of persons or the monitoring of communications. The judicial police are responsible for criminal investigations and must obtain authorization from the Ministry of Justice to conduct searches.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. One government-run and three independent newspapers and newsletters are published sporadically, usually on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

Television and radio are state operated. While there are no independent local stations, there are no laws forbidding them. The Voice of America, Radio International Portugal, and Radio France International rebroadcast locally. The law grants all opposition parties access to the state-run media, including a minimum of 3 minutes per month on television. In September President Trovoada criticized cronyism in the state media and encouraged potential operators to enter the private broadcasting sector.

All parties freely distribute newsletters and press releases giving their views and criticizing the Government, the President, and one another. There were no reports of government censorship or threats of censorship from any group, nor any reports of efforts by national security forces to suppress criticism.

The Government does not restrict access to or use of e-mail, the Internet, or satellite phones. However, the only domestic Internet server is a joint venture in which the Government's Post and Telecommunications Office is a partner, and the cost of Internet access remains high, so access remains limited in practice.

Academic freedom is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government requires that requests for authorization for large-scale events be filed 48 hours in advance and usually grants the appropriate permits.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

Domestic law contains no specific provisions for granting refugee status in accordance with the 1951 U.N Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. However, the authorities traditionally have welcomed those seeking refuge or asylum. No requests for first asylum were reported during the year, but in theory the Government would be prepared to grant such requests. There were no reports that persons were forced to return to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens exercised this right for the first time in 1991 in free and fair presidential and legislative elections, and subsequently in the 1994 and 1998 legislative elections, and the 1996 presidential elections. These elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power between political party coalitions. Voter participation has exceeded 80 percent in recent elections. International observers noted that the 1998 legislative elections were free and transparent. Each of the three principal political parties has significant representation in the unicameral National Assembly. Elections are by secret ballot on the basis of universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age or older. In the 1998 legislative elections, the MLSTP won an outright majority with 31 out of 55 seats and filled all 10 Cabinet positions.

The Constitution provides for the election of the President, who as Head of State names the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Government.

There are no restrictions in law or in practice on the participation of women in politics. However, women are underrepresented in politics and government. Women currently hold 3 of 55 seats in the National Assembly, 1 of 12 seats in the Cabinet, and 1 of 4 seats on the Supreme Court. One woman was a presidential candidate in the 1996 elections and received 16 percent of the first-round vote.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A small number of local human rights groups have formed since 1991 and operate without restriction or governmental interference. There were no known requests by international human rights groups to visit the country.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for the equality of all citizens regardless of sex, race, racial origin, political tendency, creed, or philosophic conviction. However, the Government has not sought actively to enforce these provisions.


While the extent of the problem is unknown, violence against women occurs, and medical professionals and officials report firsthand experience in dealing with violence, including rape. They also report that although women have the right to legal recourse--including against spouses--many are reluctant to bring legal action or are ignorant of their rights under the law. Traditional beliefs and practices also inhibit women from taking domestic disputes outside the family.

While the Constitution stipulates that women and men have equal political, economic, and social rights, and while many women have access to opportunities in education, business, and government, in practice women still encounter significant societal discrimination. Traditional beliefs concerning the division of labor between men and women leave women with much of the hard work in agriculture, with most child-rearing responsibilities, and with less access to education and to professions. Female literacy is approximately 62 percent; male literacy is approximately 85 percent.


A number of government and donor-funded programs have been established to improve conditions for children. There has been improvement in maternity and infant care, in nutrition, and in access to basic health services, especially in urban areas. Mistreatment of children is not widespread. There are few social protections for orphans and abandoned children.

People With Disabilities

The law does not mandate access to buildings, transportation, or services for persons with disabilities. There are no reports of discrimination against the disabled. Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association and the right to strike. Few unions exist in the very small modern wage sector. Independent cooperatives, on the other hand, have taken advantage of the government land distribution program to attract workers and in many cases to improve production and incomes significantly. Public sector employees still make up the great majority of wage earners. Strikes are legal, including those by government employees and other essential workers. There are no laws or regulations that prohibit employers from retaliating against strikers.

There are no restrictions barring trade unions from joining federations or affiliating with international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides that workers may organize and bargain collectively. However, due to its role as the principal employer in the wage sector, the Government remains the key interlocutor for labor on all matters, including wages. There are no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced and bonded labor, and it is not known to exist. The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and such practices are not known to occur.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Employers in the modern wage sector generally respect the legally mandated minimum employment age of 18 years. The Ministry of Justice and Labor is responsible for enforcing this law. In subsistence agriculture, on plantations, and in informal commerce, children do work, sometimes from an early age. The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and the prohibition is respected (see Section 6.c.). e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Working conditions on many of the state-owned plantations--the largest wage employment sector--verge on the medieval. There is no legally mandated minimum wage. The average salary for plantation workers does not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family, and the real value of their pay is constantly eroded by high rates of inflation. In principle, workers and their families are provided free (but inadequate) housing, rudimentary education for their children, and health care, as well as the privilege of reduced prices and credit at the "company store." These arrangements are intended to subsidize food and clothing. However, corruption is widespread, and international lending institutions have criticized the Government for ineffective administration of these subsidies. Workers often are forced to pay higher prices on the parallel market to obtain the goods theoretically provided at a discount as part of their compensation.

The legal workweek is 40 hours with 48 consecutive hours mandated for a rest period, a norm respected in the modern wage sector. The 1979 Social Security Law prescribes basic occupational health and safety standards. Inspectors from the Ministry of Justice and Labor are responsible for enforcement of these standards, but their efforts are ineffective. Employees have the right under the law to leave unsafe working conditions.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country.

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