Sao Tome and Principe

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 4, 2002

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. On July 29, Fradique de Menezes, supported by the Independent Democratic Alliance (ADI), was elected President for a 5-year term in an election deemed generally free and fair by international observers. In the 1998 legislative elections, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP) won 31 of 55 seats, and constituted a government in which it held all 10 seats in the Cabinet. In September President Menezes accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Guilherme Posser da Costa and the MLSTP government. After he was unable to reach agreement with the MLSTP on the composition of a new cabinet, Menezes appointed a "Government of Presidential Initiative" without any MLSTP members. The MLSTP refused to support the new Government. On December 7, the President dissolved the National Assembly and called for parliamentary elections on March 3, 2002. The judiciary is generally independent; however, it is subject at times to influence and manipulation.

The Minister of National Defense, Security, and Internal Order supervises and effectively controls the military services and the police. Many members of the military are part-time farmers or fishermen. The Government and international donors continued to dedicate 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 largely on the export of a single product, cocoa, produced on formerly state-run plantations. The country has a population of approximately 138,000. The Government has privatized all of the state-held land, but it had limited success in privatizing state-owned enterprises. The Government has been somewhat successful in its efforts at structural adjustment. The country remained highly dependent on foreign aid. The inflation rate was 9 percent. The Government estimated per capita income to be approximately $400 (3,584,000 dobras) during the year; economic growth was estimated to be slightly below 2 percent. Although difficult to quantify, unemployment remained high.

The Government generally respected the rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in a few areas. The principal human rights problems continued to be harsh prison conditions, an inefficient judicial system, violence and discrimination against women, child labor, and outdated plantation labor practices that limit worker rights.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports of the arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life by the Government or its agents.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison conditions were harsh but not life threatening. Facilities were overcrowded, and food was inadequate. Women and men were held separately, and juveniles were separated from adults.

Human rights monitors were not known to have requested permission to make prison visits during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

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

Forced exile is not used as a punishment. All those exiled under the one-party regime of 1975 to 1990 remain free to return, and several prominent politicians did so during the 1990's.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respects this provision in practice; however, the judicial system at times is subject to influence or manipulation. In previous years, the judiciary returned verdicts against both the President and the Government. 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 were extremely low, and the authorities were concerned that judges may be tempted to accept bribes (see Section 6.e.).

The legal system is based on a Portuguese model. The court system has two levels: Circuit courts and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the appellate court of last resort.

The Constitution provides for the right to fair public trial, the right of appeal, and the right to legal representation. However, in practice the judicial infrastructure suffers from severe budgetary constraints, inadequate facilities, and a shortage of trained judges and lawyers, causing delays from 3 to 9 months 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 prohibits such actions, and the Government generally respects these prohibitions in practice. The judicial police were 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 the freedoms of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. Two government-run and six 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, no laws forbid 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.

All parties freely distributed newsletters and press releases stating their views and criticizing the Government, the President, and one another.

The Government does not restrict access to or the use of e-mail, the Internet, or satellite telephones. However, the only domestic Internet service provider was a joint venture in which the Government's Post and Telecommunications Office was a partner, and the cost of Internet access remained high; consequently, access remained limited in practice.

The Government does not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. The Government requires that requests for authorization for large-scale events be filed 48 hours in advance, but it generally grants the appropriate permits.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Government generally 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 generally respects them in practice.

The law does not provide specifically for the granting of refugee or asylum 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. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise during the year.

There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right through periodic elections by secret ballot held on the basis of universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age or older. 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. On July 29, Fradique de Menezes, supported by the ADI, was elected President for a 5-year term. These elections resulted in the peaceful transfer of power. Voter participation was 70 percent in the July elections and exceeded 80 percent in the 1998 legislative elections in which the MLSTP won with 31 out of 55 seats and filled all 10 Cabinet positions. International observers noted that the 1998 legislative elections and the July presidential elections were generally free and fair. Each of the three principal political parties had significant representation in the unicameral National Assembly. In September President Menezes accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Guilherme Posser da Costa and the MLSTP government. After he was unable to reach agreement with the MLSTP on the composition of a new cabinet, Menezes appointed a "Government of Presidential Initiative" without any MLSTP members. The MLSTP refused to support the new Government. On December 7, the President dissolved the National Assembly and called for parliamentary elections on March 3, 2002.

The percentage of women in government and politics does not correspond to their percentage of the population; however, there are no restrictions in law or in practice on the participation of women in politics. In the National Assembly dissolved in December, women held 4 of 55 seats. At year's end, women held 2 of 10 seats in the Cabinet and 1 seat on the Supreme Court.

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

A small number of domestic human rights groups generally operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views. 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, domestic violence against women occurs, and medical professionals and officials reported first-hand experience in dealing with victims, including rape. They also reported that although women have the right to legal recourse--including against spouses--many were reluctant to bring legal action or were 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. According to a 1997 U.N. Development Program study, 75 percent of adults are literate.


A number of government and donor-funded programs were established to improve conditions for children, notably an ongoing malaria control project and purchase of school and medical equipment. 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 was not widespread; however, there were few social protections for orphans and abandoned children.

Education is free to the age of 14 and universal; there are no differences between the treatment of girls and boys in regard to education. Education is compulsory through the sixth grade; however, education after the sixth grade or the age of 14, whichever comes first, is not free.

Child labor occurs (see Section 6.d.).

Persons with Disabilities

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

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; however, independent cooperatives 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. During the year, the ILO Committee of Experts at its annual meeting stated that the Government's requirement of two-thirds of the workers to call a strike is high and could be an obstacle to the exercise of the right to strike; it would be appropriate for the decision to be taken by a simple majority of the workers present at the assembly. Unlike in the previous year, there were no strikes by civil servants. There are no laws or regulations that prohibit employers from retaliating against strikers; however, there were no reports of retaliation following strikes in previous years.

There are no restrictions against trade unions joining federations or affiliating with international bodies, but none have done so.

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 were no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination; however, there were no reports of antiunion discrimination.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

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 14 years or 18 years for dangerous jobs or those requiring heavy manual labor. The law prohibits minors from working more than 7 hours a day and 35 hours a week. Children were engaged in labor in subsistence agriculture, on plantations, and in informal commerce, sometimes from an early age. Although no cases of child labor abuses have been prosecuted, the law states that employers can be fined for employing underage workers.

The Government has not ratified ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, and such practices are not known to occur. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the prohibition against forced and bonded labor by children.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Working conditions on many of the cocoa plantations--the largest wage employment sector--are extremely hard. The legal minimum wage is $14 (150,000 dobras) per month, with an additional stipend of $2.25 (20,000 dobras) for civil servants. 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 was eroded constantly by high rates of inflation. In principle workers and their families were 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 were intended to subsidize food and clothing. However, corruption was widespread, and international lending institutions have criticized the Government for ineffective administration of these subsidies. Workers often were forced to pay higher prices on the parallel market to obtain the goods theoretically provided at a discount as part of their compensation.

During the 1990's, the Government, with foreign donor assistance, privatized or redistributed the land in many state-run plantations in an effort to improve work, pay, and living conditions. While the program has redistributed some land, not all of the newly privatized plantations were successful, particularly because the world price for cocoa dropped.

Beginning in 1999, salaries for some civil servants such as those working in the court system, Finance Ministry, Customs, Education Ministry, and Criminal Investigation Police were increased considerably when the Government adopted a private sector salary system. Government workers in these departments earn up to 400 percent more than their counterparts in the rest of the public sector.

The legal workweek is 40 hours, with 48 consecutive hours mandated for a rest period, a norm respected in the modern wage sector. The 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 to, from, or within the country.