Bhutan is a democratic, constitutional monarchy. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the head of state, with executive power vested in the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. In September and October, the country held its third general elections, in which approximately 71 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. International election witnesses reported the elections were generally free and fair.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included continued incarceration of Nepali-speaking political prisoners; the existence of defamation laws that could be used to retaliate against critics; restrictions on freedom of assembly and association; restrictions on domestic and international freedom of movement for some residents; the government’s refusal to readmit certain refugees who asserted claims to Bhutanese citizenship; and child labor.
The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression.
Freedom of Expression: Defamation can carry criminal penalties, and citizens were cautious in their expression, especially as it related to criticism of the royal family or government practices.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and generally expressed a variety of views. The media law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. The media law also prohibits media outlets from supporting political parties and prohibits outlets from endorsing candidates during the election period. In its Freedom in the World 2018, Freedom House noted private media outlets relied heavily on government advertisements for revenue.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that the creation of a new Media Council under the Information Communications and Media Act contributed to greater self-censorship, although the body had not yet been put into force. For example, journalists noted media generally practiced self-censorship during the election period on particularly sensitive issues such as foreign policy and national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: In its Freedom in the World 2018, Freedom House noted powerful individuals could use defamation laws to retaliate against critics, citing the case of a prominent journalist who left the country in early 2017 after a businessperson filed a defamation lawsuit against her.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government officials stated the government did not block access, restrict content, or censor websites. Freedom House reported the government occasionally blocked access to websites containing pornography or information deemed offensive to the state. Such blocked information typically did not extend to political content. The International Telecommunication Union estimated the number of internet users in 2017 at 48 percent of the population. By contrast, the Annual Statistics 2018 of the Ministry of Information and Communications estimated the number of internet users in 2017 at 93 percent of the population.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully, the government restricted this right. The law permits the government to control the public’s right to assembly “to avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and declaring curfew. The penal code prohibits “promotion of civil unrest” as an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony among different nationalities, racial groups, castes, or religious groups.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government permitted the registration of some political parties and organizations that were deemed “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” Many of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country maintained formal or informal connections to members of the royal family. In its Freedom in the World 2018report, Freedom House stated the government did not permit the operation of NGOs working on the status of Nepali-speaking refugees but that other local and international NGOs worked with increasing freedom from official scrutiny. Under the law, all NGOs must register with the government. To register an NGO, an individual must be a citizen, disclose his or her family income and assets, provide his or her educational qualifications, and disclose any criminal records.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited freedom of movement and repatriation. Freedom of movement was sometimes restricted based on location of permanent residence. Additionally, the government is generally reluctant to repatriate Nepali-speaking refugees who currently live outside of the country.
The government cooperated with the Office of the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: The law establishes different categories of citizenship and determines whether a person may be granted a “route permit” to travel internally, which primarily affected those foreigners married to a Bhutanese citizen and their children and those who are permitted to reside in Bhutan to conduct business.
Foreign Travel: The law establishes different categories of citizenship under which foreign travel is restricted. NGOs reported these restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis, although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father also were affected. Citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.
Exile: In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for Bhutanese citizenship.
As of September, after years of international efforts resulting in the resettlement of thousands of refugees, UNHCR reported approximately 6,500 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in the two refugee camps it administered in Nepal.
There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese citizenship by refugees in Nepal.
Citizenship: The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. The government can restore citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reported that since the 1960s, the country had sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. Tibetan officials reported the Tibetans had largely successfully integrated into society. According to the CTA’s 2017-18 annual report, 1,847 Tibetan refugees lived in Bhutan; approximately 1,654 of them have refugee resident permits. No current records indicate any of these refugees hold work permits. The CTA did not have an official presence in the country and did not provide social and economic assistance to Tibetans in Bhutan. Authorities keep the country’s border with China closed, and Tibetans generally did not transit the country en route to India. The Tibetan population was decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopt Bhutanese citizenship, according to the Department of Immigration.
Freedom of Movement: Tibetan refugees reportedly have difficulties traveling within and outside the country.
Employment: Reports suggested some Tibetan refugees and some Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens could not obtain security clearances for government jobs, enroll in higher education, or obtain licenses to run private businesses. According to previous information from the CTA, 13 Tibetan refugees have received licenses to run businesses. The CTA also said that while Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, a few Tibetan refugees worked as teachers and health-care providers under temporary government contracts.
Access to Basic Services: The government stated Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens.
Durable Solutions: Tibetan refugees could travel to India, although many faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India.
The government continued to delay implementing a process to identify and repatriate refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship.
A nationwide census in 1985 resulted in a determination that many Nepali-speaking persons in Bhutan were not citizens, effectively rendering them stateless. The government alleged they were not citizens because they could not prove they had been resident in the country in 1958. Officials repeated the census in 1988-89 in the southern districts. During the second round of the census, those who were deemed not to be citizens in 1985 could apply for citizenship provided they met certain conditions. The government categorized those who did not meet the new criteria as illegal immigrants and expelled them. According to NGOs, an unknown number of Nepali-speaking stateless persons remained in the country, mainly in the south. Officials conducted the last census in 2017. While records do not show any figures on stateless persons, informed sources estimated 1,000 families are stateless.
For a child to qualify for Bhutanese citizenship, both parents must be Bhutanese citizens. NGOs and media sources highlighted the existence of stateless children born to unwed mothers who were unable to prove the identity of the father of the child. According to 2014 NGO reports, more than 700 children born in the country were not recognized as Bhutanese citizens because their fathers’ nationality was undocumented. Nonetheless, the government claimed that 20 children in the kingdom fell into this category. In May 2017 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the government to end discrimination against children based on ethnic origin, particularly in access to education.
Stateless persons cannot obtain “no objection certificates” and security clearance certificates, which are often necessary for access to public health care, employment, access to primary and secondary education, enrollment at institutions of higher education, travel documents, and business ownership. The National Commission for Women and Children stated children without citizenship were eligible for public educational and health services.