Belize is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In 2015 the United Democratic Party won 19 of 31 seats in the House of Representatives following generally free and fair multiparty elections.
Police are responsible for internal security. The Ministry of National Security is responsible for oversight of police, prisons, the coast guard, and the military. Although primarily charged with external security, the military also provides limited domestic security support to civilian authorities and has limited powers of arrest that are executed by the Belize Defense Force (BDF) for land and littoral areas and by the coast guard for coastal and maritime areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings by security officers; allegations of corruption by government officials; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor.
In some cases the government took steps to prosecute public officials who committed abuses, both administratively and through the courts, but there were few successful prosecutions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government does not distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers, as the law itself does not reference asylum seekers–only refugees and recognized refugees. During the year the government did not grant asylum status to any of the pending 3,740 applicants, although the Refugee Eligibility Committee recommended 517 persons for approval. Many applications were summarily denied because the applicants did not apply for asylum within 14 days of entering the country, as the law requires. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees implementing partner in the country, opened a resource facility near the western border to offer information on how to apply for asylum status, and it continued to assist by providing limited basic services, including shelter, clothing, and food to refugees and asylum seekers.
Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their refugee applications were unable to work legally in the country.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees were able to use the education system and the socialized medical system, but the government offered no assistance with housing or food except in extreme cases that involved children and pregnant women.
Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to those who applied for refugee status within the 14-day deadline.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Allegations of corruption in government among public officials, including ministers, deputy ministers, and chief executive officers, were numerous, although no substantial proof was presented in most cases. In September a foreign law enforcement agency detained the deputy director of the Belize Tax Service Department, Reynaldo Verde, for extortion and attempted extortion of a foreign national investor in Belize. The investor claimed that in 2017, Verde requested BZ$350,000 ($175,000) in exchange for erasing the taxes the investor owed to the government. Verde denied the accusations, and as of year’s end he continued detained abroad awaiting a court hearing.
The Senate Select Committee charged with investigating alleged corruption within the Immigration and Nationality Department failed to produce a report and recommendations to the government. Public hearings conducted during the 2017 investigation revealed several instances where high-ranking government officials, including ministers of government, approved the issuance of visas, citizenship, and passports to unqualified individuals. Citizens alleged corruption against the Lands and Surveys Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources for illegally distributing lands to party associates. Despite the accusations of political cronyism, the government insisted it maintained transparency in the distribution of land.
The 2017 case brought by the government against Andre Vega, the son of former deputy prime minister Gaspar Vega, concluded in July with a court ruling that Vega must repay BZ$400,000 ($200,000) in compensation he received for wrongfully being awarded a privately owned piece of land. Andre Vega and attorney Sharon Pitts were accused of unjustifiably enriching themselves from questionable land transactions while Gaspar Vega was minister. Pitts entered into mediation with the government in an effort to find an amicable solution to return money made in the scheme.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual financial disclosure statements, which the Integrity Commission reviews. At the same time, the constitution allows authorities to prohibit citizens from questioning the validity of such statements. Anyone who does so outside of the rigidly prescribed procedure is subject to a fine of up to BZ$5,000 ($2,500), three years’ imprisonment, or both. Many public officials did not submit annual financial disclosure statements and suffered no repercussions. In July the Integrity Commission published the names of 32 local government members who failed to file sworn declaration of assets for 2018. In accordance with the law, a report was also sent to the director of public prosecution for further action, but as of year’s end, none had been taken. As of September the commission continued to be staffed by only a secretary.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, although appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary. While the Office of the Ombudsman has wide investigative powers, it lacks effective enforcement authority; noncompliance by the offices being investigated severely limited its effectiveness.
The Human Rights Commission, an independent, volunteer-based NGO, continued to operate, but only on an ad hoc basis due to funding and staffing limitations. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The criminal code criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape. The code states that a person convicted of rape shall be sentenced to imprisonment for eight years to life, although sentences were sometimes much lighter. Problems facing the wider justice system generally resulted in poor conviction rates for rape. According to the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UniBAM), 75 percent of sexual abuse crimes were against girls between the ages of 10 and 19.
Domestic violence was often prosecuted with charges such as harm, wounding, grievous harm, rape, and marital rape, but allegations of domestic violence were treated as civil matters. Police, prosecutors, and judges recognized both physical violence and mental injury as evidence of domestic violence. Penalties include fines or imprisonment for violations. The law empowers the Family Court to issue protection orders against accused offenders.
The government directed awareness campaigns against gender-based and domestic violence, a domestic violence hotline, and shelters for victims, and major police stations had designated domestic abuse officers, although these measures were not always effective.
Sexual Harassment: The law provides protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, including provisions against unfair dismissal of a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Women’s Department recognizes sexual harassment as a subset of sexual violence, but no cases have ever been brought under the sexual harassment provisions.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no confirmed reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. The law also mandates equal pay for equal work, but the labor commissioner verified that men earned on average BZ$90 ($45) more per month than women did because they held higher managerial positions. The law provides generally for the continuity of employment and protection against unfair dismissal, including for sexual harassment in the workplace, pregnancy, or HIV status.
Despite legal provisions for gender equality and government programs aimed at empowering women, NGOs and other observers reported women faced social and economic discrimination. Although participating in all spheres of national life and outnumbering men in university classrooms and having higher high school graduation rates, women held relatively few top managerial or government positions.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory, regardless of the parents’ nationality. Citizenship may also be acquired by descent if at least one parent is a citizen of the country. The standard requirement is for births to be registered no later than a week after birth; registration after a month is considered late and includes a minimal fine. Failure to register does not result in any denial of public service, but it slows the process for receiving a social security card to access services such as health care. Children without birth certificates also had trouble registering for school and often had to move from school to school. The government’s Vital Statistics Unit expanded registration of newborns by establishing registration officers at all major hospitals, but due to inadequate funding and staffing, the offices were open only during the workweek from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In 2017 UNICEF began a project to ensure all births in the country are registered.
Child Abuse: The law allows authorities to remove a child from an abusive home environment and requires parents to maintain and support children until the age of 18. Abuse of children occurred. There were publicized cases of underage girls being victims of sexual abuse and mistreatment, in most cases in their own home or in a relative’s home.
The Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Development is the government office with the lead responsibility for children’s problems. The division coordinated programs for children who were victims of domestic violence, advocated remedies in specific cases before the Family Court, conducted public education campaigns, investigated cases of human trafficking in children, and worked with local and international NGOs and UNICEF to promote children’s welfare.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age to marry is 18, but persons between ages 16 and 18 may marry with the consent of parents, legal guardians, or judicial authority. According to UNICEF, 29 percent of women ages 20 to 49 were married or cohabitating before reaching age 18.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law establishes penalties for child prostitution, child pornography, child sexual exploitation, and indecent exhibition of a child. It defines a “child” as anyone younger than age 18. The law stipulates that the offense of child prostitution does not apply to persons exploiting 16- and 17-year-old children through exchanging sexual activity for remuneration, gifts, goods, food, or other benefits.
The legal age for consensual sex is 16, but prostitution is not legal under age 18. Sexual intercourse with a minor younger than age 14 is punishable by 12 years’ to life imprisonment. Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor age 14-16 is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment.
There were anecdotal reports that boys and girls were exploited through child prostitution, including through the “sugar daddy” syndrome whereby older men provided money to minors, their families, or both for sexual relations. Similarly, there were reports of increasing exploitation of minors, often to meet the demand of foreign sex tourists in tourist-populated areas or where there were transient and seasonal workers. The law criminalizes the procurement or attempted procurement of “a person” younger than age 18 to engage in prostitution; an offender is liable to eight years’ imprisonment. The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child sex trafficking.
The law establishes a penalty of two years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of publishing or offering for sale any obscene book, writing, or representation.
Displaced Children: There were reports of unaccompanied children who were detained by authorities as they made their way to the United States to join their families. Government agencies worked closely with the embassies of the respective children to provide them protection and services.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish population was small, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law does not expressly prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination. The law does not provide for accessibility accommodations for persons with disabilities, and most public and private buildings and transportation were not accessible to them. Certain businesses and government departments had designated clerks to attend to the elderly and persons with disabilities. There were no policies to encourage hiring of persons with disabilities in the public or private sectors.
Mental health provisions and protections generally were poor. Informal government-organized committees for persons with disabilities were tasked with public education and advocating for protections against discrimination. The country does not have a reliable system for identifying persons with disabilities who need services. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sports maintained an educational unit offering limited and segregated education programs within the regular school system. There were two schools and four education centers specializing in working with children with disabilities. Children with disabilities attended mainstream schools through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children and were placed with nondisabled peers.
The special envoy for women and children continued advocacy campaigns on behalf of persons with disabilities, especially children, and supported efforts to promote schools that took steps to create inclusive environments for them.
In June, Nestor Vasquez, an individual with a mental disability, died after receiving head injuries inflicted by another individual with a mental disability. The men had been placed together in the same holding cell at the Queen Street Police Station in Belize City. Vasquez’s attacker had been arrested for attempted murder. The two police officers who failed to intervene faced disciplinary charges and were dismissed from the BPD.
No separate legal system or laws cover indigenous people, since the government maintains that it treats all citizens the same. Employers, public and private, generally treated indigenous persons equally with other ethnic groups for employment and other purposes.
The Maya Leaders’ Alliance monitored development in the Toledo District with the goal of protecting Mayan land and culture. During the year the Maya in the southern part of the country and the government continued working on a way to implement a Caribbean Court of Justice consent order on Maya customary land tenure.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law does not prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services such as health care, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination.
The Immigration Act prohibits “homosexual” persons from entering the country, but immigration authorities did not enforce the law.
The extent of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was difficult to ascertain due to a lack of official reporting. UniBAM stated that discrimination and assault based on these factors were substantially underreported; however, the organization registered six cases of discrimination: two cases involving cyberbullying, one case in which a lesbian woman was denied a protective order, and three complaints of police harassment. UniBAM reported that LGBTI persons between the ages of 14 to 24 faced the most violence in rural communities, especially in very religious parts of the country. UniBAM’s executive director, Caleb Orozco, noted that in these religious communities, police often refused to take reports from survivors.
In July off-duty police officer Ralph Gillett faced discrimination when a woman refused to allow him to sit beside her on public transportation because she believed he was gay. A verbal confrontation ensued, which led to the woman physically attacking Gillett. Responding police officers physically assaulted Gillett by slapping him and placing him in a submission hold. The incident was recorded on video and prompted an investigation by the BPD. Gillett faced BPD disciplinary charges for prejudice of good order and discipline. Special Envoy for Women and Children (and the prime minister’s spouse) Kim Barrow issued a statement asserting “violence of this kind has no place in our society” and underscoring that the BPD should have offered protection and support to Gillett.
According to UniBAM, LGBTI persons continued to be denied medical services and education and encountered family-based violence.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There was some societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, and the government worked to combat it through public education efforts of the National AIDS Commission under the Ministry of Human Development.
The law provides for the protection of workers against unfair dismissal, including for HIV status. The government provided free antiretroviral medication and other medical services to persons with HIV registered in the public-health system; however, the government sometimes had insufficient supplies of medication.