Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1989

* Bhutan and the United States have not exchanged diplomatic
representatives, and U.S. officials travel there
infrequently. Since few scholars have published studies on
the contemporary Bhutanese polity or society, information on
Bhutanese practices which bear on human rights is neither
readily available nor complete. 
Bhutan has been ruled since 1907 by the Wangchuck dynasty of
hereditary monarchs. Isolated in the Himalayas between India
and Tibet, the small Kingdom (about the combined size of
Vermont and New Hampshire, with a population of about 1.5
million) has been able to escape external domination since the
10th century. It was not until the rule of King Jigme Dorji
Wangchuck (1952-72) that a Bhutanese ruler took steps to move
the Kingdom from centuries of medieval seclusion toward a more
representative political system and a better integrated, more
productive economy. Although he retained strong executive
powers, the King created several important institutions,
including the National Assembly (1953), the Royal Advisory
Council (1965), and the Council of Ministers (1968), to
provide broader participation in the Government. The King,
however, still plays the predominant role in decisionmaking.
Serfdom was abolished, land reform introduced, laws codified,
and the judiciary separated from the executive. There is no
written constitution or bill of rights. The present monarch,
Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has been in power since 1974 and has
continued Bhutan's social and political evolution, although
progress has been seriously handicapped by the Kingdom's
limited administrative capacity and resources.
Internal security is maintained by the Royal Bhutan Police.
It is assisted by the Royal Bhutan Army, which consists of
8,000 lightly armed men.
Bhutan remains, at least in terms of national income
statistics, the poorest country in South Asia, with a per
capita income half that of its neighbor India; this figure is
deceptive, however, since the largely rural population grows
much of its own food. Bhutan remains one of the most
traditional and least developed countries in the world. The
large majority of the population is illiterate and rural,
living on subsistence agriculture and pastoral pursuits in a
largely barter economy. Economic growth takes second place to
self-sufficiency in national policy objectives. Over the past
several years, Bhutan has successfully reduced its almost
total economic dependence on India. It continues to restrict
access by the outside world in the hope of minimizing the
spread of foreign influences. This has not been completely
successful, however, as a large majority of the development
labor is foreign. The number of tourists is strictly limited
to 3,000 a year. The Bhutanese have closed Buddhist
monasteries to tourism to maintain the "religious purity" of
those shrines.
Knowledgeable Bhutanese report no major violations of human
rights in 1989. Although the Government is still essentially
autocratic, most observers agree that Bhutan suffers few of
the problems of disaffection and repression that afflict many
third world countries undergoing more rapid change. The
Government is concerned about the dangers of ethnic strife and
has adopted policies that encourage ethnic integration.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no known political or other extrajudicial killings.
b. Disappearance
There were no known disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There was no evidence of cruel, inhuman, or degrading
treatment or punishment. Serious crimes are still rare,
although reportedly there has been a trend toward more
criminal activity in recent years with the growth of a foreign
labor force in the country, widening economic disparities, and
greater contact with foreign cultural values. Mutilation was
outlawed in 1965.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
There is no special or preventive detention, and arrests can
be made only under legal authority. As far as is known, exile
is not employed as a form of punishment.
With regard to forced or compulsory labor, see Section 6.c.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated
under an 18th century legal code revised in 1957. Familial
questions are resolved according to the traditional religious
norms of the two major religious groups in the country.
Buddhist law governs the majority of Bhutanese, and Hindu law
is applied in areas where persons of Nepali origin predominate.
The Kingdom's legal system does not provide for juries, the
right to be represented by legal counsel, or due process in
the Western sense. However, trials are public and are usually
carried out expeditiously. There are generally no prosecuting
or defense attorneys because the number of lawyers in the
country is insufficient to serve in these capacities. Judges,
appointed by and accountable to the King, are responsible for
all aspects of a case, including investigation, filing of
charges, prosecution, and judgment of the defendant. A
separate judiciary was established in 1968 which provides for
local, district, and national courts with original and
appellate jurisdiction. Final appeals may be made to the King.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
There are no written guarantees of privacy, but tradition has
bolstered the concept. In practice, the Government does not
generally intervene arbitrarily or unreasonably in the lives
of the people. Buttressing the nation's traditional culture,
however, is a priority for the Government. In 1989, by royal
decree, the wearing of national dress was made compulsory for
all citizens in order to preserve and promote the Kingdom's
unique identity. Bhutanese found violating the decree are
fined $10 or sentenced to jail for a week. From all reports,
the decree is not being rigorously enforced.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
With an adult literacy rate of around 12 percent, Bhutan's
population is relatively unaffected by the print media. The
Government's weekly newspaper is the country's only regular
publication. Indian and other foreign newspapers and
publicatiops are distributed without apparent government
control. Bhutan has no television. In 1989 the Government
ordered the dismantling of all television antennas to prevent
the people from watching foreign programs. The government
radio station broadcasts for 3 hours daily in the four major
national languages. Criticism of the King is permitted in the
National Assembly but not in the public media.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
While no written guarantees of these freedoms exist, Bhutanese
generally enjoy the freedom of peaceful assembly and
association. There are no private voluntary social, communal,
or economic associations and no professional or trade
organizations. For a discussion of freedom of association as
it applies to labor unions, see Section 6. a.
c. Freedom of Religion
Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan. The Government
subsidizes monasteries and shrines and provides aid to about
half of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. The monastic
establishment enjoys statutory representation in the National
Assembly and Royal Advisory Council and is an influential
voice on public policy. Citizens of other faiths, who are
mainly Hindus of Nepali origin, enjoy freedom of worship. In
an effort to encourage national cultural integration, the King
has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays,
and the royal family participates in them. Foreign
missionaries may live in Bhutan if they have some other
functional capacity, but they are not permitted to proselytize.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
There is freedom of movement within Bhutan for all Bhutanese
citizens and no bar on emigration or foreign travel. For many
years, Bhutanese traveled little inside or outside the
Kingdom, but the recent construction of roads and the
establishment of air links with New Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka,
Kathmandu, and Bangkok have encouraged travel. A policy
introduced in the 1950's, which prohibited the exiled leaders
of an outlawed Nepali-Bhutanese political party from returning
to the country, has been liberalized to allow them to return.
Since 1986, Bhutan has been conducting a drive to identify
people without work permits. In this process, about 1,000
foreigners have been expelled from the Kingdom, of which over
900 were largely Nepalis with some Bangladeshis; 93 were
Indians. The Indian press reported in 1989 that the number of
establishments run by Indian nationals in Bhutan is gradually
declining with the termination of their trading licenses.
Bhutan traditionally has welcomed refugees and exiles from
other countries in the region. Some 6,000 Tibetans sought
refuge in Bhutan in 1959, joining approximately 4,000 Tibetans
already in the country. Because ^t perceived threats to its
national security from the Tibetan refugees' suspected lack of
allegiance to Bhutan, the Government required in 1979-80 that
they either accept Bhutanese citizenship or face expulsion. A
considerable number sought refuge in India. Those Tibetans in
Bhutan who accepted Bhutanese citizenship have been assured by
the Government that they will be free to return to their
homeland. The Government decided not to carry out its threat
to deport those who did not apply for Bhutanese citizenship.
It is government policy not to accept new refugees from Tibet,
although a handful of refugees have come across the border
since the imposition in March of martial law there.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
The citizens of Bhutan do not have the right to change their
government. Bhutan is a traditional monarchy, with sovereign
power vested in the King. It is a highly elitist system, with
decisionmaking centered in the palace and involving only a
small number of officials in the civil and religious
establishments. Although the present King and his father have
endeavored to integrate women and southerners (Nepali ethnics)
into the body politic, the system is still dominated by the
male members of an aristocracy of Tibetan Buddhist ancestry.
Political parties do not exist, and their formation is
discouraged. Local administration is carried out by centrally
appointed government officials. Villages, however, have the
traditional right to elect by consensus their own headmen, who
form the lowest rung of the administrative hierarchy. The
Government is in the process of administrative decentralization
as a means of bringing the administration of the country
closer to the people and giving them a more direct role in
governance. When the King is touring outlying districts of
the Kingdom (which he does frequently), any citizen can flag
down his car and present an aide with a written petition,
which is assured an official response.
The 150-member National Assembly is composed of 105 members
elected by limited franchise (heads of family in Hindu areas,
village headmen in Buddhist regions), 12 elected by the
monastic establishment, and 33 high-level officials of the
government administration appointed by the King. Its
principal functions are to enact laws, approve senior
appointments in the Government, and advise the King on matters
of national importance. It also provides a forum for
presenting grievances and rectifying cases of
maladministration. Voting is by secret ballot, with a simple
majority needed to pass a measure.
The King cannot formally veto legislation passed by the
Assembly, but he can refer bills back to it for furthe..
consideration. The Assembly occasionally has rejected the
King's recommendations or delayed their implementation, but
the King has always had enough influence to persuade the
Assembly to approve any legislation he considers essential or
to withdraw any proposed legislation he opposes. Government
officials may be questioned by the body, and ministers can be
forced to resign by a two-thirds vote of no confidence.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
No international agency or group is known to have sought entry
into Bhutan to investigate human rights conditions. No
nongovernmental human rights groups are known to exist in
Bhutan, nor do human rights appear to be a subject of domestic
political debate.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Language, or Social Status
In contrast with some of its neighbors, Bhutan has not
developed either a rigid caste system or customs which
sequester or disenfranchise women. Boys tend to outnumber
girls by about two to one in primary school, and seven to one
at secondary level, but family land is divided equally between
sons and daughters. Bhutanese traditionally place girls in a
lower status than boys because of their lesser importance to
the family economy. Girls receive poorer nutrition and lesser
medical attention than boys. The disparity between the higher
mortality rates of female versus male infants has resulted in
an overall ratio in the population of 97.2 females per 100
males, one of the lowest in the world.
The sexes mix relatively freely, marriages can be arranged by
partners themselves as well as by their parents, and divorce
is common. A man is allowed by law to have three wives, but
polyandry is not sanctioned. Legislation has been enacted in
recent years making marriage registration compulsory and
favoring women in matters of alimony. Although violence
against women is known to occur, no information is available
on its extent. In 1989 some 10 percent of the persons
employed by the various government ministries and departments
were women.
Potentially the most divisive issue in Bhutan is. how to
accommodate the large (estimated at 20-30 percent) segment of
the population of Nepali Hindu origin. The country's Buddhist
majority has long been concerned about being outnumbered by
immigrants from Nepal, as occurred in neighboring Sikkim. In
the past, the Government responded to this concern by tightly
limiting immigration and restricting residence and employment
of the Nepali population to the southern part of the country.
More recently, the Government has liberalized its policy
toward the Nepali minority. The Government now encourages
intermarriage, educates some students in regions other than
their own, and gives higher priority to economic development
of the south. By law, southerners may own land and establish
business in the north and vice versa, but reportedly it is
sometimes still difficult for non-Buddhist Bhutanese (except
government officials) to buy property in Buddhist areas.
More and more young Bhutanese of Nepali origin are entering
public economic and administrative bodies, and laws concerning
land tenure and taxation in the south are being liberalized.
Although the language of instruction is English, there is a
requirement that Dzongkha, the language of the western
highlands, be taught in all schools, and this requirement is
said to disadvantage students from other areas. In general,
however, the Government appears to be sensitive to the
problems of national integration and is attempting to
eliminate the factors which, in the past, led some Nepali
Bhutanese to describe themselves as second-class citizens.
Families with ties to the palace and senior levels of the
Government are strongly favored in their access to state
scholarships for foreign education. Nevertheless, the King is
making a serious effort to draw qualified persons from a
broader range of social and ethnic backgrounds into the
prestigious civil bureaucracy. Among the non-Drukpa (ruling
elite) officials is the Minister of Trade, who is of Nepalese
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Trade unionism is not permitted and Bhutan has no labor
unions. Bhutan is not a member of the International Labor
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
There is no collective bargaining nor legislation addressing
labor-related issues pertaining to the small industrial work
force, which makes up less than 1 percent of the population.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
As far as is known, there is no law prohibiting forced or
compulsory labor but it is not practiced.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
There are no laws governing the employment of children.
However, children are not employed in industrial labor.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
As noted above, there is no legislation addressing labor
issues. There is no legislated minimum wage, standard
workweek, or health and safety standards. The shortage of
labor in Bhutan is such that the larger industrial firms, all
of which were established relatively recently, are organized
along modern lines and incorporate a considerable amount of
labor-saving technology. No industrial plant employs more
than 60 to 70 workers, and most of these are guest workers
from Nepal. Apart from a few larger plants, the entire
industrial sector consists of home-based handicrafts and some
60 privately owned small or medium-scale factories producing
consumer goods