Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1986

Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, is a
victim of frequent drought and political instability. In
August 1983, Captain Thomas Sankara took power as President of
Burkina Faso and of the National Council of the Revolution
(CNR), Burkina's main forum for political decisions, in the
country's third military coup since 1980. No political party
activities have been permitted since 1980, and there are no
indications that the country will return to constitutional
rule. Instead, the Government uses a network of Committees
for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) , organized at national,
regional, and local levels, to mobilize the population and
promote its revolutionary goals.
Burkina Faso is overwhelmingly tied to subsistence agriculture,
with 90 percent of the population living in rural areas. The
economy is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall.
Drought, lack of communications and other infrastructure, a
low literacy rate, and a stagnant economy are all longstanding
problems .
There was improvement in the human rights situation in Burkina
Faso in 1986, and the Government amnestied all prominent
political detainees. The confrontation between the Government
and labor eased. However, arbitrary arrests and brief
detentions without charges or trial of potential political
opponents continued, albeit in diminished numbers. Trials of
businessmen and civil servants continued, almost exclusively
on fraud and corruption charges, outside the traditional
judicial system in People's Revolutionary Courts where
defendants had no recourse to legal counsel. Civil servants,
military, and police accused of lack of enthusiasm for the
revolution continued to be dismissed for reasons ranging from
misconduct to laziness, although in lesser numbers than during
1984 and 1985.
Mali and Burkina Faso fought a 5-day border war in late
December 1985 over the long disputed Agacher strip, potentially
rich in mineral resources. Tensions between the two countries
remain high, but a ruling from the International Court of
Justice at the end of 1986 won praise from both countries,
which have publicly vowed to abide by it. Prisoners from the
December border war have been repatriated.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
Freedom from:
a. Political Killing
There were no known political killings.
b. Disappearance
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearance.
c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
There were no reports of torture in 1986, but there were
several allegations of degrading treatment of detainees.
Anonymous tracts alleged that certain students, trade union
members, and teachers had been detained without charge and
manhandled by security authorities.
Prison conditions are poor, in part because of the material
poverty of the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Reports of arbitrary arrest, followed by detention for several
days without charge, continued in 1986. In many cases, these
appear to have been initiated by poorly trained CDR security
patrols. The law permits preventive detention without charge
for a maximum of 72 hours, renewable for a single 72-hour
period in criminal cases. This law is generally followed in
practice but with frequent exceptions for both Burkinabe and
foreign nationals, especially in political cases. In cases of
emergency or national security the military code overrides the
civil code. Military code procedures provide for continued
detention beyond 72 hours. For example, at least two suspects
in a June 1985 ammunition dump explosion case were imprisoned
for over 1 year without trial.
On August 4, Burkina Faso's national day. President Sankara
amnestied all remaining suspects in the June 1985 incident
plus a number of former ministers. Several prominent
political personalities such as former President Colonel Saye
Terbo, however, remained under a loose form of house arrest.
Paul Rouamba, former ambassador to the U.S. and Ghana, remained
Several prominent intellectuals, military officers, and former
government officials remained in self-imposed exile. Several
times during late 1985 and in 1986, President Sankara publicly
appealed to all exiles to return home, promising a place for
them in Burkina Faso's struggle for economic development.
Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by the labor code and
is not known to be practiced.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
During 1986 the people's revolutionary courts, created in late
1983 with jurisdiction over state security and political
crimes, heard cases involving primarily public corruption.
The court president is a magistrate appointed by the Government
to head the tribunal which is composed of magistrates, military
personnel, and members of the Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution. The court president asks questions directly of the
defendant. There is no role for a public prosecutor, and the
accused has no right to consult counsel during the session.
Witnesses can be called by the court, or they can present
themselves to give testimony. In 1986 these courts were used
extensively but only in corruption and embezzlement cases.
President Sankara has said these people's courts should be
viewed as a permanent part of the country's judicial system,
and the Government is considering an expansion of such courts.
The Government has already organized a series of similar
tribunals to hear minor cases at the village, department, and
province levels. Most of the judges in these courts are
popularly elected. The Government's oft-stated aim in
establishing these "popular" courts is to ensure fair access
to justice for an overwhelmingly illiterate, impoverished
population .
Meanwhile, the regular judiciary, patterned after the French
system, has continued to function for criminal and civil cases.
Defendants traditionally receive a fair trial and are
represented by counsel. However, the fact that some of those
amnestied in 1986 were never tried, and most were sentenced on
corruption charges by the people's revolutionary courts,
illustrates the unlikelihood of a political detainee ever
being brought to trial in the French-based legal system.
Under the Government's reorganization program, the regular
judiciary will likely be limited to responsibility for
business and commercial law. The people's revolutionary
courts will probably expand their competence in political and
criminal cases.
f . Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
Government authorities are not known to interfere in the
privacy, family, home, or correspondence of ordinary citizens.
Homes may be searched only under authority of a warrant issued
by the Attorney General, a procedure generally followed in
practice. There is no regular monitoring of private
correspondence or telephones. However, in national security
cases a special law permits surveillance and search of homes
and persons and monitoring of telephones and correspondence
without a warrant. This law has been used against individuals
suspected of participation in coup plots.
The Government encourages participation in the Committees for
the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) . While there is little
discrimination against those who choose not to become
involved, vigorous participation in CDR activities helps in
obtaining civil service appointments and promotions. The
Government considers opposition to activities of the CDR's to
be political opposition, which can lead in serious cases to
such measures as discharge from the civil service.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While there is no formal government censorship, the high pitch
of revolutionary rhetoric, with its frequent references to
enemies of the state at home and abroad, inhibits both
government-employed journalists and ordinary citizens from
taking advantage of their theoretical right to express critical
views. The same inhibition, further stimulated by some sudden
dismissals from government service and by reports of arbitrary
arrest, continued to dampen a lively tradition of debate on
political topics. University professors and administrators
have been criticized for "elitism" and dismissed for alleged
counterrevolutionary tendencies, although others have expressed
critical views without government retaliation. University
students are now subject to political education.
Under the control of the Minister of Information, the media,
which consist of a daily and a weekly newspaper, two weekly
magazines, and a government-operated radio/television station,
are almost entirely government owned. There is no serious
criticism of the Government in the media, which are charged
with carrying official news to the people while defending the
revolution. There are occasional government-authorized
criticisms made of the performance of individual officials.
Something approaching political criticism is found in a new
satirical weekly, run by the Government itself, which
concentrates on relatively harmless foibles of political
leaders, including the President. Foreign newspapers and
magazines continue to enter the country freely. Foreign
journalists travel and file stories without censorship or
hindrance and enjoy easy access to government officials.
In the arts, movies are subject to censorship by a review
board which includes religious authorities as well as
government officials. During 1986 a wide variety of American,
French and other foreign films were shown. In 1986 there were
no instances of political censorship of movies. There is no
interference with international radio broadcasts.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Political parties are banned and administrative permission is
generally required for assemblies of any kind. Nonpolitical
associations for business, religious, cultural, sporting, and
other purposes are allowed and experience no difficulty in
obtaining permission to meet.
Organized labor continues to be an important force in Burkina.
There are four labor federations — of which the largest is
affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade
Unions. There are also a number of autonomous unions. The
federations take turns representing organized labor at the
International Labor Organization meetings and participate in
African regional labor meetings as well.
Unions have the right to bargain for increased wages and other
benefits within a specific bargaining unit such as a company
or factory. They represent the interests of their members in
the private and public sectors, as well as before the labor
inspection service of the Government and before the courts.
All unions jealously guard their independence from the
Government. Organized labor has the formal right to strike,
but the present Government has greatly restricted this right
in practice.
The 1985 confrontation between the Government and labor eased
in 1986. There were no known suspensions from public
employment of union leaders, as occurred in previous years.
A prominent Marxist trade union leader, Soumane Toure, was
released from detention on October 2, leaving no known trade
union leaders in prison. There were no indications that
existing labor organizations would be brought under government
control or replaced by a national labor federation.
Jurisdictional conflicts with the CDR's diminished. President
Sankara indicated he wishes to maintain a dialog with all
Burkinabe trade unions.
c. Freedom of Religion
Burkina Faso is a secular state, and there is no discrimination
discrimination on religious grounds. Islam and Christianity
exist side by side, with about 25 percent of the population
being Muslim and 10 percent Christian. The remainder practices
traditional religions. Both Muslim and Christian holidays are
recognized as national holidays. Social mobility and access
to modern sector jobs are neither linked to, nor restricted
by, religious affiliations.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Travelers within Burkina Faso are often stopped at police,
army, and internal customs checkpoints. Moreover, armed CDR
units maintain checkpoints between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.,
though these checks diminished in frequency during 1986.
Foreign travel for business and tourism is not restricted.
Exit permits, once used to limit movements of workers to
neighboring countries, particularly to the Cote d'lvoire where
1 million or more Burkinabe continue to reside and work, are
no longer required. Refugees are accepted freely in Burkina
Faso and attempts are made to provide for their care in
cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees. The Government cooperated with the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in allowing ICRC visits to
prisoners of war following the 5-day war with Mali and in
facilitating emergency assistance to some 4,000 displaced
persons .
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
Supported by the military. President Thomas Sankara rules in
the name of the National Council of the Revolution (CNR), the
composition of which has never been disclosed. There is
neither a legislative body nor any recognized political
opposition group. In consultation with the CNR, Sankara
appoints his Cabinet, which currently consists of 23 posts, 4
held by military personnel and the rest by civilians,
including 5 women. The Government has not given any hint of
plans for elections or for a return to constitutional
government .
In November 1985, the CNR created a hierarchy of commissions
bringing together CDR officials, government ministry
authorities, and provincial authorities culminating in a
special commission chaired by the President himself that first
met in September 1986. These commissions are apparently
intended to ascertain what the population needs and to guide
the administration in providing it. They are only beginning
to function; their political role is not yet clear. The
Government is the largest employer and uses its control over
jobs to ensure political support. The number of dismissals on
political grounds was significantly lower in 1986 than in 1985.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
A government-supported organization lobbies against the South
African apartheid system and other racial oppression, but it
makes no effort to look into domestic human rights issues or
foreign practices other than racial discrimination. The
Government has made no attempt to hinder the activities of
international human rights organizations. It denied reports
by Amnesty International in its 1986 Report (covering 1985)
which stated that several alleged political opponents of the
Government had reportedly been severely tortured, including by
electrical shocks, and that one person may have died as a
result of this torture.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
Minority ethnic groups are as likely to be represented in the
inner circles of the Government as are the dominant Mossi, who
comprise 50 percent of the population. Government decisions
do not favor one ethnic group over another. One announced
reason for the increase in administrative regions from
11 to 30 since the August 1983 coup was to improve access of
minority groups to local administrative authorities.
The role of women in Burkina Faso is still limited by the
cultural orientation of a rural African society. For example,
male children attending school outnumber female children by
about two to one. The Government has emphasized its strong
commitment to expanding opportunities for women, including
educational opportunities. The Ministry of Family Progress
plays a leading role in promoting greater participation by
women in the nation's economic, social, and political life.
In addition to the five women ministers in the current
Cabinet, women have been appointed high commissioners in
several provinces, and women have been named as magistrates in
the judicial system.
The labor code sets the minimum age for employment at 14, the
average age for completion of basic secondary school.
However, the Government lacks the means to enforce this
provision adequately, owing to the large number of small
family subsistence farms, and the traditional apprenticeship
system. A minimum monthly wage of about $75 and a maximum
work week of 48 hours are stipulated by the labor code, as are
safety and health provisions within the capabilities of the
country's relatively small nonagricultural sector. A system
of government inspections and labor courts ensures that these
provisions are applied in the industrial and commercial
sectors, but they have been impossible to enforce in the
dominant subsistence agriculture sector.