THE POLITICAL AND LEGAL SYSTEM OF PANAMA
structure of the Panamanian State is established by the 1972 Constitution as
amended by the Reform Acts of 1978 and by the Constitutional Act of 1983, which
adopts the classic division of powers: executive, legislative, and judicial,
“which act in harmonious collaboration among themselves,” in accordance with
Article 2 of the Constitution. The legislative branch of government is governed
under Title V of the Constitution, which provides that it shall be composed of a
Legislative Assembly made up of legislators elected in each electoral circuit in
accordance with the provisions of Article 141.
executive branch is governed under Title VI of the Constitution and is composed
of the President and the Ministers of State. (Article 170). The President of the
Republic is elected by popular, direct, and majority vote for a period of five
years. At the same time a first vice-president and a second vice-president are
also elected. The President of the Republic, with the cooperation of the
respective minister, has among other powers, the authority to appoint the chiefs
and officers of the public forces “in accordance with this Constitution, the
law and the Military Register” (Article 179.2).
addition, the Government shall consist of the Ministers of State, the Council
Cabinet (Articles 194-195) chaired by the President and composed of the
vise-presidents of the Republic, the Ministers of State; the Directors General
of the various autonomous and semi-autonomous agencies, the Commander in Chief
of the Public Forces, the Attorney General of the Nation, the Legal Counsel for
the Administration, the president of the Legislative Assembly and the presidents
of the Provincial Councils.
Judiciary, which is responsible for the administration of justice, is governed
under Chapter 1 Title VII of the Constitution and is composed of the Supreme
Court of Justice, the lower courts, and such other courts as the law may
establish (Article 199). Chapter 2 under that same Title governs the functions
of the Public Ministry, which is exercised by the Attorney General of the
Republic and other officers of the Public Ministry (Article 216).
XII of the Constitution is devoted to national defense and public security,
areas that were later regulated by Law N° 20 of 1983, which combined all
agencies charged with maintaining domestic order and preserving national defense
and thus formed the Panamanian Defense Forces. Article 305 of the Constitution
National Defense and Public Security correspond to a profession institution
denominated the and Public Security correspond to a professional institution
denominated the National Guard, which is subordinate to the Executive Branch and
whose conduct shall be subject to the National Constitution and the Law. The
National Guard shall at no time participate in partisan politics except as
exercising the right to vote.
human rights are recognized by the Constitution under Title III, “Individual
and Social Rights and Duties," and under Title IV, “Political Rights.”
Chapter 1 of Title II, for its part, spells out the “Fundamental
Guarantees.” The State undertakes to protect the lives, honor and property of
its nationals and of any aliens who are under its jurisdiction (Article 17).
Article 30 provides that there is no death penalty, while Articles 21 and 23 (Habeas
Corpus) protect the individual from arbitrary arrest and deprivation of
freedom. Article 28 prohibits the use of measures injurious to the physical,
mental or moral integrity of prisoners, while Article 20 establishes that
everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, though certain distinctions are made
between Panamanians and aliens.
right to freedom of religion and worship may be exercised “without any
limitation other than respect for Christian morality and public order” under
Article 35, which recognizes “that the Catholic religion is that of the
majority of Panamanians.”
37 through 41 establish the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly
and freedom of association. The right to private property is recognized
(Articles 30, 44-49), as is the right to present petitions (Articles 41 and 50),
the right to due process (Articles 21, 22, 25. and 31-33), the inviolability of
domicile and residence (Article 25) and of private correspondence (Article 29)
and the right of residence and travel (Articles 26 and 27).
remaining chapters of Title III deal with social rights; thus, chapters II and
III spell out the relationship between the family and the State and between
workers and the State. Chapters IV to VII establish the State's obligations vis-à-vis
protection and promotion of national culture, education, health, social security
and social assistance.
Title IV concerns political rights. All Panamanians over the age of 18 are considered citizens (Article 125), but exercise of the rights of citizenship is, suspended when an individual either expressly or tacitly renounces his nationality (Articles 127 and 13), or by penalty accordance with law. Under Article 129 of the Constitution, suffrage is “a duty and a right of all citizens,” which right the law shall regulate the premise “that it is free and universal, direct or indirect and that voting is equal and secret.” Article 130 specifically provides that “The authorities are obliged to guarantee the freedom and honesty of the vote.”
Constitution establishes certain guidelines with respect to parties and the
organization of the electoral process. Article 133 prohibits “the formation of
any party having as its basis sex, race or religion, or which attempts to impair
the national sovereignty or destroy the democratic structures of government
…” The State is authorized to “supervise and contribute to the expenses
incurred by natural persons and political parties in the electoral process”
(Article 135) and the Electoral Tribunal is to interpret and apply the Electoral
Law (Articles 126-128).
51 of the Constitution states the following:
the event of foreign war or domestic disturbance threatening the peace and
public order, all or part of the Republic may be declared to be in state of
siege--, and the effects of Articles 21 (personal liberty), 22 (judicial
guarantees), 23 (writ of Habeas Corpus), 26 (inviolability of domicile),
27 (freedom of residence and movement), 29 (inviolability of correspondence), 37
(freedom of expression), 38 (right of assembly), and 44 (private property) of
this Constitution may be temporarily suspended, wholly or in part.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has considered that the suspension of
the exercise of certain rights, in the context of the provisions of Article 27
of the American Convention on Human Rights, cannot extend to the remedy of Habeas
Corpus since, in its view, that is one of the remedies instituted to
protect rights that cannot be suspended, such as the right to humane treatment. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in its Advisory
Opinion OC-8/87 stated that the “procedures known as habeas corpus and amparo
are those indispensable judicial guarantees for the protection of various rights
whose suspension is limited by Article 27.2. In addition they serve to preserve
legality in a democratic society.” The measures adopted by the Government are
therefore at variance with the American Convention on Human Rights to the extent
that they suspend the exercise of a writ as important as that of Habeas Corpus,
since Panama's laws must conform to the international commitments it undertakes.
should be pointed out that recently, to control opposition protests, the
Government resorted to declaring a state of urgency and to adopting special
State security measures. Thus, on June 10, 1987, by Decree N° 56, the President
of the Republic declared a state of urgency throughout the national territory
and ordered total suspension of the rights in Articles, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 29,
37, 38, and 43 of the Constitution of Panama.
state of constitutional exception was lifted on June 29, 1987, though on July 7,
1987, Decree N° 59 prohibited the holding of two public demonstrations. The ban
was suspended on August 14, 1987, by Decree N° 63, which replaced it with
restrictions on the right of assembly.
on October 19, 1987, the Cabinet approved Decree N° 70, prohibiting public
demonstrations for an indefinite period of time. Objections were raised
questioning the constitutionality of that measure, on the grounds that the state
of urgency was not in effect at that time.
March 18, 1988, through Cabinet Decree N° 11, the Government again declared a
state of urgency throughout the territory of the Republic, in the wake of an
attempted coup on the part of a group of officers of the Panamanian Defense
Forces. On this occasion, none of the fundamental rights set forth in Article 51
of the Constitution was suspended. However, various decrees were issued for the
purpose of curtailing the right of assembly (Executive Decree N° 26, dated
March 28, 1988); limiting the activities of private business (Executive Decree N°
16, March 25, 1988); and so on. On April 20, 1988, the Legislative Assembly
ordered the lifting of the state of urgency.
Republic of Panama has undertaken international obligations in the area of human
rights through its ratification of or accession to a number of international
instruments on the subject.
the United Nations system, Panama is party to the 1966 International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights and of the International Covenant on Economic,
Social, and Cultural Rights, as well as the Optional Protocol to the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
addition to those general instruments, Panama has also become a party to other
specific treaties for the protection of human rights, as in the case of the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the
Convention on the prevention and punishment of Crime of Genocide and the
International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of
the inter-American system, since June 22, 1978, Panama is a party of the
American Convention on Human Rights, which it ratified without reservations.
In addition to other Inter-American conventions on protection of human rights, Panama has signed, though not yet ratified, the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.