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Situated on the juncture between North and South America and between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Panama has huge strategic importance. A presidential democratic republic, it has overcome a history of invasions and military dictatorships and is now the fastest growing economy in Central America. Nevertheless, children's rights are violated - in particular, the age of criminal responsibility is low and discrimination against the indigenous population and afro-descendants is widespread.
Panama lies at the junction of the North and South American continents and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is consequently a country of huge strategic importance.
Panama has the largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere outside the Amazon Basin. It is home to a huge variety of tropical plants, animals and birds.
The capital is Panama city.
Population and language
The population is about 3.5 million. The ethnic composition of Panama is varied and comprises approximately 70 per cent Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 14 per cent Amerindian and mixed (West Indian), ten per cent white and six per cent Amerindian. The main languages are English and Spanish.
Politics and economy
Panama is a constitutional democracy. Conservative supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli won a landslide victory at the April 2009 presidential election. Panama’s strategic importance means is has been a target for intervention by the US, which in 1989 invaded Panama to depose a former ally, Manuel Noriega. It controlled the Canal until 1999.
Major exports include bananas, fish, shrimp, and petroleum products. There is a growing tourism industry. Panama’s major trading partner is the United States.
Elite families of European descent control most of Panama's wealth and power. About 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.
The legal system is based on a civil law system
Media and civil society
Panama's media are free to present news and comment. According to Reporters Without Borders: "Panama stands out as an exception in Central America, which is notoriously dangerous. Cases of assaults against journalists are extremely rare."
Many international NGOs have moved their regional offices to Panama. When the US handed over control of the Panama Canal and the surrounding Canal Zone in 1999, the government encouraged international organisations to set up offices there by exonerating them from paying national taxes for 20 years and giving them buildings in the area free of charge to renovate.
Human rights and children's rights
There are concerns about violence against women and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Panamanians. Four people have recently died in clashes between protesters and police. Panama also recently lowered its minimum age of criminal responsibility from 14-12 to the consternation of children's rights organisations.
Panama ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 12 December 1990, the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict on 8 August 2001, and the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography on 9 February 2001.
- BBC Panama Country Profile
- Amnesty International, Annual Report 2011: Panama
- UNICEF, Panama Country Page
- UN Treaty Collection
- World Bank, Panama Country Profile