Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Costa Rica

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Costa Rica, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Costa Rica is a longstanding, stable constitutional democracy with a unicameral Legislative Assembly directly elected in free multiparty elections every 4 years. Jose Maria Figueres of the National Liberation Party won the presidency in the February 1994 elections, in which approximately 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. The Government respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary.

The 1949 Constitution abolished Costa Rica's military forces. The Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of the Presidency share responsibility for law enforcement and national security. The Judicial Police, under the Supreme Court, conducts investigations, while the San Jose Metropolitan Police and the Transit Police within the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation also have limited police powers. Public security forces generally observe procedural safeguards established by law and the Constitution.

The market-based economy depends primarily on agriculture, light industry, and tourism. The pace of economic growth slowed from a 4.5 percent increase in 1994 to a projected rise of 2.0 percent in 1995. The Government also faced a growing fiscal deficit. The Constitution protects the right to own private property; however, domestic and foreign property owners encounter difficulty gaining adequate, timely compensation for lands expropriated for national parks and those set aside for indigenous people or invaded by squatters.

Citizens enjoy a wide range of individual rights and freedoms. The Government fully respects the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of abuse of individual rights. Nonetheless, the judicial system moves very slowly to process criminal cases, resulting in lengthy pretrial detentions for some suspects. There were two reported instances of abuse by police. The Government has identified domestic violence against women as a serious societal problem and sponsored a public awareness program to deter such abuse. Discrimination against women and indigenous people remains a problem.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

There was progress in resolving some cases from previous years. In July authorities again jailed four former Judicial Police officers for the 1994 murder of suspected drug dealer Ciro Monge, and charged them also with the 1994 murder of a drug abuser. In August a court found a former member of the now-defunct Immediate Action Unit (UAI) guilty of simple homicide for killing a 12-year-old child during a drug raid in May 1990. The former agent received a suspended 5-year sentence, and the court ordered the Government and three former agents to pay about $45,000 (8.2 million colones) in damages to the victim's family. There was no progress in the Malcolm and "Cobra Command" cases (described in last year's report).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits cruel or degrading treatment and holds invalid any statement obtained through violence. Authorities generally abide by these prohibitions. The Ombudsman's Office investigates complaints and, where appropriate, initiates suits against officials. In one instance during pretrial detention, however, police personnel severely beat a person who allegedly shot a policeman, according to a firsthand report.

In August plainclothes members of the Police Information Center (CIP) used undue force against unruly labor demonstrators in front of the Presidential Office in response to unruly demonstrators. Following a public outcry, the Ministry of Public Security fired four CIP members and disbanded the group, transforming it into merely an archive for information on criminal activities.

A large percentage of police personnel owe their appointments to political patronage. The Figueres administration began implementation of a new Police Code, enacted in 1994, designed to professionalize and depoliticize the police force. The Government implemented a program to establish permanent, professional cadres, which is intended eventually to result in a nonpolitically appointed career force. In September the Ministry of Public Security initiated a revamped basic course for new police recruits, including training using a human rights manual developed by the Ministry.

Prisoners generally receive humane treatment. While guards rarely abuse prisoners physically, there are credible reports that prisoners are sometimes subjected to other forms of abuse such as extortion. The Prison Rights Ombudsman investigates complaints and refers serious cases of any abuse to the public prosecutor. Authorities dismissed two guards on suspicion of drug trafficking; charges against them have not been proven. Penitentiaries remain overcrowded--about 60 percent above their overall planned capacities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government generally respects these prohibitions.

The law requires issuance of judicial warrants before making arrests. The Constitution entitles a detainee to a judicial determination of the legality of the detention during arraignment before a court officer within 24 hours of arrest. The authorities generally respect these rights.

The law provides for the right to release on bail, and authorities observe it in practice. Generally, the authorities do not hold detainees incommunicado. With judicial authorization, the authorities may hold suspects for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary vigorously enforces this right.

The Supreme Court supervises the work of the lower courts, known as tribunals. The Legislative Assembly elects the 22 Supreme Court magistrates to 8-year terms, subject to automatic renewal unless the Assembly decides otherwise by a two-thirds majority. Accused persons may select attorneys to represent them, and the law provides for access to legal counsel at state expense for the indigent.

Persons accused of serious offenses and held without bail, however, sometimes remain in pretrial custody for long periods. Lengthy legal procedures, numerous appeals, and large numbers of detainees cause delays and case backlogs. There were 992 accused persons, representing 25 percent of the prison population, jailed awaiting trial at the end of the year.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits such practices. Government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction. The law requires judicial warrants to search private homes. Judges may approve use of wiretaps in limited circumstances, primarily to combat narcotics trafficking.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, a generally effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom. Nonetheless, courts sometimes interpret libel and defamation laws so broadly that they potentially inhibit free expression. For example, while exonerating the director of La Prensa Libre of defaming the Association of Small Farmers of the Atlantic, a court nonetheless ordered the director to pay civil damages of nearly $31,000 (5.66 million colones) to the group and its former director. La Prensa Libre had accused the group in 1988 of being a "paramilitary organization."

In May the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a provision from a 1969 law that required a degree in journalism from a Costa Rican university and the licensing of journalists with the government-sponsored journalists' guild. This requirement had long been criticized in Costa Rica and abroad as an infringement on press freedom.

Nine major privately owned newspapers, several periodicals, 6 privately owned television stations, and over 70 privately owned radio stations pursue independent editorial policies. The media freely criticize the Government, and there is no evidence of governmental intimidation.

The Office of Control of Public Spectacles rates films and has the authority to restrict or prohibit their showing; it has similar powers over television programs and stage plays. Nonetheless, foreign and particularly American films spanning the U.S. rating system are offered to the public. A tribunal reviews appeals of the Office's actions.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. While the Constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, people of all denominations freely practice their religion without government interference. Foreign missionaries and clergy of all denominations work and proselytize freely.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. There are no restrictions on travel within the country nor on emigration or the right of return. There is a long tradition of providing refuge to people from other Latin American countries. In July the Government granted political asylum to a Cuban diplomat after another country refused his request. The Constitution specifically prohibits repatriation of anyone subject to potential persecution. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status. The authorities regularly repatriated undocumented Nicaraguans, most of whom entered the country primarily for economic reasons.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through free and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage and by secret ballot every 4 years. The independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal ensures the integrity of elections, and the authorities and citizens respect election results. The Constitution bars the President from seeking reelection, and Assembly Members may only seek reelection after one term out of office. In the 1994 elections, President Figueres' National Liberation Party gained a plurality in the Legislative Assembly, winning 28 of 57 seats. The Social Christian Unity Party won 25 seats, the Democratic Force won 2 seats, and 2 provincial parties each garnered one seat.

Women encounter no legal impediments to their participation in politics. While women are underrepresented in leadership positions of the Government and political parties, this situation has begun to change. Currently, one vice president, two cabinet ministers, seven vice ministers, nine Legislative Assembly members, and seven directors of autonomous institutions are women. Indigenous people may participate freely in politics and government. In practice they have not played significant roles in these areas, except on issues directly affecting their welfare, largely because of their relatively small numbers and physical isolation. Costa Rica's 30,000 blacks, largely resident on the Caribbean coast, enjoy full rights of citizenship, including the protection of laws against racial discrimination. The Legislative Assembly includes one black member; one member of the cabinet is black.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Various human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are cooperative and responsive to their views. The Costa Rican Commission for Human Rights, the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America, and the Family and Friends of Political Prisoners of Costa Rica, monitor and report on human rights. Several international organizations concerned with human rights, including the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are located in San Jose.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution pronounces all persons equal before the law and the Government generally respects these provisions.


The Government has identified domestic violence against women and children as a serious societal problem. In July the First Lady and the National Center for the Development of Women and the Family initiated a public awareness campaign "For a Life Without Violence." Beginning in September, authorities incorporated training on handling of cases of domestic violence in the basic training course for new police personnel. The Government regularly prosecutes physical abuse of women, including domestic violence, and often imposes stringent punishment.

Women constitute 49.5 percent of the population. The 1990 Law for the Promotion of the Social Equality of Women not only prohibits discrimination against women but obligates the Government to promote political, economic, social, and cultural equality. This year the Government's National Center for the Development of Women and the Family promulgated social awareness programs on "Active Participation by Women in Decisionmaking" and "Technical Training and the Fight Against Poverty."

According to the 1993 census, 30 percent of working-age women earn wages outside the home, compared with 79 percent of working-age men. One-fifth of all families depend primarily on the earnings of women. Most women work in the services sector, with others working in industry and agriculture. While laws require that women and men receive equal pay for equal work, average salaries for women remained below those of male counterparts. The average life expectancy for women increased by 12 years since the early 1970's to 77 years, higher than the 74-year average for men.


The Government is committed to children's rights and welfare through its well-funded systems of public education and medical care. The Government spends more than 4 percent of gross domestic product on education and over 5 percent on medical care. Accordingly, Costa Rica has a high rate of literacy (94 percent) and a low rate of infant mortality (12.99 per 1,000). The autonomous National Institute for Children oversees the implementation of the Government's programs for children. In August the Catholic Church began construction of a home for both teenage mothers and for children with AIDS, which the Church will operate with help from the National Institute for Children.

In recent years, the National Institute for Children has increased public awareness of crimes against children. The Institute intervened in 2,405 cases of abandonment, 696 cases of physical abuse, 842 cases of sexual abuse, and 71 cases of psychological abuse of children during the first 6 months of 1995. Abuses appear to be more prevalent among impoverished, less-educated families. Traditional attitudes and the inclination to treat such crimes as misdemeanors sometimes hamper legal proceedings against those who commit crimes against children.

People with Disabilities

No laws prohibit discrimination against those with disabilities nor mandate access to buildings for such persons. Certain public and private institutions, however, have made individual efforts to improve access.

Indigenous People

Costa Rica's population of about 3.3 million includes nearly 29,000 indigenous people divided among eight ethnic groups. Most live in traditional communities on 22 reserves which, because of their remote location, often lack access to schools, health care, electricity, and potable water. The Government through the National Indigenous Commission initiated distribution of national identification cards to facilitate access to public medical facilities. The Government also began construction of a medical clinic and two community health centers in indigenous areas. The Ombudsman has established an office to investigate violations of the rights of indigenous people.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law specifies the right of workers to join unions of their choosing without prior authorization, although barriers exist in practice. About 15 percent of the work force is unionized, almost entirely in the public sector. Unions operate independently of government control and may form federations and confederations and affiliate internationally.

Some trade union leaders contend that "solidarity" associations, in which workers renounce the right to strike and bargain collectively in return for receiving certain services including credit unions and savings plans, hurt the right of association. After the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association ruled that solidarity associations and their involvement in trade union activities violated freedom of association, the Government amended the Labor Code in 1993. The following year, the ILO Committee of Experts ruled that these and other planned changes fostered greater freedom of association. In 1995 this Committee encouraged the Government to approve legislation to allow unions to administer compensation funds for dismissed workers and to repeal Labor Code provisions restricting the right to strike in certain nonessential public, agricultural, and forestry sectors.

Costa Rica has no restrictions on the right of private sector workers to strike, but very few workers in this sector belong to unions. Accordingly, private sector strikes rarely occur. The Constitution and Labor Code restrict the right of public sector workers to strike. Nonetheless, in mid-1995, teachers' unions conducted a largely peaceful, month-long strike to protest changes to a law on teachers' pensions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution protects the right to organize. Specific provisions of the 1993 Labor Code reforms provide protection from dismissal for union organizers and members during union formation. The revised provisions require employers found guilty of discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities.

Public sector workers cannot engage in collective bargaining because the Public Administration Act of 1978 makes labor law inapplicable in relations between the Government and its employees. Private sector unions have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining.

All labor regulations apply fully to the country's nine export processing zones (EPZ's). The Labor Ministry oversees labor regulations within the EPZ's, but acknowledged that it has only one inspector for every 30,000 workers.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no known instances of such practices.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution provides special employment protection for women and children and establishes the minimum working age at 12 years, with special regulations in force for workers under 15. Children between 15 and 18 can work a maximum of 7 hours daily and 42 hours weekly, while children between 12 and 15 can work a maximum of 5 hours daily and 30 hours weekly. The National Institute for Children, in cooperation with the Labor Ministry, effectively enforces these regulations in the formal sector. After two adolescents died from chemical poisoning while working on banana plantations, the authorities prohibited employment of youths under 18 in the banana industry. Nonetheless, child labor remains an integral part of the large informal economy.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Constitution provides for a minimum wage. A National Wage Council, composed of three members each from government, business, and labor, sets minimum wage and salary levels for all sectors. Monthly minimum wages, last adjusted in July for the private sector, range from $121 (21,928 colones) for domestic servants to $587 (106,282 colones) for certain professionals. Public sector negotiations, based on private sector minimum wages, normally follow the settlement of private sector negotiations. The Ministry of Labor effectively enforces minimum wages in the San Jose area, but less effectively in rural areas. Workers at the lower end of the wage scale, especially those with families, encounter difficulty maintaining acceptable standards of living and in taking care of their basic human needs.

The Constitution sets workday hours, overtime remuneration, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. Although often circumvented in practice, it also requires compensation for discharge without due cause. Generally, workers may work a maximum of 8 hours during the day and 6 at night, up to weekly totals of 48 and 36 hours, respectively. Nonagricultural workers receive an overtime premium of 50 percent of regular wages for work in excess of the daily work shift. Agricultural workers do not receive overtime, however, if they voluntarily work beyond their normal hours. Little evidence exists that employers coerce employees to perform such overtime.

For several years, the ILO Committee of Experts has asked the Government to enact provisions regarding accident prevention for seafarers, as required by ILO Convention 134 on the "Prevention of Accidents (Seafarers)." At year's end, the Committee had not yet received the requested regulations.

A 1967 law on health and safety in the workplace requires industrial, agricultural, and commercial firms with 10 or more workers to establish a management-labor committee and allows the Government to inspect workplaces and to fine employers for violations. Most firms subject to the law establish such committees, but either do not use the committees or neglect to turn them into effective instruments for improving workplace conditions. While workers have the right to leave work if conditions become dangerous, workers who do so may find their jobs in jeopardy unless they file written complaints with the Labor Ministry. Due partly to budgetary constraints, the Ministry has not fielded enough labor inspectors to ensure consistent maintenance of minimum conditions of safety and sanitation, especially outside San Jose.

Search Refworld