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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Costa Rica

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Costa Rica, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 27 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 well-established, stable democracy with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A Supreme Electoral Tribunal is considered a fourth branch of government. Elections for president, two vice presidents, and 57 deputies to a unicameral Legislative Assembly are held every 4 years; they have been free and fair. Rafael Angel Calderon won the February 1990 presidential election, in which approximately 80 percent of eligible voters participated. The President is constitutionally barred from reelection. Members of the Legislative Assembly may be reelected but only after at least one term out of office. The next presidential and legislative elections will be held in February 1994.

The 1949 Constitution abolished Costa Rica's army. Several government ministries share responsibilities for law enforcement and national security: The Ministry of Public Security includes the Civil Guard, the Crime Prevention Unit, and the Antidrug Police; the Ministry of Government includes the Rural Guard and the Directorate of Narcotics and Intelligence; and the Ministry of the Presidency has the Directorate of Intelligence and Security. The Judicial Police, under the Supreme Court, is an investigative force, while the San Jose Metropolitan Police and the Transit Police within the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation also have limited police functions. Public security forces generally observe procedural safeguards established by law and the Constitution, but there have been occasional incidents of the use of excessive force by the police.

Export-oriented businesses, both in agriculture and light industry, lead the Costa Rican economy. Economic growth accelerated in 1992 to about 7.3 percent but slowed in 1993 to about 6 percent. The right to own private property is protected by the Constitution; however, foreign and Costa Rican property owners who have had land expropriated for national parks, Indian reserves, or squatters have had significant difficulties receiving adequate compensation in a timely manner.

Costa Ricans enjoy a wide range of individual rights and freedoms. Complaints of human rights abuse, when they arise, tend to cite delays in the judicial process (many prisoners are subjected to lengthy periods of pretrial custody) or discrimination against blacks, Indians, and women. The police, particularly the Rural Guard, have sometimes used excessive force. There were credible charges that in September seven Judicial Police officers tortured and killed a suspected gang member.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

The Government does not practice, abet, or condone political killing, and none was reported.

Serious charges arose in September, when a suspected member of a gang of thieves died while in the custody of the Judicial Police. A subsequent autopsy revealed that he had been beaten to death. Seven members of the Judicial Police were arrested, and an investigation of the incident continued at year's end. All seven have been discharged from the police force, and three are under indictment.

In February 1992 residents of the Talamanca region testified that members of a 13-man counternarcotics Rural Guard unit beat and shot two suspected drug traffickers. These Rural Guards, known as the "Cobra Command," were also accused of mistreating local residents, forcing some to serve as supply- bearers, and assaulting two women. The entire squad was taken into custody when the Judicial Police began an immediate investigation. The two commanding officers (charged with committing the murders) are under indictment; the other 11 were subsequently released.

b. Disappearance

There were no known or reported incidents of politically motivated abductions or secret arrests.

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. These prohibitions are generally respected in practice, but incidents of police mistreatment are sometimes reported.

Although there was considerable debate over the suitability and adequacy of the law enforcement system in 1993, efforts to professionalize the various police agencies and standardize training had little success. A bill, submitted over 2 years ago, to grant career status to the police and set minimum entry requirements continued to languish in the Legislative Assembly.

Prisoners generally receive humane treatment in Costa Rica. While physical abuse by prison guards is uncommon, a limited number of guards have been implicated in swindles, robberies, and drug trafficking. Prisoners may bring complaints before the special defense counsel for prison inmates, which will investigate them. Especially serious cases are handled by the Office of the Chief Prosecutor.

Public concern about crowded penitentiaries and the availability of weapons in prisons is growing. Occasional rioting is a problem in several large prisons. The Government continues to earmark funds to repair or improve the more rundown facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Judicial warrants are required for arrests and an arraignment before an officer of the court must take place within 24 hours of arrest. The Constitution entitles detained persons to a judicial determination of the legality of the detention. These rights are generally respected, although persons charged with serious offenses often remain in pretrial custody for long periods due to judicial backlogs. The past 2 years brought some improvement in this regard. The number of prisoners awaiting trial stood at 1,145 at the end of March 1990; by the end of June 1992, the most recent figures published, it had dropped to 688 (as of the end of March 1992, 134 prisoners had spent more than 9 months in detention without being sentenced).

The right to bail is provided for by law and observed in practice. Bail is sometimes denied to repeat offenders, however, and is usually denied to foreigners, major drug offenders, and terrorists on the assumption they would leave the country before coming to trial.

Generally, detainees are not held incommunicado. With judicial authorization, however, suspects may be held for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days. The judiciary has proven effective at ensuring that legal and constitutional safeguards are observed.

The Constitution bars exile as punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is independent and assures a fair public trial.

The Supreme Court supervises the work of the lower courts, known as tribunals. Its 24 magistrates are elected by the Legislative Assembly to 8-year terms, which are automatically renewed unless the Legislative Assembly votes against a renewal by a two-thirds majority. Accused persons may select an attorney of their choice. Access to legal counsel is guaranteed and honored in practice. The State provides counsel to those who cannot afford to hire their own.

There are no political prisoners.

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

There were no reported instances during 1993 of extralegal invasions of privacy conducted by, or with the knowledge of, the Government. Judicial warrants are required to search private homes, and police seldom fail to comply. Government authorized wiretaps remain illegal, pending enactment of implementing legislation by the Legislative Assembly.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution specifically provides for freedom of speech and press, and these freedoms are respected in practice. 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 self-censorship or governmental intimidation.

In 1993 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court expanded press freedom by finding Article Seven of the Press Law unconstitutional. The law had imposed heavy penalties, including jail terms, for those accused repeatedly of libel. The revision now requires a separate finding of guilt in each individual case regardless of prior legal history. A 1969 law requires journalists to be accredited by the government- sponsored journalists' guild. The Calderon administration publicly supported the licensing requirement on the grounds that it ensures professionalism.

An Office of Censorship rates films and has the authority to restrict or prohibit their showing; it has similar powers over television shows and stage plays. A censorship tribunal reviews appeals of the office's actions.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Constitutional provisions for freedom of assembly and association are fully respected. Permits required for parades or similar large-scale gatherings are granted routinely; they are not required for other public meetings.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is protected by the Constitution and generally observed in practice. Foreign missionaries and clergy of all denominations work and proselytize freely. Roman Catholicism, however, is the official state religion, and Costa Ricans affiliated with non-Catholic groups note that non-Catholic churches are required by law to comply with building codes from which Catholic churches are exempt. These groups seek remedial legislation. Catholic priests may perform marriages, whereas non-Catholic religious marriages are not valid without an additional civil marriage. The current law on career educators stipulates that all teachers of religion, including non-Catholic teachers, must be approved by the Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference. In July 1991, a number of teachers of religion (most of them Catholic) filed suit before the Supreme Court asking that the law be overturned. As of the end of 1993, their plea was still pending.

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

Though there are no restrictions on travel within the country, all citizens and residents are required to obtain an exit visa before traveling abroad. Emigration and right of return are not restricted. Costa Rica supports multinational refugee programs and has accepted many refugees from Central and South America. The Constitution specifically prohibits repatriation of anyone subject to political persecution. Political asylum traditionally has been granted to exiled dissidents of various political orientations.

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

Costa Ricans choose their government through free, open, and competitive elections (by secret ballot) every 4 years. The integrity of elections is ensured by the independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and election results are respected. The Legislative Assembly can and does reject executive branch initiatives. Citizens can and do petition their elected representatives for legislative redress and assistance with government bureaucracies. Prior to the February 1994 elections, the ruling Social Christian Unity Party and the opposition National Liberation Party controlled 29 and 25 seats, respectively, in the 57-member Legislative Assembly. A leftist Coalition Party held one seat, and two independent provincial parties each held one seat.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in politics. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions in government and politics, but this has begun to change. There are two women cabinet ministers, three vice ministers and six members of the Legislative Assembly. Ten women candidates for national deputy have solid chances to win in the February 1994 elections, and a woman is assured election as vice president, since both major parties have female candidates.

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

A 1984 executive order created the Office of Ombudsman for Human Rights, now housed in the Ministry of Justice. The Ombudsman's office hears complaints from individuals about human rights abuses. As noted above, a similar office considers complaints within the penitentiary system. Three nongovernmental groups monitor and report on human rights in Costa Rica: 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. There are also several private groups dedicated to assisting refugees.

A new ombudsman's office, the Defender of the People, opened in October with a mandate to look into any perceived human rights abuses committed by public officials. The office will concentrate initially on administration of justice, public health, and medical administration (malpractice); however, the offices of the Ombudsmen for Children and Women are also in the process of being transferred to the new authority.

Costa Rica has traditionally been a strong supporter of multilateral and private human rights organizations. Both the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights maintain their headquarters in San Jose. The Government has invited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the country whenever it wishes.

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


The role of women, although still primarily domestic, is legally unrestricted. According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 30 percent of working-age women earn wages, as opposed to 79 percent of working-age men, although these figures probably underestimate the number of women in the work force due to the nature of their employment. The number of female professionals and technical workers is growing.

Women and men are generally paid equally for equal work. In 1990 the Legislative Assembly passed significant legislation designed to supplement existing laws against sex discrimination. The new law reinforces women's property rights, forbids employers from firing a woman for becoming pregnant or adopting children, and reaffirms the necessity for institutional safeguards to prevent and punish violence against women. Two relatively new government agencies, the Justice Ministry's Women's Defense Counsel and the Government Ministry's Women's Delegation, act as advisors and legal advocates for women who have suffered abuse, harassment, or discrimination. The White Cross Center, which reports to the Ministry of Public Security, was established in 1992 for the specific purpose of investigating and prosecuting crimes against women and providing temporary shelter for battered women. However, owing to a lack of personnel and funds, it has had little impact.

A recent government-sponsored survey indicated that 78 percent of 1,300 women interviewed reported having suffered abuse, either physical or mental, with 35 percent reporting frequent abuse. (The definition of "abuse" was not reported in the survey.) The increase in reported crimes against women may reflect increased attention to human rights, making it easier for women to file charges and take advantage of social services. Physical abuse of women, including domestic violence, is prosecuted and often results in stringent punishment. Still, many proponents of women's rights want an overhaul of the Penal Code to stiffen penalties and broaden the definition of rape. (Abuse of female minors, for example, is only considered aggravated assault.) There are a number of private organizations, including the Arias Foundation, that monitor abuse of women, provide counseling, and work to inform women of their legal rights.


The Government is committed to children's human rights and welfare within the constraints of a limited budget. Although spending has decreased somewhat in recent years due to continued economic strains, the Government has consistently spent over 4 percent of its gross domestic product on education and over 5 percent on medical care. This commitment to children has yielded a high rate of literacy and a low rate of infant mortality.

Children are not the victims of any systematic or organized discrimination or exploitation, but public awareness of crimes against children has grown. During the first 3 months of 1993, 625 new cases of the mistreatment or sexual abuse of children were reported, compared to 203 cases of child sexual abuse for all of 1990 (estimates are that two-thirds of all abuse is sexual). As with violence against women, it is difficult to determine whether the increasing number of cases is due to better reporting or reflects an actual increase in the number of such crimes. Legal proceedings against those who commit crimes against children are hampered by traditional family attitudes and the fact that such crimes are treated as misdemeanors.

Among the governmental programs that provide services and safeguard the rights of children are an integrated program for adolescent health, a national guardianship for infancy, and a program for abused children. Private organizations that provide assistance include the Arias Foundation and Paniamor.

Indigenous People

Costa Rica's population of 3.2 million includes some 24,000 indigenous people. Most live in traditional communities on 21 reserves which, in part because of their remote location, often lack access to schools, health care, electricity, and potable water. Although hampered by budgetary restraints, the Government is attempting to improve the quality of basic services in the indigenous areas. Indigenous people participate in the management of their own affairs through the National Indigenous Commission (CONAI), and indigenous leaders continue to urge the Government to devote more resources to helping their communities. A serious concern is the management and control of natural resources located within indigenous reserves.

Until quite recently, about 20 percent of indigenous people were undocumented and so lacked proof of citizenship. That problem has been all but eliminated by legislation that helped nearly 7,000 indigenous people obtain identification papers, allowing them to vote and making it easier for them to obtain credit. A number of cases were filed in 1993 with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights alleging discrimination against indigenous people. Most of these cases involved actions taken by CONAI rather than allegations of discrimination by individuals.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Costa Rica's 30,000 blacks, who reside largely on the Caribbean coast, enjoy full rights of citizenship, including the protection of laws against racial discrimination. The 1990-94 Legislative Assembly includes one black member. The Government treats all matters of racial discrimination as human rights issues; the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights received no complaints of racial discrimination in 1993.

People with Disabilities

Government funding for those with disabilities has been limited. Discrimination against those with disabilities is not prohibited by law, and there are no laws mandating access for such persons. Social services that exist function primarily as charities, with little emphasis on integration into the larger society. Both governmental and private agencies provide services, among which are the Costa Rican Foundation for the Blind, the National Council for Rehabilitation and Special Education, and the Costa Rican Federation for the Functionally Limited.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers are nominally free to join unions of their choosing without prior authorization, although barriers exist in practice. Approximately 15 percent of the work force is unionized. Unions are independent of government control and are generally free to form federations and confederations (three social democratic labor federations merged in 1991), and to affiliate internationally. However, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and other trade union organizations contend that trade unionism's right of association has been hurt by Costa Rica's "solidarismo" (solidarity) movement.

This movement espouses cooperation between employers and workers, offering workers such benefits as credit unions and savings plans in return for their renunciation of the right to strike and bargain collectively (although, in practice, solidarity associations have in the past acted as psuedo- collective bargaining agents). Solidarity associations are financed in part by employers and are allowed under Costa Rican law to offer a range of services and engage in profit-making activities, which unions are not permitted to do.

In November the Legislative Assembly approved a package of reforms to the Labor Code that addressed International Labor Organization (ILO) concerns based in part on activities of the solidarity movement. These reforms included: reducing the number of members necessary to form a trade union to equal that required to form a solidarity association; explicitly prohibiting the dismissal of workers who attempt to organize or join a union; and increasing fines and tightening enforcement against employers who violate the Labor Code. A separate reform proposal would include a fund ("cesantia") created to provide severance and retirement benefits, partially funded by employers but employees could designate the organization which would receive the funds. This would enable unions to compete directly with solidarity associations in a number of service activities. As of the end of the year, the severance pay reform had not been approved.

"Permanent workers' committees" made up of members of solidarity associations have entered into "direct agreements" with their employers, sometimes in order to stop attempts by an established union to negotiate a collective bargaining pact. In June 1991, the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association concluded a 2-year investigation and ruled that management's use of solidarity and the associations' involvement in trade union activities (such as collective bargaining) were violations of freedom of association. The 1993 package of labor code reforms included a provision explicitly prohibiting solidarity associations from participating in collective bargaining or direct agreements affecting labor.

Strikes and labor unrest increased somewhat but remained at a low level in 1993. There are no restrictions on the rights of private workers to strike, but the Labor Code contains clauses that employers have used to fire employees who try to organize or strike. Very few private sector workers are union members, and there were no notable private sector strikes in 1993. Costa Rican law restricts the right of public sector workers to strike, but two articles of the Penal Code that mandated tough punishment for striking government workers were repealed by the Legislative Assembly in June. The Government has indicated that it will present a new law to the Legislative Assembly that would guarantee organization and collective bargaining rights to all public sector workers and afford the right to strike to public workers who are not in "essential services" as defined by the ILO. Public sector labor disputes produced a scattering of demonstrations and brief strikes, notably one that occurred in late summer and caused minor disruptions in social services, particularly in classrooms due to the participation of teachers' unions.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The right to organize is protected by the Constitution. Specific provisions of the labor code reforms provide protection from dismissal for union organizers and members during the period of union formation. In a separate decision in October, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that Costa Rica's ratification of ILO Convention 135 in 1977 protects union leaders from being fired without cause. These two events greatly enhanced legal guarantees for workers seeking to organize. Previously, employers used a clause in the Labor Code, permitting employees to be discharged "at the will of the employer" provided the employee received severance pay, to fire labor organizers. Currently mandated severance pay equals 1 month's salary for every year worked, up to a total of 8 years. The payment of severance benefits to dismissed workers has often been circumvented in practice. 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.

Collective bargaining is allowed in the private sector but, due to the dearth of unions, is not a widespread practice. All labor regulations apply to the country's nine export processing zones (EPZ's). Labor Ministry oversight of labor regulations within the EPZ's is limited, however, by a lack of manpower and resources.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there are no known instances of either.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution provides special employment protection for women and minors and establishes the minimum working age at 12 years, with special regulations in force for workers under 15. A child welfare agency, in cooperation with the Labor Ministry, is responsible for enforcement. Enforcement in the formal sector is reasonably effective. Nonetheless, child labor appears to be an integral part of the large informal economy and there were scattered reports of children being employed in export industries. (These incidents appear to be isolated and do not represent an industry-wide pattern.)

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Constitution provides the right to a minimum wage. A National Wage Board, composed of three members each from government, business, and labor, sets minimum wage and salary levels for all sectors. The monthly minimum wage ranges from $111 (16,829 colones) for domestic servants to $540 (81,501 colones) for certain professionals. Pay can and does exceed the set amounts. The Board usually meets at the beginning and middle of each year. While violations sometimes occur, the wage and salary levels are generally respected. The minimum wage set in November was to take effect on January 1, 1994 for the private sector. Public sector negotiations, based on the private sector minimum wage, were still under way at year's end. Workers at the low end of the wage scale often find it difficult to maintain an acceptable standard of living, whether they have a family to support or not, and must spend an inordinate percentage of their pay on basic human needs such as food.

The Constitution sets the workday hours, remuneration for overtime, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. It requires compensation for discharge without due cause, although this provision is often circumvented in practice. Maximum work hours are 8 during the day and 6 at night, up to weekly totals of 48 and 36 hours, respectively. Ten-hour days are permitted for work not considered unhealthful or dangerous, but weekly totals may not exceed 48 hours. Nonagricultural workers receive an overtime premium of 50 percent of regular wages for work in excess of the daily work shift. Agricultural workers are not paid overtime, however, if they work beyond their normal hours voluntarily. There is little evidence that employers coerce such overtime from employees.

A 1967 law governs health and safety at the workplace. This law 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 required to set up such committees have followed the letter of the law, but often little effort is made to utilize the committees or turn them into effective instruments for improving the workplace. Workers have the right to leave work if conditions are dangerous. In practice, however, workers who leave the workplace may find their jobs in jeopardy unless they file a written complaint with the Labor Ministry. There are too few labor inspectors, especially outside the capital, to ensure that minimum conditions of safety and sanitation are maintained.

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