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

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 - Uruguay, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa2d4.html [accessed 18 September 2014]
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.
URUGUAY

 

Uruguay is a constitutional republic with an elected president, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judicial branch. In November 1994 former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti won a narrow election victory. He began his 5-year term in March.

The Interior Ministry administers the country's police departments and the prison system and is responsible for domestic security and public safety. The principal human rights problems continued to be police abuse and mistreatment of prisoners.

The economy comprises a mixture of private enterprises and state entities and is heavily dependent on agricultural exports and agroindustry. Private property rights are respected. The economy grew by an estimated 1 percent in 1995; annual per capita gross domestic product was approximately $5,600.

Prison conditions remain poor, and professionalism in police ranks remained weak. Court cases often take many years, and failure to adjudicate cases expeditiously contributed to human rights problems in several areas. A Public Security Law passed in July addressed a number of these issues. Implementation of the law, however, could face institutional delays. Discrimination against women continued, and no steps were taken to address the discrimination faced by the black minority.

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.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits brutal treatment of prisoners, but police and prison guards continue to commit such abuses. The judicial and parliamentary branches of government are responsible for investigating specific allegations of abuse. However, law enforcement officials are seldom convicted and punished for such abuse. In August 1994, 1 person was killed and approximately 100 injured (3 seriously) when a demonstration turned into a riot. The investigation of police misconduct during this incident is still underway; in May four police officials were charged with failure to exercise proper responsibility. These policemen remain on active duty while the investigation continues. The 1994 case of a mentally disabled person who committed suicide after police abuse remains unresolved.

Police officers have been charged in other instances. In one week in January, eight police officers were charged for various crimes. Figures released in October by the Interior Ministry show that a large number of police officers currently on active duty have been charged with crimes. Other officials charged with crimes also continue to perform their duties while their cases are pending before the slow-moving judicial system. The new Law on Public Security calls for improved police training and requires that police officers be instructed and directed in their conduct in accordance with United Nations codes regarding the use of force.

Conditions in prisons and juvenile detention facilities remain poor but not life threatening. As part of the new Law on Public Security, a commission was formed in September to study prison conditions and update legislation on penal institutions to bring them into compliance with international standards. The commission will also propose improvements in work, vocational training, and rehabilitation of prisoners. The Government permits visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution requires the police to have a written warrant issued by a judge before making an arrest. The only exception is when the accused is apprehended during commission of a crime. The Constitution also provides the accused with the right to a judicial determination of the legality of detention and requires that the detaining authority explain the legal grounds for the detention. Police may hold a detainee incommunicado for 24 hours before presenting the case to a judge, at which time the detainee has the right to counsel. It is during this 24-hour period that abuse of prisoners sometimes takes place, often resulting in forced confessions.

If the detainee cannot afford a lawyer, the courts appoint a public defender. If the crime carries a penalty of at least 2 years in prison, the accused person is confined during the judge's investigation of the charges unless the authorities agree to release the person on bail. Approximately 85 percent of all persons currently incarcerated are awaiting a final decision in their case. Because of the slowness of the judicial process, the length of time prisoners spend in jail before being sentenced may exceed the maximum sentence for their crime. Human rights groups claim that the uncertainty as to how long one will be imprisoned is a factor in the tense situation that exists in the country's prisons.

The Government does not use forced exile as a means of punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The judiciary is headed by a Supreme Court which supervises the work of the lower courts. There is a parallel military court system that operates under a military justice code. Two military justices sit on the Supreme Court but participate only in cases involving the military. Military justice applies to civilians only during a state of war or insurrection.

Trial proceedings are usually based on written arguments to the judge, which are not routinely made public. Only the prosecutor and defense attorney have access to all documents that form part of the written record. Oral argument was introduced in 1990, but is only used at the option of individual judges. Most judges have chosen to retain the written method, which is a major factor in the slowness of the judicial process. There is no legal provision against self- incrimination, and judges may compel defendants to answer any questions they pose. The defense attorney or prosecutor may appeal convictions to a higher court, which may acquit the person of the crime, confirm the conviction, or reduce or increase the sentence.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the right to privacy, and the Government generally respects constitutional provisions and safeguards in practice.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but the authorities may abridge these rights if persons are deemed to be inciting violence or "insulting the nation."

All elements of the political spectrum freely express their viewpoints in both the print and broadcast media. Montevideo alone has 8 daily newspapers and 6 important weeklies; there are also approximately 100 weekly and a few daily newspapers throughout the country. Montevideo has one government- affiliated and three commercial television stations. There are about 110 radio stations and 20 television stations in the country.

A 1989 law stipulates that expression and communication of thoughts and opinions are free, within the limits contained in the Constitution and the law, and outlines methods of responding to "inexact or aggravating information." The law calls for 3 months' to 2 years' imprisonment for "knowingly divulging false news that causes a grave disturbance to the public peace or a grave prejudice to economic interest of the State" or for "insulting the nation, the State, or their powers." The authorities use this law intermittently to set and enforce certain limits on freedom of the press.

A radio station that was closed by government decree after an August 1994 riot remains closed, but specific charges have not yet been brought against the station or its owners.

The national university is autonomous, and the authorities generally respect academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law 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.

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. The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

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

Citizens have the right and ability peacefully to change their government. Uruguay is a multiparty democracy with mandatory universal suffrage for those 18 years of age or older and no restrictions regarding race, sex, religion, or economic status. The Colorado Party, the National (Blanco) Party, and the Broad Front coalition are the three major political groupings. Each allows ideological divisions within the party, and each such grouping may field its own slate of candidates in general elections. A party therefore may run multiple presidential candidates, each with his or her own slate of legislative candidates. In essence, voters express a preference for a party slate or list of candidates rather than for a single standard-bearer. The party that receives the most overall votes fills the presidency, and seats in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies are apportioned according to the percentage of votes that a party receives.

Women and blacks face de facto impediments to their participation in politics and their employment in government. Only 1 of the 12 cabinet ministers is a woman. The Legislature which was installed in February has two female senators (the first since 1973) and six female deputies. The small black minority is not represented in the Cabinet or legislature.

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

A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

The Constitution and the law prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or disability. Despite these provisions, de facto discrimination exists.

Women

Women enjoy equality under the law but face discrimination stemming from traditional attitudes and practices.

Violence against women continues to be a serious problem. In 1995 the number of reported cases of family violence doubled, reflecting increased public awareness resulting from private organizations focusing attention on the problem. A woman's ability to file and sustain a complaint often depends on the attitude of the judge. Police and judges lack special training to deal with crimes against women.

The new Public Security Law provides for sentences from 6 months to 2 years in prison for a person found guilty of committing an act of violence or of making continuing threats to cause bodily injury to persons related emotionally or legally to the perpetrator.

The work force remains segregated by gender; women, who make up almost one-half the work force, tend to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. One-half the students entering universities are women, and they often pursue professional careers but are underrepresented in traditionally male professions.

Children

The Government is generally committed to protecting children's rights and welfare, and there are no patterns of societal abuse. The Government has made educational reform a high priority although it has not yet developed legislation to implement its objectives. An Institute in the Ministry of Interior oversees implementation of the Government's programs for children. However, limited funding is provided for children's programs, and many of the Institute's personnel are not trained to deal with the problems of minors. Miguelette, the country's largest and most problematic detention facility for minors, is currently being used almost exclusively for processing; there are few minors housed there on a permanent basis.

The most controversial provision of the new Public Security Law would allow minors with a record of violent crimes to be housed in adult prisons. Human rights groups adamantly oppose this provision, even though the law stipulates that minors would be housed in separate facilities within the prisons.

People With Disabilities

The legislature passed a law covering the rights of the disabled in 1989, but the Government has not yet implemented it. It does not mandate accessibility to existing buildings or public services for people with disabilities; new public buildings will be required to have such access. The law is mostly declarative and fails to stipulate specific remedial provisions or sanctions for not complying with its measures. The law requires that 4 percent of public sector jobs be reserved for the disabled.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The country's black minority, approximately 6 percent of the population, continues to face discrimination. A 1993 report put the number of black university graduates at 65, and black professionals at fewer than 50. Blacks are practically unrepresented in the bureaucratic, political, and academic sectors of society. They lack the educational opportunities and social and political connections necessary for entry into these groups. In a February public opinion poll, more than three-quarters of the persons interviewed admitted that racial prejudice exists, and two-thirds of them named blacks as the group which faces the most discrimination. While discrimination against blacks is not official, the Government has not taken effective steps to deal with this problem.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution states that laws should promote the organization of trade unions and the creation of arbitration bodies. In spite of this provision, there is almost no legislation concerning union activities. Unions traditionally organize and operate freely without government regulation. Civil servants, employees of state-run enterprises, and private enterprise workers may join unions. An estimated 12 percent of the work force is unionized. Labor unions are independent of political party control but have traditionally been more closely associated with the Broad Front, the leftist political coalition.

The Constitution provides workers with the right to strike, and there were several strikes during the year. The Government may legally compel workers to work during a strike if they perform an essential service whose interruption "could cause a grave prejudice or risk, provoking suffering to part or all of the society."

While no institutionalized mechanism exists for resolving workers' complaints against employers, the law generally prohibits discriminatory acts by employers, including arbitrary dismissals for union activity. There are no restrictions on the right of unions to form confederations or affiliate with international trade union groups. However, the one national confederation has chosen not to affiliate officially with any of the world federations. Some individual unions are affiliated with international trade secretariats.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining between companies and their unions determine most private sector salaries. The executive branch, acting independently or through tripartite salary councils, determines public sector salaries.

There are no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination; however, a 1993 executive decree established fines for employers engaging in antiunion activities. The law does not require employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. However, in cases of legal challenges by union activists, courts tend to set indemnization levels that are higher than the normal payment for dismissed workers.

Union members' claims of discrimination increased during the year. The Ministry of Labor reported that it had handled 19 cases. In some of the cases, employers agreed to reinstate workers; other cases remained unresolved at year's end.

All labor legislation fully covers workers employed in special export zones. There are no unions in any of these zones, but there are relatively few workers in traditionally organizable occupations.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there is no evidence of its existence.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Child Labor Code protects children; the Ministry of Labor and Social Security is responsible for enforcing the laws and illegal child labor is not a problem. The law generally does not permit children under 15 years of age to work, but 12-year-olds may be employed if they have a special permit. Children under the age of 18 may not perform dangerous, fatiguing, or night work. Controls over salaries and hours for children are more strict than those for adults. Children over the age of 16 may sue in court for payment of wages, and children have the legal right to dispose of their own income. However, many children work as street vendors in the expanding informal sector or in the agrarian sector, which are generally less strictly regulated and where pay is lower.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A legislated minimum monthly wage is in effect in both the public and private sectors, and is effectively enforced by the Ministry of Labor. The minimum wage is adjusted whenever public sector wages are adjusted, usually once every 4 months. The minimum wage, which was about $95 (625 pesos) per month, functions more as an index for calculating wage rates than as a true measure of minimum subsistence levels, and it would not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.

The standard workweek is 48 hours in industry and 44 hours in commerce, with a 36-hour break each week. The law stipulates that industrial workers receive overtime compensation for work in excess of 48 hours and establishes their right to 20 days of paid vacation after a year of employment.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforces legislation regulating health and safety conditions in a generally effective manner. However, some of the regulations cover urban industrial workers more adequately than rural and agricultural workers. Workers have the right to remove themselves from what they consider hazardous or dangerous conditions.

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