Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 November 2015, 08:46 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Uruguay

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Uruguay, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
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 is a constitutional republic with an elected president, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judicial branch. Former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti won a narrow victory on November 27, the third election following the end of the military government. He will replace President Luis Alberto Lacalle on March 1, 1995.

The Interior Ministry administers the country's police departments and the prison system and is responsible for domestic security and public safety matters. Elements of the police continue to be responsible for human rights abuses. The economy is a mixture of private enterprise and state entities and is heavily dependent on agricultural exports and agroindustry. Private property rights are respected. The economy grew by an estimated 4 percent in 1994; per capita gross domestic product was approximately $4,750.

The principal human rights problems continue to be police abuse and maltreatment of prisoners. After some improvement in 1993, prison conditions deteriorated, and the lack of professionalism in police ranks remains a problem. Levels of violence against women remain high, and neither police nor judicial authorities deal with it effectively. Societal discrimination against the small black minority is also a problem.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings.

In August, after a government decision to extradite three alleged members of the Spanish Basque terrorist group ETA, Uruguayan sympathizers demonstrated in support of the three's claim to asylum. When police tried to break up groups of demonstrators, violent clashes errupted. One demonstrator was killed, another 60 were injured; about 30 policemen were injured, 1 of them seriously. In spite of initial reports to the contrary, it appears that most of the gunshots came from the police. Leftist political groups and Amnesty International accused the police of using excessive force, and the Government assigned a judge to conduct a full investigation. The final report of the investigation is due to be released in February of 1995.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits brutal treatment of prisoners, but elements of the police continue to commit such abuses. Human rights monitors assert that many cases of abuse go unreported, hence the problem may be more serious than it appears. The judicial and parliamentary branches of government are responsible for investigating specific allegations of abuse. The authorities charged several police officers with mistreatment of prisoners or abuse of their office, including one case involving a disabled person who committed suicide in his jail cell. However, as progress on these cases is often slow or nonexistent, the courts seldom convicted and punished police for such abuse. Conditions in prisons and juvenile detention facilities remained poor, but not life-threatening. In March the Parliament's human rights committee reported that "lack of medical assistance, deficient nutrition, overcrowding, enforced idleness, mistreatment on the part of guards, alcohol, drugs, and corruption" made the country's largest prison "uninhabitable." In June the prisoners rioted and effectively destroyed the physical plant of the Libertad prison. The authorities transferred the 900 prisoners housed there to other facilities, which only worsened the already overcrowded conditions at the other prisons. Prison escapes, attempted escapes, physical deterioration of facilities, and other problems increased.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution requires the police to have a written warrant issued by a judge before they can make an arrest. The only exception is when the police apprehend a suspect 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. If the detainee cannot afford a lawyer, the courts appoint a public defender. The judicial process must begin within 48 hours; failure to comply has led to the release of accused persons. 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, or until the case is closed. The authorities generally respect these constitutional provisions in practice.

Forced exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, 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. The Government respects the independence of the judiciary.

The prosecutor or the complainant must open all criminal trials with a public statement of the charges. Trial proceedings were formerly based on written arguments, which were not normally made public, but the defense attorney had access to all documents that formed part of the written record. The legal process is now more open and transparent as a result of oral argument, introduced in 1990, and now increasingly used throughout the system. There is no legal provision against self-incrimination, and a judge may compel the defendant to answer any questions the judge poses. 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 are no political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the right to privacy. It states that the home is absolutely inviolable at night and may be entered and searched only with a judicial warrant and only during the day. It provides equally strong protection for private papers and correspondence, and requires a warrant for confiscation. The authorities generally respect these rights 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 press, but the authorities may abridge these rights if persons are deemed to be inciting violence or "insulting the nation" (see below).

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 interests 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. After the August demonstration in support of the alleged ETA members, the Government accused two radio stations of inciting the demonstrators to violence. The President revoked the license of a station operated by the Tupamaros--an active urban terrorist group during the 1960's which now functions as a legitimate political faction--and suspended the license of another station for 48 hours.

In October a court sentenced a businessman to 12 months in prison (suspended) after he blamed the failure of his business on the President of the country and called the President a "swindler and a thief."The national university is autonomous, and the authorities respect academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for freedom of assembly and association. Groups freely organize and express their opinions. The law requires permits for public marches and demonstrations; the Ministry of the Interior issues permits routinely, and demonstrations generally occur without official harassment or intimidation.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the authorities respect it in practice. Members of all religious groups exercise their faiths unhindered, and missionaries are free to proselytize.

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

There are no restrictions on internal and foreign travel or emigration. Uruguayans who left the country during the military regime and wish to return are encouraged to do so.

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 division may field its own slate of candidates in general elections.

In national elections, each party fields different lists of candidates; in essence, voters express a preference for a party and for a list of candidates rather than for an individual candidate. The winning list of the party that receives the most overall votes occupies the Presidency and a proportion of seats in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies corresponding to the percentage of votes that the party received. A party therefore may run multiple presidential candidates, each with his or her own slate of legislative candidates. In the November elections, the Broad Front chose to run only one presidential candidate. This candidate won more popular votes than any other candidate in history. He did not, however, win the presidency, since the Colorado Party's four candidates received more combined votes.

Blacks and women face de facto impediments to participation in politics and employment in government. In the outgoing Government, 6 women held seats in the 99-member Parliament; there were no female senators or governors; and only 1 woman headed a public entity. There was one female vice presidential candidate in the 1994 elections, but her candidacy ended when her presidential running mate withdrew before the election. The three women elected to the Senate in 1994 were the first directly-elected females in the upper house (others have served as substitutes). Voters elected another seven women to the lower house of Parliament.

About 50 percent of Uruguay's judges are women, but they tend to be assigned to family and civil courts. There are no women on the Supreme Court; women hold only 17 percent of the positions on the second highest court. A few women are found at high levels of the Uruguayan private and public sectors. The Socialist Party requires that one-third of its candidates be women. Women are prominent in many government offices at the middle levels, but they remain largely marginalized from mainstream politics and underrepresented in the highest government and political party offices.

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

Local human rights groups have functioned freely and without restriction since the end of military rule in 1985. The Government has responded to U.N. Human Rights Commission inquiries concerning the military regime period and is open to inquiries from, and does not restrict the activities of, domestic and international human rights monitors.

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, language, or social status. Despite these provisions, de facto discrimination based upon sex and race exists.


Women enjoy equality under the law but face a number of forms of discrimination stemming from traditional attitudes and practices. Studies show that the work force remains segregated by gender and race. Women make up almost one-half the work force but tend to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. They make up half the students entering universities and often pursue professional careers but are underrepresented in traditionally male professions.

Violence against women continues to be a severe problem; nongovernmental organizations estimate that the actual number of cases is probably 10 times the total reported to police. In 1988 the Interior Ministry created a Women's Division in the police force concerned exclusively with crimes against women. Some women's organizations complain that even these special police are untrained and lack sensitivity to the problems of battered women, and that a woman's ability to make and sustain a complaint often depends on the attitude of the judge.

One private shelter for battered women operates in Montevideo. The Government began work on a shelter in 1992, but it has not yet opened. Private women's rights groups offer counseling services, and the Montevideo municipality operates a 24-hour hot line for victims of domestic violence. In August the Education and Culture Minister and the Interior Minister agreed to institute a national program for prevention and treatment of domestic violence, to be administered by the National Institute of Women and the police.


Although the Government is committed to protecting the rights and welfare of children, there continue to be some reports of police abuse of detained minors. Government action to deal with these reports is slow or nonexistent. Approximately 20 percent of the national budget was designated for pre-university education in 1994; in November voters rejected a constitutional referendum requiring that at least 27 percent of the national budget be earmarked for all types of education.

A local human rights group estimates that there are approximately 1,400 street children in Montevideo. There are another 70 in the city's juvenile institutions. Early in the year, a judge ordered the closure of Miguelete, the largest male detention center, because of its harsh conditions. The detainees, ranging in age from 14 to 18, were transferred to another facility; they later rioted and destroyed that center. The Government then moved all 53 detainees back to Miguelete, where they remained at the end of the year. The authorities filed charges of mistreatment against two of Miguelete's directors after the riot, but subsequently dropped them, and the accused returned to their duties. Miguelete has no educational, rehabilitation, or recreation facilities. Thirty-two female detainees were housed in another facility, which does have educational and recreation facilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The country's black minority, approximately 6 percent of the population, or 180,000 people, enjoys equality under the law but faces societal 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. Most citizens do not recognize that discrimination against minorities is a problem, and the Government has not taken action to deal with this problem.

People with Disabilities

The legislature passed a law covering the rights of the disabled in 1989, but the Government has not 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, i.e., it does not stipulate specific remedial measures or sanctions for not complying with these measures. The law requires that 4 percent of public sector jobs be reserved for the disabled.

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 a complete lack of regulation of union activities. Unions traditionally organize and operate free of 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 also provides workers with the right to strike, and there was significant strike activity during the year. The Government may legally compel workers to work during a strike if their work is considered an essential service. An essential service is defined as one whose interruption "could cause a grave prejudice or risk, provoking suffering to part or all of the society."There are no restrictions on a union's right to form confederations or affiliate with international trade union bodies, but the only union confederation is by choice not officially affiliated 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 determines most private sector salaries. The executive branch, acting independently or through tripartite salary councils it convokes, determines public sector salaries. In December 1993, the Ministry of Labor and the public service unions signed an agreement indexing salary increases to inflation which covers most public service employees until March 1995; this resulted in less strike activity in the public sector.

There are no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination; however, a 1993 executive decree established fines for employees 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 impose indemnization higher than the normal payment for dismissed workers.

While no institutionalized mechanism exists for resolving workers' complaints against employers, the law generally prohibits discrimination by employers, including arbitrary dismissals for union activity. The International Labor Organization (ILO), in a 1992 decision, noted the lack of statutory provisions in this area, and said that the current system of protection against antiunion practices does not infringe ILO Convention 98 on the right to organize and bargain collectively, but "could be improved in so far as accelerating the procedure."All labor legislation fully covers workers employed in Uruguay's five special export zones. There are no unions in any of these zones, but there are as yet 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; violations are punishable by fines of up to $500. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the code, 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; they are generally less strictly regulated and receive lower pay.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A legislated minimum monthly wage, adjusted and enforced by the Ministry of Labor, is in effect. The minimum wage is adjusted whenever public sector wages are adjusted, usually once every 4 months. The minimum wage was about $84 (475 pesos) per month at the end of the year. It functions more as an index for calculating wage rates than as a true measure of minimum subsistence levels, and does 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 that workers are entitled 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. Some labor regulations cover urban industrial workers more adequately than rural and agricultural workers. After several serious accidents and work stoppages to protest the lack of safety standards in the construction industry, the Ministry initiated a public service campaign, with newspaper and television announcements, urging better workplace safety practices.

Search Refworld