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

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 - Uruguay, 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.

Uruguay is a constitutional republic governed by an elected President and a bicameral legislature with an independent judicial branch. Its longstanding democratic tradition was interrupted by 12 years of military rule from 1973 to 1985. On March 1, 1990, following a free and fair election in November 1989, power was transferred from one elected civilian president to another for the first time since the return to constitutional government in 1985. Political parties, the press, labor unions, private interest groups, and other nongovernmental groups function freely, and political debate is vigorous and unrestricted.

The small military establishment, consisting of an army, an air force, and a navy, is under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense. The military does not participate in domestic security matters unless ordered to do so by the civilian authorities. Domestic security and public safety matters are under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, which administers all the country's police departments. The police were again responsible for physical abuse of detainees in 1993.

A middle income country with a per-capita gross domestic product of $3,900 in 1993, Uruguay's economy is heavily dependent on agricultural exports and agroindustry. The economy grew by 7.9 percent in 1992 and was projected to grow by 4 to 5 percent in 1993. The economy is a mixture of private enterprise and state entities; private property rights are respected. The current administration attempted to carry out a program of modernization and reform of the economy in order to improve its competitiveness in world markets. Privatization, a key element of the program, was set back when a proposal to privatize the telephone company was roundly defeated in a referendum in December 1992.

Uruguayans enjoy a broad range of individual rights and liberties. However, reports of police abuse of detainees persist, and few – if any – police have been convicted and punished for such abuse. Prison conditions remain generally poor, but some improvements were made in the country's largest prison. Increased attention to the issue has publicized the high level of violence against women. The small Afro-Uruguayan community faces social, economic, and cultural impediments to advancement.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

No cases of politically motivated killing were reported.

b. Disappearance

No known or reported incidents of politically motivated abductions or disappearances occurred in 1993.

The 1986 Expiry Law, which was endorsed by a general referendum in 1989, blocks investigations into killings, torture, and disappearances which occurred during the military regime. In March the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, found this law incompatible with treaty obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights. The Uruguayan Government strongly disputed the report, and there is very little will among politicians or the general public to reopen this subject.

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

The Constitution prohibits brutal treatment of prisoners. However, there were reports of physical abuse of detainees by police. Physical abuse is most often alleged in the hours immediately following an arrest. Minors are thought to be particularly vulnerable to abuse.

In March, after having confessed to 14 robberies, a detainee was taken before a Montevideo judge for processing. He retracted his confession and charged that the police had tortured him with an electrical device. The judge ordered an immediate search of the police station, and the device was found. Four policemen were charged with personal injury and suspended from their jobs. The internal investigation was still in progress at year's end.

In 1992 the Interior Ministry established an internal section responsible for monitoring police conduct. The judicial and parliamentary branches of government also investigate specific allegations of abuse. Nonetheless, human rights monitors insist that many cases of abuse go unreported and that police are seldom convicted and punished for such abuse.

Conditions in prisons and juvenile detention facilities generally remained poor. Complaints commonly voiced by government and independent human rights investigators included delapidated buildings and equipment, poor sanitary conditions, inadequately staffed and equipped on-site clinics, and a lack of training, educational, and recreational opportunities. A shortage of resources and to some extent poor prison administration hamper improvement. One local group that monitors prison conditions cited some improvement in the country's largest prison but said that conditions in prisons outside the capital remain poor.

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 accused is apprehended during commission of a crime. The Constitution also guarantees the accused the right to a judicial determination of the legality of detention and requires that the detaining authority explain the legal grounds for the detention. A detainee may be held incommunicado by the police for 24 hours before being presented to a judge, at which time he or she has the right to counsel. If the detainee cannot afford a lawyer, a public defender is appointed. 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. These constitutional provisions are generally respected in practice.

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 is applied to civilians only during a state of war or insurrection. The independence of the judiciary is well respected in practice.

All criminal trials must open with a public statement of the charge by the prosecutor or the complainant. 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. Oral argument, introduced in 1990 and now increasingly used in the Uruguayan system, has resulted in a more open and transparent legal process. Under Uruguayan law, there is no provision against self-incrimination, and the defendant may be compelled to answer any questions posed by the judge. All convictions may be appealed by the defense attorney or prosecutor to a higher court which may acquit the person of the crime, confirm the conviction, or reduce or increase the sentence.

Uruguay has no political prisoners and does not punish political activity.

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

The Constitution protects the right to privacy. It states that the home, absolutely inviolable at night, may be entered and searched only with a judicial warrant during the day. Protection for private papers and correspondence is equally strong, and a warrant is required for confiscation. These rights and safeguards are generally respected in practice. In August, however, the Minister of Defense resigned after some of his subordinates were placed under house arrest for electronic eavesdropping without his authorization. The subordinates were purportedly trying to discover who was responsible for a series of 1992 bombings, allegedly carried out by a radical faction within the armed forces.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press. All elements of the political spectrum freely express their viewpoints in both the print and broadcast media. Montevideo has 8 daily newspapers and 6 important weeklies; there are approximately 100 weekly and a few daily newspapers elsewhere.

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 entirely free, within the limits contained in the Constitution and the law, and outlines methods of responding to "inexact or aggravating information." The same law calls for from 3 months to 2 years of 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."

In June this law was used to prosecute three reporters for slandering the President; they were sentenced to 6 months' probation. In November a retired general was sentenced to 8 months' probation after a newspaper published his "open letter to the President" criticizing cuts in military retirement pay. This law, and its intermittent application, serve as notice that there are certain limits on freedom of expression and that the limits will be enforced.

The National University is autonomous, and academic freedom is generally respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law protects freedom of assembly and association.

Formerly banned groups, such as the Tupamaros (a terrorist movement active in the 1960's and early 1970's), freely organize and express their opinions. Public marches and demonstrations are allowed with permits from the Ministry of the Interior and occur without official harassment or intimidation.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion, provided for by the Constitution, is respected in practice. Most Uruguayans who practice a religion are Roman Catholic. Members of other religious groups exercise their faiths unhindered, and missionaries are free to proselytize. Uruguayans who profess agnosticism or atheism express their views freely.

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

Internal and foreign travel and emigration are unrestricted. Uruguayans who left the country during the military regime and wish to return are encouraged to do so. All of the prominent political figures exiled by the military regime have returned.

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

Uruguayan 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. Voting is not restricted by race, sex, religion, or economic status. The Colorado party, the National (Blanco) party, the Broad Front coalition, and the New Space coalition are the four major political groupings. Each allows ideological divisions within the party, and each such division may field its own slate of candidates in general elections. The electoral system combines a primary and a general election in a double simultaneous vote. 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 votes wins the presidency and a proportion of seats in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies corresponding to the percentage of votes that the party as a whole received. A party therefore may run multiple presidential candidates, each with his or her own slate of legislative candidates. National and provincial elections are held simultaneously every 5 years. Blacks and women face de facto impediments to participation in politics and employment in government (see Section 5).

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

Local human rights groups, some of which could not operate openly under military rule, now function freely and without restriction. A prominent local human rights group, Service for Peace and Justice (SERPAJ), was legalized in early 1985 after operating underground for 2 years during the military regime. Another group, the Legal and Social Institute of Uruguay, consists of lawyers and social workers who focus on juridical aspects of human rights cases. Both groups began by investigating killing, torture, and disappearances that occurred during the military regime. They now investigate and report on many other aspects of human rights, including police abuse, prison conditions, and rights of women and children.

The Government is open to inquiries from such organizations and does not restrict the activities of human rights investigators.

The Government has also fully complied with U.N. Human Rights Commission inquiries dating from the military regime period and is a strong supporter of, and participant in, human rights activities in international forums such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

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

Discrimination based on race, sex, religion, language, or social status is prohibited by the Constitution and by law. A law passed in 1989 prohibits discrimination against the disabled. Despite these prohibitions, discrimination based upon sex and race exist.


Uruguayan women enjoy equality under the law but face a number of forms of discrimination stemming from traditional attitudes and practices. Recent surveys show that the work force remains segregated by gender and race. Women make up about a third of the work force but tend to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. They attend the National University in large numbers and often pursue professional careers. About 50 percent of Uruguay's judges are women, but women are underrepresented in other professions such as engineering or architecture. Women are also found at the highest levels of the Uruguayan private or public sectors, but they remain largely marginalized from mainstream politics and underrepresented in most important government and political party offices. Conscious of these problems, the Government established the National Institute for Women to collect data on women's issues and to address these issues more effectively.

Uruguayan society is increasingly sensitive to the question of violence against women. Each year, the police process about 1,700 domestic violence cases (including violence against children). Nongovernmental organizations estimate, however, that the actual number of cases is probably 10 times that figure. Rape statistics have increased sharply, possibly because victims are more willing to report the crime. The Interior Ministry has a women's division in the police force concerned exclusively with crimes against women and minors. The Penal Code mandates prison sentences from 3 months to 3 years for the crime of "private violence." Many women are unable to make and sustain complaints under this law, however, especially when they continue to reside with their partners. Two private shelters for battered women have been opened in Montevideo. Some private women's rights groups offer counseling services, and the Montevideo municipality operates a 24-hour hot line for victims of domestic violence.


The Government is committed to protecting the rights and welfare of children. There are no patterns of government abuse, although there continue to be some reports of police abuse of detained minors. In 1992 approximately 10.5 percent of the national budget was designated for preuniversity education; another 1.8 percent was allocated to the National Institute for Minors, which has responsibility for most other programs concerning the welfare of minors. A local human rights group estimates that there are approximately 1,000 street children in Montevideo. There are another 100 in juvenile institutions. These institutions offer very little in the way of education, rehabilitation, or training. An estimated 60 percent of adult prisoners have formerly passed through the juvenile justice system.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Approximately 6 percent of Uruguay's population, or 180,000 people, belong to the country's black minority. Blacks are underrepresented among elite groups, particularly the bureaucratic, political, and academic sectors of society. One report put the number of black university graduates at 65 and black professionals at fewer than 50. They lack the educational opportunities and social and political connections necessary for entry into these groups. Black leaders say that 75 percent of employed black women work as maids. Most citizens do not believe that discrimination against minorities is a problem in Uruguay, and the Government has not addressed this issue.

People with Disabilities

There are approximately 250,000 persons with disabilities in Uruguay. A law covering the rights of the disabled was passed in 1989 but had not been implemented by the end of 1993. The law is mostly declarative, i.e., it does not stipulate specific remedial measures or sanctions for not complying with these measures. There is legislation requiring that 4 percent of public sector jobs be reserved for the disabled. However, only the municipality of Montevideo has made efforts to comply with this law.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution guarantees the right of workers to organize freely and encourages the formation of trade unions. Civil servants and employees of state-run enterprises, as well as private enterprise workers, may join unions. An estimated 17 percent of the work force is unionized. Labor unions are independent of government and political party control.

Uruguayan workers, including some civil servants, have the right to strike. Parliament did not approve proposed legislation that would have required workers to vote by secret ballot on whether to strike. The Labor Ministry office which assists in mediating collective and individual labor disputes is increasingly attempting to stay out of private sector negotiations; members of the Parliament's labor commissions occasionally mediate labor disputes on an ad hoc basis.

There was significant strike activity in 1993, including one in the construction industry which lasted almost 3 months. 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." While no institutionalized mechanism exists for resolving complaints against employers, discrimination by employers, including arbitrary dismissals for union activity, generally is prohibited. In 1992 rubber workers' unions and the Inter-Union Workers Assembly-National Workers Association (PIT-CNT) filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) alleging that the Government had not investigated the dismissal of trade union officials following a strike. In May 1993, after examining the complaint and the Government's response, the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association concluded that the case did not merit further consideration. Its conclusion noted Uruguay's lack of statutory provisions in this area and said that, while the current system of protection against antiunion practices "does not infringe ILO Convention No. 98," it "could be improved in so far as accelerating the procedure."

There are no restrictions on a union's right to affiliate with international trade union bodies. The largest trade union confederation, the PIT-CNT, is by choice not officially affiliated with any of the three world federations. Many individual unions are affiliated with international trade secretariats.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining ceased during military rule. From the return of civilian rule until March 1992, industrial contracts were negotiated on a sector-wide rather than a plant-by-plant basis, under the auspices of a salary council, a tripartite organization composed of representatives from government, labor, and management. The government representatives played an active role in mediating these negotiations in some sectors; in others, they functioned more as observers. Since March 1992, contracts may be negotiated on a plant-wide or a sector-wide basis, with or without government mediation, as the parties wish. Union leaders believe that the government presence ensures contracts will be fulfilled and generally object to reducing it in contract negotiations.

Workers employed in Uruguay's five special export zones are fully covered by all labor legislation. 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

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law, and there is no evidence of its existence.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Children are protected by a Child Labor Code, violations of which are punishable by fines of up to $500. Children as young as 12 may be employed if they have a special government work permit. Children under the age of 18 may not perform dangerous, fatiguing, or night work, apart from domestic employment. Salaries and hours for children are controlled more strictly 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. Children working in the expanding informal sector as street vendors or others with no fixed place of work or in the agrarian sector are generally less strictly regulated and receive lower pay.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A legislated minimum monthly wage is in effect in both the public and private sectors and appears to be effectively enforced. The minimum wage is adjusted whenever public sector wages are adjusted, usually once every 4 months. The minimum wage as of September 1 was $86 (365 pesos). It functions more as an index for calculating wage rates than as a true measure of minimum subsistence levels and would not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.

The standard workweek is 48 hours for a 6-day week. The Basic Labor Law stipulates 48-hour weeks for industrial workers and 44-hour weeks for industrial office workers and commercial personnel, with a 36-hour break each week. This law is generally adhered to and adequately enforced. Industrial workers receive overtime compensation for work in excess of 48 hours. Workers are entitled to 20 days of paid vacation after a year of employment.

Workers are protected by legislation regulating health and safety conditions; it is enforced by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in a generally effective manner. Some labor regulations cover urban, industrial workers more adequately than rural and agricultural workers.

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