Last Updated: Monday, 28 July 2014, 16:37 GMT

2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Uruguay

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 25 February 2009
Cite as United States Department of State, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Uruguay, 25 February 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49a8f142c.html [accessed 29 July 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.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2009

The Oriental Republic of Uruguay, with a population of approximately 3.4 million, is a constitutional republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. In October 2004, in free and fair multiparty elections, Tabare Vazquez, leader of the Broad Front or Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, won a five year presidential term and a majority in parliament. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

The government generally respected the rights of its citizens. Prison conditions continued to be poor. Instances of violence against women and discrimination against some societal groups continued to challenge government policies of nondiscrimination. Some trafficking in persons occurred.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

The government continued to investigate the serious human rights violations committed during the 1973-85 military dictatorship.

In August the Office of the Prosecutor requested an extended sentence for imprisoned former foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco based on new charges regarding his alleged complicity in the forced disappearance of teacher Elena Quinteros, kidnapped by military forces from the compound of the Venezuelan Embassy in Montevideo in 1976. The case remained pending at year's end.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated or other disappearances.

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

The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions continued to be poor as aging facilities were not adequately maintained. Overcrowding continued to be a problem. The total prisoner population as of June 30 exceeded capacity by 973 prisoners, reaching a density of 128 percent of capacity. Overcrowding and understaffing resulted in sanitation, social and health problems. Authorities made some improvements to prisons, such as repairing sewage systems and installing additional trash receptacles. Authorities began construction of a new prison with the capacity to hold 312 prisoners.

Despite an increased budget for provisions, prisoners depended on visitors for enough food to reach the daily minimum caloric intake. Access to medical and dental care, recreation, and training was poor. Authorities installed additional medical and exercise facilities in several prisons, including Libertad and Comcar and prisons in the provinces of Salto, Paysandu, and Colonia. A 2008 Honorary Anti-Tuberculosis Commission report estimated that 35 percent of the prisoner population had tuberculosis. A high percentage of prisoners reportedly used drugs, which exacerbated prison violence and health problems.

Prisoner-on-prisoner violence continued to be a problem, partially due to the lack of a separate, high-security prison for violent criminals. Ministry of Interior officials created a Prison Violence Monitoring Board to evaluate prison violence nationwide.

Ministry officials stated that there were no complaints of police abuse in prisons during the year. However, on October 10, a detainee died from strangulation at a police station within hours of his arrest. At year's end authorities were prosecuting five police officers for their alleged involvement.

Female and male prisoners were held in separate facilities. In general, conditions for female prisoners were significantly better than those for male prisoners. During the year approximately 17 children lived in prison facilities with their inmate mothers.

The Uruguayan Institute for Adolescents and Children (INAU) operated institutions to hold minor detainees. Juveniles who committed serious crimes were incarcerated in juvenile detention centers, which resembled traditional jails and had cells. Conditions in some of these facilities were similar to adult versions. Judges placed most juvenile offenders in halfway houses that focused on rehabilitation. These facilities provided educational, vocational, and other opportunities, and residents were permitted to enter and leave without restriction.

Pretrial detainees were held together with convicted prisoners.

A Prison System Ombudsman elected by the General Assembly is responsible for monitoring and reporting on prison conditions in the 27 detention centers around the country. The Office of the Ombudsman completed 118 prison visits during the year. The Ministry of Interior made efforts to remedy shortcomings highlighted in the Office of the Ombudsman's 2007 report on prison conditions. The ministry began repair and construction of 2,266 spaces for prisoners, and the government granted a 130 percent budget increase for the Prisoner Release Protection Board to support the reintegration of prisoners into society and the workforce.

The government permitted general prison visits by independent human rights observers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), religious congregations, and foreign diplomats, and such visits occurred during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions in practice. The law requires police to have a written warrant issued by a judge before making an arrest (except when police apprehend the accused during commission of a crime), and authorities generally respected this provision in practice.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the National Police, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. In July the government passed a law including rules and guidelines for police procedures respecting human rights. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.

Arrest and Detention

The law provides detainees with the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of detention, which was not always respected, 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. The law stipulates that confessions obtained by the police prior to a detainee's appearance before a judge and attorney (without the police present) are not valid. A judge must investigate any detainee's claim of mistreatment.

For a detainee who cannot afford a lawyer, the court appoints a public defender. Judges rarely granted bail for persons accused of crimes punishable by at least two years in prison. Most persons facing lesser charges were not jailed. According to an Amnesty International 2008 report, between 60 and 65 percent of all persons incarcerated were awaiting final decisions in their cases. Some detainees spend years in jail awaiting trial, and the uncertainty and length of detention contributed to tensions in the prisons. Detainees were allowed prompt access to family members.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence in practice.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Juries are not used; trial proceedings usually consist of written arguments to the judge, which normally are not made public. Only the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney have access to all documents that form part of the written record. There was some difficulty in maintaining confidentiality between client and attorney. Individual judges may hear oral arguments at their option, but most judges choose the written method, a major factor slowing the judicial process. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. Criminal trials are held in a court of first instance. Defendants have a right of appeal. The law extends these rights to all citizens.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There are transparent administrative procedures to handle complaints of abuse against government agents. An independent and impartial judiciary handles civil disputes, but its decisions were ineffectively enforced. Local police lacked the training and manpower to enforce restraining orders, which were often generated during civil disputes.

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

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on the Internet or reports that the government monitored e mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. The International Telecommunication Union reported that in 2007 there were 29 Internet users per 100 inhabitants.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were no cases of societal violence, harassment, or discrimination against members of religious groups, including interreligious or intrareligious incidents.

Jewish community leaders reported that government officials and society generally respected members of their community, which numbered approximately 20,000. Jewish leaders reported effective cooperation with police investigating incidents of anti-Semitism.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers. The law provides that in extreme cases of national emergency an individual may be given the option to leave the country as an alternative to trial or imprisonment, but this option has not been exercised in at least two decades.

Protection of Refugees

The law provides for the granting of refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government granted refugee status and grants asylum only for political crimes as set forth in the 1928 Treaty of Havana, the 1889 Treaty of Montevideo, and the 1954 Caracas Convention. During the year the government accepted 142 refugees for resettlement. In practice the government provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

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

The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

In October 2004 Tabare Vazquez of the FA coalition won a five year presidential term in free and fair elections. The FA won 16 of 30 seats in the Senate and 52 of 99 seats in the House of Representatives. President Vazquez took office on March 1, 2005.

Political parties operated without restrictions or outside interference.

Women participated actively in the political process and government, although primarily at lower and middle levels. Four senators and 11 representatives were women. Four of the 13 cabinet ministers were women. There was one Afro Uruguayan among the 99 representatives.

Government Corruption and Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. A government commission on economic and financial matters collects sworn financial statements from public servants, including the president.

Although there is no general public disclosure law, the government requires all government agencies to produce regular public reports. All agencies complied with these reporting requirements.

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

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

5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally enforced these prohibitions effectively, although societal discrimination against some groups persisted.

The Honorary Commission Against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination is charged with developing a national plan and proposing specific measures to prevent and combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination. The commission is headed by the Ministry of Education and Culture Director of Human Rights and includes representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Education Board and three members with a proven record of fighting discrimination appointed by the president. Organizations representing Jews, Afro-Uruguayans and individuals of indigenous descent are also appointed members of the commission. During the year the commission collaborated with provincial governments to develop local antidiscrimination activities and conduct procedures for first responders to crimes involving racism. The commission cosponsored a seminar on antidiscrimination organized by the Jewish Central Committee.

Women

The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape. The law allows for sentences of two years' to 12 years' imprisonment for a person found guilty of rape. According to Ministry of Interior statistics, there were 209 rape cases, up 1 percent from 2007.

Authorities believed that some victims of spousal rape did not report such incidents because of failure to understand their rights and fear of social stigma.

The Ministry of Interior reported 12,407 cases of domestic violence, up 16 percent from 2007, with the highest incidence in Montevideo and the neighboring department of Canelones. The law allows for sentences of six months to two years in prison for a person found guilty of committing an act of violence or of making continued threats to cause bodily injury to persons related emotionally or legally to the perpetrator. Civil courts decided most of the domestic cases during the year. Judges in these cases often issued restraining orders, which were difficult to enforce. In many instances, courts did not apply criminal penalties.

The Montevideo municipal government funded a free nationwide hot line answered by trained NGO employees for victims of domestic violence. The Ministry of Social Development, INAU, and NGOs operated shelters in which abused women and their families could seek temporary refuge.

Prostitution is legal for persons over the age of 18 and was practiced openly in major cities and tourist resorts. There were no known reports of police abuse of individuals engaging in prostitution. Trafficking in women for prostitution occurred.

The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and punishes it by fines or imprisonment; however, women filed few such complaints, possibly because they lacked understanding of their rights.

In the judicial system, women enjoyed the same rights as men, including rights under family and property law. However, they faced discrimination stemming from traditional attitudes and practices, and no gender discrimination cases have ever been litigated. There was some segregation by gender in the workforce. Women constituted almost one half the workforce, but tended to be concentrated in lower paying jobs, with salaries averaging two thirds those of men.

Children

The government was committed to protecting children's rights and welfare, and it regarded the education and health of children as a high priority.

There were few reports of physical and sexual child abuse.

Interpol noted an increase in child pornography material produced in the country and available on the Internet through servers located in central Europe. Interpol and the Ministry of Interior authorities responded promptly to five child pornography cases that came to light during the year in the provinces of Maldonado, Salto, and Artigas.

INAU provided funding for a number of NGOs that had programs to assist at-risk children, as well as victims of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Assistance to trafficking victims was provided on a case-by-case basis.

The Integral System to Protect Children and Adolescents Against Violence, an interagency workgroup that provided training and awareness-raising campaigns and promoted legislative advancements for the protection of children and adolescents, operated 10 centers to provide assistance to victims and released three protocols to guide first responders (teachers, government workers, and health care workers) in identifying and treating child abuse.

Some minors engaged in prostitution and forced labor. INAU found that they often did so at the request of their families to increase income. The media reported three cases of minors engaged in prostitution with the consent of their parents in the provinces of Tacuarembo, Rocha, and Paysandu.

Trafficking in Persons

While laws prohibit all forms of trafficking in persons, the country was a source, transit point, and infrequently a destination for trafficked persons. Men, women, and children were trafficked for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Most victims were women, girls, and some boys trafficked within the country to border and tourist areas for sexual exploitation. Through use of false job offers, some women were trafficked to Spain and Italy for commercial sexual exploitation.

According to police sources, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children occurred in the provinces closest to the borders with Argentina and Brazil, notably in Paysandu, Salto, and Colonia. Child welfare organizations and independent research groups expressed concern about possible prostitution rings exploiting children in Montevideo, in the aforementioned border areas, and at the resort areas of Punta del Este and Maldonado. There were also reports of prostitution involving boys.

On January 6, the government enacted an immigration law prohibiting all forms of trafficking in persons. The law penalizes recruiting, transporting, transferring, capturing, or receiving human beings for the purpose of forced or slave labor, servitude, or sexual exploitation. Sentences range from four to 16 years. The law also contains enhanced penalties for trafficking children and adolescents. The Ministry of Interior has primary responsibility for investigating trafficking cases. No prosecutions under the new law have occurred.

While the government provided some assistance to NGOs working in the area of trafficking, the availability of victim services remained spotty, especially outside the capital. The government does not have a formal system for identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, such as women in prostitution or undocumented migrants.

In April the Organization for International Migration (IOM) and INAU signed a cooperation agreement to raise awareness on trafficking issues and increase local, provincial, and federal capacity to combat trafficking in tourist areas and along the loosely controlled borders with Brazil and Argentina. The IOM and INAU held two-day seminars in the cities of Paso de los Toros and San Gregorio de Polanco to train local representatives from NGOs, the judiciary, and several government ministries. The participants gathered to discuss the implications and enforcement of the antitrafficking legislation passed during the year. The Ministry of Interior provided training on the legislation.

The government supervised the work of the National Committee to Eradicate Commercial and Noncommercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, which is responsible for monitoring implementation of a national plan to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children. On October 27, the committee launched a week-long public campaign to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children. The committee arranged radio interviews addressing the problem and distributed educational flyers and posters at key tourist areas.

See also the State Department's 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. Local entities did not devote resources to provide appropriate accommodations. Persons with disabilities reported discrimination in employment despite government efforts to assist in individual cases. The government did not discriminate against persons with disabilities and provided additional services as resources allowed; however, difficulties in transportation inhibited some persons from accessing these services.

A national disabilities commission oversees implementation of a law on the rights of persons with disabilities. The law mandates accessibility for persons with disabilities to new buildings or public services, but was not consistently enforced. The law reserves 4 percent of public sector jobs for persons with physical and mental disabilities, but the quota was not filled.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The country's Afro Uruguayan minority continued to face societal discrimination. A National Bureau of Statistics study stated that Afro-Uruguayans comprised 9 percent of the population and indigenous descendents constituted another 3 percent. The study concluded that 50 percent of Afro-Uruguayans were poor and suffered discrimination. The NGO Mundo Afro agreed, stating that a much larger percentage of Afro Uruguayans worked as unskilled laborers than members of other groups in society despite equivalent levels of education. Afro Uruguayans were underrepresented throughout government and academia and in the middle and upper echelons of private-sector firms. During the year the government increased Afro-Uruguayan participation in the "Quijano Scholarship Program" for postgraduate work (three participants) and the "First Job Experience Program," a program to help youth integrate into the labor force. Civil society groups and local governments conducted training sessions for police and citizens to increase awareness of minority rights and the national and international laws protecting minorities.

Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were occasional reports of nonviolent societal discrimination based on sexual orientation.

There were isolated reports of societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.

6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The constitution grants the right of association, and the law promotes organization of trade unions and creation of arbitration bodies and protects union leaders and negotiators from workplace discrimination. Unions traditionally organized and operated free of government regulation. Civil servants, employees of state run enterprises, and private-enterprise workers may join unions. Unionization was higher in the public sector (more than 42 percent) than in the private sector (approximately 10 percent).

The constitution provides workers with the right to strike, and workers exercised this right in practice. The government may legally compel workers to work during a strike if they perform an essential service, which, if interrupted, "could cause a grave prejudice or risk, provoking suffering to part or all of the society."

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government protected this right. The law also protects collective bargaining, and it was freely practiced.

Collective bargaining between companies and their unions determines a number of private sector salaries. The executive branch, acting independently, determines public sector salaries.

The law expressly prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities and pay an indemnity to such workers. The Ministry of Labor's Collective Bargaining Division investigates antiunion discrimination claims filed by union members. There were generally effective mechanisms for resolving workers' complaints against employers.

All labor legislation fully covers workers employed in the 12 free trade zones. No unions operated in these zones, but the government did not prohibit their formation.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, there were reports that some child labor occurred.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law protects children against exploitation in the workplace, including a prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security is responsible for enforcing it. Enforcement was difficult due to a lack of resources and because most child labor occurred in the informal sector. INAU estimated that 34,000 children were involved in child labor. Some children worked as street vendors in the informal sector or in agricultural activities, areas generally regulated less strictly and where pay was lower than in the formal sector. Although not widespread, there were reports of parents turning their children over to third parties for domestic service or agricultural work in exchange for food and lodging.

The law prohibits minors under the age of 15 from working, and this was generally enforced in practice. Minors between the ages of 15 and 18 require government permission to work and must undergo physical exams to identify possible exposure to job-related physical harm. Permits are not granted for hazardous or fatiguing work. Children between ages 15 and 18 may not work more than six hours per day within a 36 hour work week and may not work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Violations of child labor laws are generally punishable by fines but may extend to imprisonment of three months to four years.

In June the Montevideo municipal government and INAU launched a combined public awareness campaign to combat child labor in Montevideo. INAU notified bus companies of a ban on children boarding buses to beg or sell items. The government proclaimed September 12 as a day to raise awareness among elementary school children about child labor.

INAU implemented policies to prevent and regulate child labor and provided training on child labor issues. INAU also worked closely with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to investigate complaints of child labor and with the Ministry of Interior to prosecute cases. INAU has seven trained inspectors to handle an estimated 2,000 inspections per year.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Ministry of Labor enforces a legislated minimum monthly wage that covers both the public and private sectors. The ministry adjusts the minimum wage whenever it adjusts public sector wages. The monthly minimum wage of 4,150 pesos (approximately $218) functions more as an index for calculating wage rates than as a true measure of minimum subsistence levels; it did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The vast majority of workers earned more than the minimum wage.

The standard workweek ranged from 44 to 48 hours per week, depending on the industry, and employers were required to give workers a 36 hour block of free time each week. The law stipulates that industrial workers receive overtime compensation for work in excess of 48 hours, entitles workers to 20 days of paid vacation after a year of employment, and prohibits compulsory overtime beyond a maximum 50 hour workweek.

The law protects foreign workers and does not discriminate against them, but official protection requires the companies to report the foreign workers as employees. Many native and foreign workers worked informally and thus did not benefit from certain legal protections.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforced 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 without jeopardy to their employment; the government effectively upheld this right, but some workers claimed a subsequent loss of other privileges at work based on their refusal to work in unsafe conditions.

Search Refworld

Countries