Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Americas overview

Human Rights Developments

In the Cold War environment of the 1970s and 1980s, governments in the region deflected human rights criticism by accusing those who documented human rights violations of being motivated by ideology, not principle. Though the accusations changed from those of prior years, in much of the region during 1996, human rights groups still faced unfounded criticism designed to discredit their work. Human rights monitors in many countries were accused of favoring criminals when they denounced police brutality or raised questions of due process violations, as if they were seeking to protect those who broke the law from effective law enforcement. In fact, governmental accusations against human rights monitors manipulated the genuine frustration of the region's populations with high levels of impunity, thus attempting to avoid accountability for their own conduct. While serious laws of war violations continued to be committed by both sides in Colombia, and largely at the hands of the Shining Path in Peru, in other parts of the region, public security became the central issue. In Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala, citizens reached a point of desperation because of criminal violence and began clamoring for a crackdown on criminals at any cost. Lack of faith in the justice system and frustration with impunity led to lynchings of suspected criminals in Mexico and Guatemala, while in Brazil, many sectors of society welcomed police brutality in crime control. Despite serious due process violations criticized by the international community, Guatemala executed two convicted murderers, the first use of the death penalty outside of the Caribbean and Guyana in a decade. Indeed, Latin America's trend toward abolition of the death penalty appeared on the verge of being reversed by governments eager to react to public insecurity. Unfortunately, police forces almost everywhere in the region were part of the problem, rather than the solution, and in many countries were distrusted. A January 1996 survey by one of Brazil's leading pollsters showed that 88 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents believed the police were involved in organized crime. With very few exceptions, police forces were brutal, corrupt, and negligent in fulfilling their basic duties: investigating and apprehending criminals and protecting the population without committing abuses. Faced with allegations of human rights violations, police tended to close ranks rather than investigate and discipline violators. In many countries, police operated as if law enforcement and protection of human rights were incompatible. Establishing effective judicial systems and forging professional police forces constituted an unanswered challenge to the region in 1996, although some positive steps were taken. In Honduras, the National Congress approved the constitutional reforms necessary to pass the main police force from military to civilian control. The earlier transfer of the police investigations unit from military to civilian hands greatly reduced abuses. In Guatemala, the government committed itself to reforming the constitution to remove the military from any involvement in law enforcement as part of ongoing peace talks with guerrillas. Problems with the military police were publicly acknowledged by the federal and some state governments in Brazil. Though São Paulo and other Brazilian state governments took steps to reduce police violence, Rio de Janeiro state authorities irresponsibly promoted "far west bonus and promotion programs," which rewarded police officers for "neutralizing" criminals, dead or alive. In Mexico, federal and state authorities purged corrupt police officers but failed to prosecute those who committed human rights violations. Although the government of Venezuela sought to reorganize the judiciary, it made no significant advances in reforming its brutal and corrupt police force. Haiti's newly created civilian police force lost credibility by carrying out acts of brutality and using excessive force. Although the Inspector General's Office showed initiative in investigating and administratively sanctioning wrongdoers on the force, criminal prosecutions lagged. And in the Dominican Republic, security forces committed more than thirty-five unjustified killings without prosecution. Several governments in the region demonstrated a greater willingness to acknowledge serious human rights abuse. The government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso abandoned the defensive posture of past Brazilian governments and invited its critics to join him in formulating a National Human Rights Plan. If implemented, the plan would grant ordinary courts jurisdiction over human rights abuses committed by military police and codify the crime of torture, among other measures. The government of Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzú acknowledged the existence of gross human rights violations and impunity as the main obstacles to respect for human rights. Argentina's President Carlos Menem recognized the growing problem of corruption and police brutality in many provinces, including Buenos Aires. Even President Alberto Fujimori of Peru made uncharacteristic acknowledgments of injustices perpetrated by the "faceless courts" he set up in 1992 to try those accused of terrorism and treason. Some governments also put into effect measures aimed at addressing persistent problems. The government of Guatemala announced the dissolution of the nationwide network of civil patrols, which had terrorized the countryside by committing serious abuses for fifteen years, and enacted legislation to give civilian courts jurisdiction over common crimes committed by the military. Peru's Congress finally agreed on the naming of the country's first human rights ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, who quickly became active in promoting human rights. At Santistevan's initiative, the Congress approved a law creating a special commission to review the hundreds of cases of prisoners unjustly prosecuted by the faceless courts and make recommendations for presidential pardons. Unfortunately, Peru's Congress voted in October to extend the use of faceless courts for another year. President Arzú took steps to increase civilian control over the military in Guatemala with the unprecedented removal of senior military officers accused of corruption. President Menem retired three of the country's top military officers, whom he deemed insufficiently supportive of his military reforms, leaving in his post army leader Gen. Martín Balza, who in 1995 had apologized publicly for the role of the army in the 1976-1983 "dirty war." Bolivia's minister of justice, René Blattman, successfully pressed for measures to alleviate human rights violations related to counternarcotics policies, promoting legislative reform and setting up a government office to collect human rights complaints in the coca-growing Chapare region. In Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo incorporated the language of human rights into his public discourse. This proved to be mainly symbolic, however; he took no meaningful action to address Mexico's enduring problems of abuses and impunity for human rights violations. Other authorities rejected criticism outright. In what amounted to a reversal of his earlier support for human rights reform, President Ernesto Samper of Colombia, in an October 1 speech, recklessly dismissed criticism of Colombia's abysmal human rights record by asking, "What liberties and what human rights are valid amid anarchy and violence?" The government of Rafael Caldera in Venezuela also displayed little tolerance for human rights criticism. In contrast with Venezuela's traditional openness, the government rejected credible reports from human rights monitors as well as the U.S. State Department. The government of the state of Rio de Janeiro departed from the stance of Brazil's federal government, a significant fact for human rights in the state. On the day that Human Rights Watch/Americas released its January 1996 report on police violence, the governor responded, "We ought to stop these lies....They should worry about what is going on in Serbia." The Mexican government permitted an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights delegation to conduct an on-site investigation for the first time, but its Foreign Ministry continued to reject the findings of well-documented reports by nongovernmental human rights organizations. Many of the region's most serious human rights problems endured. Police and military forces routinely tortured detainees and criminal suspects, especially in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. None of these countries – with the exception of Mexico – had modified their domestic legislation to specifically codify the crime of torture and establish effective judicial remedies for victims, as required by the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which each of these countries are state parties. In Mexico, the courts failed to enforce legislation prohibiting torture, even in cases where evidence of torture existed. Brazilian military police continued to commit unjustified killings in the course of official duty. In April, military police killed nineteen squatters blocking a highway in the Amazon state of Pará. In Cuba, the government systematically violated the rights of freedom of expression, association, assembly, privacy, and due process of law. The Cuban penal code provided a solid legal foundation for the suppression of political dissidents. In Colombia, political killings by the army, police, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups claimed an average of six lives a day in the first nine months of the year, and the government gave the army broad powers to respond to public disturbances, including nonviolent protests. Armed opposition forces engaged in political assassinations in both Colombia and Peru at an alarming level. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continued to use kidnapping as a means of financing its activities. The National Liberation Army (ELN) continued to use landmines indiscriminately throughout Colombia, leaving many civilian victims. The Shining Path in Peru was responsible for more than 200 political killings, including the March 6 assassination of community leader Pascuala Rosado Cornejo of Huaycán, after which they sought to blow up her body. Throughout the region, impunity for human rights violations prevailed. Initiatives by the Arzú government in Guatemala failed to curb impunity, while fear of reprisals and incompetence on the part of judicial authorities combined with obstruction by the army led to setbacks in several notorious cases. The Chilean Supreme Court failed to seek justice for past human rights violations by systematically applying the amnesty law decreed by the military government in 1978. As in Chile, the amnesty law promoted by President Fujimori in Peru blocked the investigation and punishment of gross human rights violations. In Honduras, the failure by police to enforce warrants undermined the efforts of civilian authorities to bring military officers who conducted "disappearances" and torture to account.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitors continued to face threats and physical violence without effective investigation, prosecution, or punishment of those responsible. On October 13, a gunman shot dead Josué Giraldo Cardona, a lawyer with the Civic Committee of Meta, Colombia, whose members have suffered systematic persecution by the army and paramilitary groups for years. On October 20, human rights lawyer Francisco Gilson Nogueira de Carvalho was killed by machine-gun fire in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. Nogueira had been investigating connections between death squads and local authorities. In August, federal police opened a criminal investigation and a military judge filed a civil suit for alleged defamation by our Brazil office director, James Cavallaro, who wrote a newspaper article criticizing the acquittal of military officers accused of torture. Both cases were pending at the time of this writing. In Mexico, human rights monitors faced serious threats, including those working for the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center. The center's director, Father David Fernández, and staff were threatened, apparently in response to the organization's documentation of military and police human rights violations. David Fernández was among those that Human Rights Watch honored in 1996 for their defense of human rights. The Cuban government continued to prosecute human rights monitors and prevent access to the island by international rights experts, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Cuba, Amb. Carl-Johan Groth.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. continued to play an effective role in Guatemala, through its human rights verification mission, MINUGUA, and through moderating important accords as part of the process toward a final peace agreement. Two years after MINUGUA opened its doors in November 1994, its countrywide presence greatly contributed to a significant reduction in politically motivated assassinations, "disappearances," and instances of torture. The U.N. Human Rights Commission decided to open a permanent office in Colombia, under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to report on human rights violations. As of this writing, the office had yet to be opened. In July, the U.N. Human Rights Committee issued a devastating report on Peru, recommending an end to the use of faceless courts, a repeal of the amnesty law, and dismissal from public service of human rights violators. Prof. Nigel Rodley, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, released a critical report on Chile and conducted an on-site investigation in Venezuela.

Organization of American States

The crisis that paralyzed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1995 was in part addressed with the appointment of a new executive secretary, which allowed the commission in 1996 to renew its forceful efforts to improve human rights practices in the hemisphere. One example of the commission's revitalization was the granting of dozens of injunctions, sometimes with the participation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to protect the lives of those facing imminent danger. Unfortunately, the commission's annual report failed for the first time in over twenty years to include country-specific analyses, which resulted in a loss of what had been an important tool to promote human rights. The court issued important rulings on cases of "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions. However, the court's decisions did not further develop jurisprudence to advance human rights protection, as they had in previous years. As they have in past years, some countries, most notably Peru, Mexico, and Chile, proposed initiatives that would, if carried out, undermine the work of the IACHR. Under the pretext of strengthening the inter-American system for human rights protection, they campaigned in 1996 for reforms of the American Convention on Human Rights that would limit access to the commission by nongovernmental organizations and increase regional governments' political control over the system. These countries also promoted stricter confidentiality in the commission's findings, as opposed to the transparency that would foster greater respect for human rights.

United States

Free trade and antinarcotics efforts – not human rights protection – lay at the center of Washington's concerns for the region. The State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 continued to reflect accurately the human rights problems in most countries, and the administration kept an open door to human rights monitors. Nonetheless, it pursued no comprehensive policy to encourage human rights protection. At the same time, administration efforts to address past abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department were notably inadequate. Washington's apparent desire to cover up relations maintained by the CIA with human rights abusers obstructed Haitian efforts to prosecute human rights violators. The White House refused to return to Haitian authorities thousands of documents and items seized during the 1994 military intervention or to deport Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the former paramilitary leader wanted for numerous egregious human rights abuses allegedly committed while on the CIA payroll. The CIA's unwillingness to declassify documents related to human rights also limited prosecutors' work in Guatemala and Honduras. Although the State Department declassified many documents about Guatemala, the CIA and Defense Department failed to follow suit. Nor have those agencies responded to repeated requests by Honduran authorities for documents regarding Battalion 3-16, a secret military death squad that operated with CIA assistance in the early 1980s in Honduras. The release in September by the Defense Department of excerpts from training manuals used by the School of the Americas in courses for Latin American military officers until 1991 confirmed critics' assertions that the school instructed its officer students to violate human rights. The manuals recommended assassinations and torture against guerrillas. In October, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry apologized for the instructions and promised to review the school's curriculum. This fell far short of what was needed: a thorough and independent investigation with appropriate penalties. In June, the executive branch's Intelligence Oversight Board concluded its investigation of the role of the CIA with regard to a number of human rights violations committed against U.S. citizens or their relatives in Guatemala. The report concluded that agency assets, or local employees, had committed serious human rights violations while on the U.S. payroll, but it failed to recommend adequate steps to prevent recurrence. Each of these elements revealed a covert policy of support for methods, individuals, and institutions that violated human rights. Although the most serious abuses occurred during past administrations, the current U.S. leadership bore responsibility for investigating and punishing those who carried out the abuses, a task it largely failed to undertake. Spurred by the Congress, the administration tightened its decades-old embargo on Cuba, a policy tool which has not only been ineffective in bringing about an improvement in human rights conditions, but has prevented the free exchange of information in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To some extent, the embargo's ineffectiveness resulted from the fact that it was not part of a principled human rights policy but was instead a blunt tool for the overthrow of the Fidel Castro government.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

Our work in 1996 focused on seven countries – Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and Peru – where the nature and extent of the violations, and the response of the state, raised urgent human rights concerns. We conducted missions, published reports, and advocated changes to improve the human rights situations in these countries, as well as highlighting thematic issues that arose elsewhere, such as human rights abuse associated with the drug war in Bolivia together with the Human Rights Watch special initiative on drugs and human rights; police brutality in Argentina and Paraguay, through meetings with Presidents Carlos Menem and Juan Carlos Wasmosy; and prison conditions in Venezuela. In Brazil, our representative in Rio de Janeiro worked closely with local human rights groups, contributed to the elaboration of the government's National Human Rights Plan, and published articles in Brazil's major newspapers. Much of our work in 1996 focused on police brutality. In Colombia, we documented human rights violations by paramilitary groups allied with the military, the role of the U.S., as well as violations of the laws of war by government and guerrilla forces. We encouraged European governments to adopt a more active role in pressing for meaningful change in Cuba. Although European governments have developed influence with the Castro government through dialogue and investment, they have not used this influence to secure meaningful human rights reforms. A representative of Human Rights Watch/Americas traveled to European capitals to discuss Cuban issues with European government officials. In Guatemala, we strongly advocated that any amnesty law enacted not grant impunity for human rights violations or similar abuses by guerrillas, meeting with President Arzú, Defense Minister Gen. Julio Balconi, and U.N. representatives. One of our long-term objectives, the dissolution of the civil patrols, was announced in August, when its phased implementation began. As part of a friendly settlement negotiation with the government – based on a suit we filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – the first patrols to be dissolved were the abusive Colotenango patrols. In Mexico, we monitored rural violence, torture by police, and the failings of the justice system. Together with the International Labor Rights Fund and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers, we filed a labor rights petition under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was accepted for review by the U.S. Labor Department's National Administration Office. The Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch documented sexual discrimination in Mexico's maquiladora sector, including pregnancy testing of prospective female employees, (see Women's Rights Project section). In Haiti, we pressed for accountability for abuses committed under past and current governments. In addition, we documented abuses by the new police force. Our Haiti researcher discussed these issues with President René Préval in June. Within Peru, we continued to focus on violations committed by the faceless court system, urging an independent review of cases tried before these courts. The failure of most countries in the region to establish accountability for human rights violations necessitated our continued use of the inter-American system to seek justice in individual cases.In partnership with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), which took the lead, and domestic human rights groups throughout the region, we were involved in nearly one hundred cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and some cases pending before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
This report covers the events of 1996

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