(Washington, DC) – Chile’s congress should address significant shortcomings in an anti-discrimination bill currently in the final stages of parliamentary debate, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to leading parliamentarians.
“By adopting a law that fully reflects the principles of international human rights law, Chile has an opportunity of creating landmark legislation, of significance not just for Chile, but for the region as a whole,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch.
On March 28, President Sebastián Piñera’s government announced that it would fast-track a bill that has been under debate in Congress since 2005, to provide legal protection for Chile’s vulnerable minorities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. On April 4, his government announced that it would propose significant amendments to the bill which address objections by Chilean non-governmental organizations working for LGBT rights. The Chamber of Deputies approved the bill on the same day, subject to further discussion of two disputed articles and the government’s proposed amendments.
President Piñera announced that the bill would have top priority after a gay man, 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio, died in a Santiago hospital following a brutal attack on March 3 by alleged neo-nazis, who beat him unconscious and cut swastikas on his chest and arms with a broken bottle. Four men were arrested and face life imprisonment for the crime.
Among the positive elements of the bill are that it explicitly includes sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination. It also creates a special judicial process aimed at providing rapid redress to victims of discriminatory acts, which allows judges to halt or reverse them and provide protection for victims.
As Human Rights Watch pointed out in its letter, however, the bill is silent on preventive measures. It also removes an article in the original draft presented during the administration of Ricardo Lagos that allows victims to claim compensation for discriminatory acts. Moreover, to pacify senators who had opposed the explicit inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected ground against discrimination, a clause was added according to which if an individual’s rights were subject to “restrictions or exclusions” because of the exercise of another constitutional right, this “would always considered to be reasonable.” Human Rights Watch pointed out that all rights were of equal status, and that conflicts between competing sets of rights, such as the right to equality and the exercise of other rights, should be resolved by courts, taking into consideration the particular circumstances of each case.
In a letter to President Piñera welcoming his promise to seek the law’s amendment, Human Rights Watch asked him to ensure that the law provides suitable mechanisms for victims of discrimination to obtain compensation through the courts.
Influential sectors of conservative opinion, including the Catholic Church, have expressed caution and fears that the bill could threaten religious freedom and existing laws on marriage. LGBT rights advocates and opposition congressmen oppose its passage unless significant amendments are made to broaden its scope.
“When all is said and done, this is not about attacking beliefs or institutions but protecting the vulnerable and making Chile a fairer and more tolerant place,” said Vivanco.