Bolivia's president Evo Morales speaks during a news conference in La Paz on December 1, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

(New York) – Bolivia should amend several laws that undermine the rights to freedom of association and expression, due process guarantees, and children’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Evo Morales. These laws, which are incompatible with Bolivia’s international human rights obligations, were approved during Morales’ second term, from 2010 through 2014.

On December 3, the Plurinational Assembly approved a key modification to a 2010 problematic law that regulates procedures for the criminal prosecution and impeachment of high level officials and magistrates. But changes are also needed in other recent laws that significantly restrict the exercise of basic rights – on child labor, regulation of nongovernmental groups, torture, and racism.

“President Morales and his party’s legislative majority have adopted a series of laws that constitute a serious regression in human rights protections in Bolivia,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Amending one of those problematic laws is a positive step, but this should just be the starting point of a comprehensive review process to bring Bolivia in line with its human rights obligations.”

On October 12, 2014, Morales was elected to a third term, with 61 percent of votes, while Movimiento al Socialismo, the official government party, won two-thirds of the Plurinational Assembly seats.

Bolivia’s 2009 constitution provides for the protection of a wide range of basic rights, including freedom of association and expression, due process guarantees, and children’s rights. Although the constitution says that international human rights treaties ratified by Bolivia that include broader protections prevail over the constitution, several of the new laws significantly restrict the exercise of these basic rights.

The revision to the 2010 law on the prosecution of high-level officials modifies provisions that allowed senators to impose criminal sanctions on judges from high-level tribunals, including the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, undermining their right to be judged by an independent court. The reform was supported by Vice President Álvaro García Linera.

But other recent laws that violate basic rights remain in force. They include:

  • A law adopted in July 2014 that made Bolivia the first country in the world to legalize employment for children as young as 10. The law violates the International Labour Organization convention 138 regarding the minimum age of employment, under which Bolivia committed itself not to allow employment of children under 14;
  • A March 2013 law and its implementing presidential decree to regulate nongovernmental groups, which gives authorities overly broad powers to dissolve organizations on vague grounds such as “undermining security or public order.” The law’s provisions open the door to arbitrary, politically motivated decisions and undermine the right to free association and the ability of human rights defenders to work independently;
  • Another 2013 law that created a national agency with the goal of preventing torture, as required under the optional protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Bolivia acceded in 2006. But the implementing decree for this new “Service for the Prevention of Torture” provides for the executive to appoint its director from a short list presented by the Justice Ministry, undermining the agency’s independence. In addition, the relevant law does not establish the scope of the service’s legal powers, despite international standards that require they be “clearly set out in a constitutional or legislative text”; and
  • A 2010 law against racism, later supplemented by a decree from the president. The new measures grant the government vague and overly broad powers that allow it to unjustly censor the media, failing to strike a proper balance between the government’s legitimate concern to combat racism and the right to free expression. Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression should be defined precisely and applied by an independent body in a strictly proportional manner. Criminal sanctions should only be imposed in exceptionally serious cases.

The assembly has also failed to modify the 1976 Military Criminal Code, which allows military courts to try alleged human rights violations committed by members of the military. A 2012 Constitutional Court ruling held that the code violates Bolivia’s international human rights obligations, which require that human rights violations be tried by independent and impartial courts, and called on the legislature to modify its provisions.