The trend in Latin America from dictatorial rule to elected government continued in 1990. On March 11, a freely elected government was inaugurated in Chile after more than 16 years of military dictatorship. On December 16, Haiti had its first truly free and fair election ever. And some steps toward fair elections were achieved in Guyana, as the government pledged to institute meaningful reform for elections to be held in 1991. However, a reversal of the trend took place in Suriname in late December, when the military dislodged the elected government that it had allowed to take office two-and-a-half years before. And some countries in the region have made little or no progress toward free and fair elections, notably Mexico and Cuba.
Even with this healthy trend toward respect for the will of the people, it would be difficult to say that elections have brought about an end to human rights violations. The largest number of extrajudicial executions and disappearances in the hands of government agents are now taking place in Colombia and Peru, two countries that are otherwise genuine democracies. In Guatemala and El Salvador, despite regular elections, power continues to reside in the hands of the military, and the pattern of human rights violations persists. In many of the countries ruled by elected governments, violations such as torture of common crime suspects, police brutality and subhuman prison conditions have grown worse in recent years.
The obvious lesson is that elections, even when free and fair, do not by themselves guarantee human rights. Nonetheless, clear progress on human rights has been made in Latin America, and the progress is related to the expansion of democracy. In most countries, there is now a far more open and vigorous debate in the domestic press than under prior dictatorships; there is also more freedom to associate and organize all forms of institutions of civil society. Latin Americans interested in human rights are taking advantage of these openings, and many countries now enjoy the benefits of strong, diverse and creative nongovernmental organizations dedicated to the promotion of fundamental rights.
There is abundant evidence, however, that their work in defense of human rights is still much needed. Democratic governments must be pressed to exercise better control over their armed forces and law-enforcement bodies so that they carry out their duties within the limits established by law. Courts and prosecutors must be prompted to live up to their obligation to protect the rights of all citizens and to ensure that no one is above the law. Parliaments must be pressed to question and examine policies that affect human rights. In addition, international human rights organizations like Americas Watch must continue to exercise moral pressure in support of our colleagues in Latin America, to ensure that governments comply with their international obligations and uphold the rule of law.
Several internal armed conflicts still cause severe loss of life in Latin America -- notably, in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. In varying degrees, the insurgent groups in all of these conflicts commit violations of the laws of war by attacking impermissible targets or putting the civilian population needlessly at risk. In response, armed and security forces conduct counterinsurgency campaigns which involve "dirty war" tactics, such as executions, disappearance and torture.
US troops were directly involved in only one, short-lived conflict: the December 1989 invasion of Panama. An investigation conducted by Americas Watch a few weeks later revealed that the operations conducted by US troops in highly populated areas violated the obligation to minimize harm to civilians.
Civilian governments have shown themselves unwilling or unable to control the counterinsurgency operations of their armed and police forces. In addition, governments all too frequently resort to states of emergency that limit civil liberties in a manner that are disproportionate to the actual threat to peace. In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the need to demand from all forces respect for the standards of international humanitarian law. Local human rights groups in Colombia, El Salvador and Peru have led demands to "humanize" their country's war; they also increasingly monitor and report deviations from those standards by both sides to the conflict. In so doing, domestic groups must overcome serious obstacles to researching these violations, since they occur in remote and highly dangerous places. At the same time, their insistence on performing this task has not only resulted in higher legitimacy for human rights work, but also contributes to a reduction in violations by both sides.
There was also increased activity in the search for peace in several internal conflicts. Early in 1990, the armed conflict in Nicaragua, with rebels armed and sponsored by the US government, finally came to an end. The intervention of the United Nations and the Organization of American States was valuable in ensuring compliance with the commitments leading to the end of that war. In turn, they prompted promising initiatives by the United Nations to search for peace in the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala. At year's end, the peace talks on El Salvador were offering hope for substantial progress. Also in 1990, the Colombian government successfully finalized protracted and difficult peace discussions with one major guerrilla organization and, in the wake of that agreement, talks began with three other groups. Although the prospects for peace with the two largest rebel organizations remain in doubt, the search for a negotiated peace in Colombia has taken hold. In Peru, on the other hand, there was no sign that the ten-year-old war with Sendero Luminoso could be ended through negotiations.
Peace talks in all of these countries have an important effect on human rights. In the first place, the mere fact of the talks, and the prospect of peace, make all parties show greater respect on the battlefield for the laws of war, even if no ceasefire is immediately attained. Moreover, respect for human rights often becomes an important issue in the talks, improving the human rights climate and sometimes resulting in agreements to allow verification by impartial sources.
Unfortunately, the need for peace also sometimes has a negative effect: the impulse for reconciliation results in sweeping amnesty laws that often cover egregious crimes committed by both parties. In 1990, this occurred when the Nicaraguan Assembly passed an amnesty law between the February election and the April inauguration of Violeta Chamorro. Similar amnesties, under the pretext of peace accords, were enacted in earlier years in El Salvador and Guatemala. In each case, Americas Watch protested vigorously, because the amnesty established impunity for serious crimes by both sides to the conflict as a matter of law.
How to address the legacy of massive violations of the recent past continues to be the most difficult problem confronting the emerging democracies in the region. Human rights organizations have led the struggle for full accountability to expose the truth of what happened and to bring gross abusers to justice. Argentina had taken the lead in this effort, but on December 29, 1990, President Carlos Menem completed the retreat from truth and justice by pardoning the few remaining generals who were still serving sentences for their role in the "dirty war." Chile started on its own road of accountability in 1990, when President Patricio Aylwin created a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, whose report will be published in 1991. Impunity for past abuses in Haiti, long a smoldering issue, instantly came to the forefront when the December 16 elections were won by a candidate committed to punish the crimes of the Duvalier dictatorship and subsequent military governments.
Americas Watch continued to focus on accountability for human rights violations, in accordance with the policy positions adopted by Human Rights Watch on the matter. Throughout the year, we criticized the Bush administration's refusal to lend any support to those struggling to uphold the principle that egregious crimes should be punished. Silence on truth and justice issues, which was the norm throughout the Reagan years, has largely continued under the Bush administration. While in isolated cases the administration urged prosection of those responsible for particular abuses -- in Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador -- these have been rare exceptions to a policy of not expressing support for efforts to redress abuses. Nor has the administration protested when pressure from those responsible for abuses led to the enactment of amnesties. Although in the past the White House has expressed strong support for democracy in countries where it has been threatened, in the most recent episodes of military threats to civilian governments (Argentina and Chile, both in December 1990), the Bush administration minimized the dangers to democracy and downplayed the seriousness of military challenges. This is a serious mistake. Military pressures on civilian governments and, more important, the military's perception that it is unaccountable to anyone remain the most serious threats to democracy in Latin America.
In 1990, Americas Watch devoted considerable efforts to documenting violence against peasants and advocates on their behalf in the context of land disputes, a problem which affects several countries in the region. Americas Watch takes no position on who should have title to lands in dispute; instead, we concentrate on the violence directed against those who try to defend their claims, when that violence is supported or tolerated by agents of the state. Our report on Mexico, published in June, included some information on rural violence in that country. In mid-year, we sent a team that spent several weeks in different regions of Brazil, and in August we conducted a mission in Paraguay. The reports from those missions will be published in early 1991, and we hope that they will increase attention to the serious problem of violence in rural areas.
A major new source of human rights violations is the fight to stop drug trafficking in several countries. In its much-publicized drive to interdict the flow of drugs to the United States, the Bush administration has provided substantial amounts in military aid to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, and has tried to engage other countries in an effort to use military forces to destroy crops, intercept shipments and disrupt trafficking networks. Disappearances, torture, murder of prisoners and even acts of indiscriminate fire in the course of such operations have proliferated in Colombia and Mexico, and they are mostly attributed to special police forces created and funded with US support.
In addition, drug-interdiction policies, as planned by the Bush administration, are designed to involve the armed forces of each country in the "war" against drug trafficking. Initially reluctant to accept such a role, the armed forces of several countries are now ready to accept the fresh US aid, so long as they can put it to use for their traditionally higher priority of fighting local insurgencies. In an effort to involve the military in the drug war, US diplomats and advisors have been willing to tolerate this diversion of funds. As a result, US weapons and training are increasingly becoming entangled in the conduct of "dirty" counterinsurgency wars.
Initially, the US Congress seemed to go along with and even encourage the administration to pump resources into the "war on drugs," as a means of limiting the flow of drugs to an avid US market. By mid-1990, however, many voices in Congress were raised to question the human rights implications of a policy that emphasizes military solutions to law enforcement problems. In November, Congress enacted several conditions on aid under the International Narcotics Control Act of 1991 which, if taken seriously, could go a long way toward correcting some of the most serious abuses in the Andean countries. However, no similar interest has been shown with regard to Mexico, and the Bush administration strictly refuses to offer any criticism of the Salinas government, either on drug-interdiction policy or any other human rights-related matter, lest that criticism interfere with the development of a major free-trade agreement.
Americas Watch continued throughout 1990 to devote attention to efforts to use the regional mechanisms for human-rights protection established by the Organization of American States (OAS). These efforts are an outgrowth of our participation on behalf of relatives of the disappeared in the first adversarial case, against Honduras, heard by the OAS Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In August 1990, the Court issued another ruling in favor of the victims, when it ordered Honduras to pay interest for a one-year delay in paying damages and to adjust the payment to reflect two devaluations of the Honduran currency. The Honduran government has made partial payment of the amounts owed, and we continue to represent the families in this matter. In October, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decided to submit a new case to the Court in which Americas Watch is co-counsel along with a Peruvian human rights organization. The case, which will be litigated in 1991, involves the disappearance of inmates from the Peruvian island prison of El Frontón, in the course of the bloody riots of June 1986.
Americas Watch is processing more than forty similar cases before the Commission, with the intent of taking some of them to the Court. In all cases we act in conjunction with local human rights groups. The cases present a variety of important issues of fact and the potential to advance significant principles of international law. To serve these needs better, we have entered into an agreement with several human rights groups in Latin America to provide free legal services to victims of abuse who wish to use these protection mechanisms. The program got under way in October 1990.
Americas Watch took several new steps in 1990. In addition to continuing to try to cover the region in a balanced and comprehensive manner, without abandoning our concerns in those countries where we have long been involved, we published our first report on Mexico in June, receiving prominent coverage and attention to our concerns, not only from the Mexican press and public but also from the government. Thereafter, we continued to monitor conditions in the country, and in 1991 we will publish a report on prison conditions and a major update to our first report. In addition, Americas Watch strengthened its contacts and sources on Venezuela -- a country on which we have not yet reported -- and toward the end of the year we contributed to a mission by the Argentine Team for Forensic Anthropology to conduct exhumations of victims of repression during the civil disturbances in Caracas at the beginning of the term of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. We expect to be able to publish our first reports on Venezuela, as well as on Bolivia, in 1991.