AMERICAS WATCH OVERVIEW
Human Rights Developments
The trend witnessed over the last decade toward elected civilian government in Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a serious challenge in 1991, as the Haitian military on September 30 overthrew the only freely elected government that Haiti has known in its nearly two hundred-year history of independence. The coup was accompanied by a killing rampage by Haitian troops unparalleled even in that troubled nation's recent history. Nonetheless, encouragement can be drawn from the unified response of the hemisphere's governments, which have coordinated diplomatic and trade efforts through the Organization of American States (OAS) to reverse the coup and restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency.
Elsewhere in the hemisphere, the spread of elected government continued with the May 25 presidential elections in Suriname, reinstating an elected civilian government after a December 1990 military coup. The government's principal challenge is to assert civilian authority over military strongman Colonel Desi Bouterse, who has exercised de facto control, when not formally governing the country, since overthrowing the elected civilian government in a prior coup in February 1980. In Paraguay, the nation's first-ever municipal elections on May 26 marked a significant broadening of political pluralism there. Only the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba continued to resist pressure to open up its political system, instead jailing scores of independent activists for their peaceful advocacy of change and subjecting others to violent "acts of repudiation" orchestrated by security forces.
Despite this salutary trend toward democratic governance, the hemisphere's worst human rights offenders remain the security forces of some elected civilian governments. In Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru, government forces are engaged in widespread political assassination, disappearance and torture of civilians perceived as opponents. The use of torture by the police also is frequent in Ecuador and Honduras, both of which have been governed by elected civilians for at least a decade, and in Mexico, where elections have been held for more than sixty years, albeit amid sustained charges of widespread fraud. The persistence of violent abuses in these countries illustrates the dictum that elections, even when free and fair, do not in themselves guarantee human rights.
Efforts to end internal armed conflicts moved ahead in Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala in 1991, but as of December, had yet to bring peace to any of these nations. In each country, serious breaches of the laws of war were committed by government and guerrilla forces, even while peace talks proceeded. In El Salvador, negotiations produced significant informal agreements on human rights issues such as the establishment of a "Truth Commission" and the purging of human rights violators from the officer corps. Moreover, the United Nations installed a human rights verification commission of over one-hundred members _ an unprecedented development. These accomplishments leave room for optimism about the human rights situation in El Salvador, although they have yet to bring a halt to the steady stream of assassinations, disappearances and torture that has plagued El Salvador over the last decade.
In Colombia, negotiations with one of the country's three largest guerrilla organizations _ the Popular Liberation Army _ were successfully concluded in 1991, while discussions with the two major groups still in arms were initiated in mid-year but failed to reach a cease-fire. Those still fighting _ the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army _ killed many civilian leaders in the countryside in 1991 and conducted kidnappings-for-ransom, all violations of the laws of war. For its part, the Colombian army continued to employ "dirty war" tactics in its war against the guerrillas, including disappearances, massacres, selective assassinations, arbitrary arrests, and aerial strafing and bombardment of civilian targets. Hundreds of civilians continued to flee conflictive areas and join the ranks of the displaced living precariously in urban areas.
The tremendous violence associated with the government's war against the Medellín drug cartel all but ended in the second half of 1991 as the government negotiated the surrender of major traffickers in exchange for an end to extradition and leniency for those who turned themselves in. Paramilitary groups _ responsible for scores of massacres of civilians in 1988 and 1989 _ continued to carry out violent abuses, although in 1991 there were fewer mass killings than in those years. A series of decrees enacted by the former government of Virgilio Barco contributed to delegitimizing these groups, which had enjoyed a quasi-legal status as "self-defense" associations.
In Peru, both official forces and the insurgent Shining Path continued to murder and torture with abandon and to force civilians into the conflict, while the lesser rebel group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, carried out selective assassinations and bombings. For four straight years, Peru led the world in new disappearances reported to the United Nations. Although there was some reduction in new disappearances in 1991, the practice continued at a high rate. President Alberto Fujimori, who completed a year in office in July, has failed to offer the fresh approach to counterinsurgency that his campaign had advertised, and instead has delegated ever-widening authority to the military to conduct the war its way. The government has expanded the territory under state of emergency _ effectively military government _ to encompass nearly half the national territory and more than half the population. Human rights abuses historically have risen in areas placed under emergency rule.
The Guatemalan government of Jorge Serrano Elías, which will complete one year in office in January, has also initiated peace talks, with guerrillas who have been fighting for more than a decade. However, the dialogue reached a deadlock in September over human rights issues, and there is little hope for a quick end to fighting. While actual combat is sporadic compared to the warfare engulfing large areas of Colombia, El Salvador and Peru, the army exercises a profoundly repressive form of permanent counterinsurgency in conflictive rural areas. In addition to the assassinations, disappearances, torture, threats, intimidation and illegal detentions carried out directly by the army, important parts of the counterinsurgency effort _ and accompanying abuses _ are delegated to military-organized civil patrols installed in most highland villages. The army also commits massive violations of the freedoms of association and movement through forced participation in civil patrols and forcible relocation of displaced civilians to so-called model villages.
Rural violence against peasants and their advocates in the context of land disputes remains a significant concern of Americas Watch, particularly in Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay. Americas Watch takes no position on the question of rightful ownership of the lands in question; rather, we address the use of violence against those who try to defend their claims, when that violence is supported or tolerated by agents of the state.
In Brazil, forced labor on remote rural ranches in the northern and western frontier states persists, largely because of the government's failure to pursue reported incidents. Meanwhile, the government of the Dominican Republic responded to mounting international pressure to end the widespread use of forced Haitian labor in its state sugar industry by striking back at the victims, summarily and abusively deporting thousands of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians, without regard to whether they were Dominican citizens. Thousands of other ethnic Haitians fled to avoid being caught up in the abusive process.
Accountability for past and present abuses has been a prime concern of Americas Watch in virtually every country that has experienced serious violations. In places where abuses are systematic _ as is the case of torture, illegal detentions, disappearances and assassinations by government agents in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, as well as the case of torture in Honduras and death-squad operations against common-crime suspects in Brazil _ the agents responsible for the abuses commit them with impunity. Breaking through this barrier _ making punishment the predictable result of crime committed under color of authority _ is fundamental to ending human rights abuses in these countries. Convictions have been obtained in a handful of the most notorious cases, such as the Salvadoran army's November 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests and two women, and the Guatemalan army's December 1990 massacre of thirteen Tzutuhil Indians near the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlán. Americas Watch welcomes these prosecutorial actions, but believes them to be token steps taken under the glare of the international spotlight, and thus not enough to end the systematic practices that the crimes represent.
Accountability for abuses committed by previous governments is also crucial, both in establishing a clear historical record of atrocities and in preventing their recurrence. This issue was addressed directly in Chile with the publication on March 4 of an immense and detailed report by the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The report documented 2,279 cases of political execution and disappearance during the period of military rule from 1973 to 1990. Although acts of violence by armed opposition groups were among the cases examined, the vast majority of crimes exposed by the report were traceable to official forces. The report, and its moving presentation to the nation on March 4 by President Patricio Aylwin, made a significant contribution to stimulating debate about the past and vindicating the reputations of the victims.
While legislation is pending on compensation for the survivors, the possibility of prosecuting military personnel, or even civilian members of the security police, for the crimes documented in the report is limited by an amnesty law decreed by the former military regime covering the period of September 1973 to March 1978, when the bulk of the violations occurred. The possible exception to the rule of impunity for past violations in Chile is the September 21, 1976 assassination in Washington of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who died when a bomb detonated under their car. Under U.S. pressure, the assassination was excluded from the amnesty. Several individuals involved in the assassination plot are in jail in the United States, and in September, a civilian judge in Chile indicted the former director of Chile's secret police, retired army General Manuel Contreras, and his former operations director, active-duty Colonel Pedro Espinoza. The two are in custody.
In Paraguay, courts are investigating a dozen cases involving torture and assassination during the regime of General Alfredo Stroessner, which reigned from 1954 until 1989. Several prominent police figures of the Stroessner era are in custody, but none has yet gone to trial. The desire to stem the flow of Haitian refugees also seemed to have tempered the Administration's criticisms of the brutal military regime in Port-au-Prince. Paraguay is the only new democracy in the Southern Cone where no amnesty law protects those responsible for human rights abuses during past regimes.
In Uruguay, the crimes of the military dictatorship have gone unpunished, but in 1991 the government settled several lawsuits brought by victims of abuse with compensation packages that include an admission of state liability. In Argentina, Congress and the Executive have moved to provide compensation to thousands held in administrative detention during the military dictatorship.
Also in Argentina, a kidnapping ring unveiled in November provided a grim reminder that the laws precluding human rights trials and the presidential pardons that ended the cycle of truth and justice were a serious mistake. Many high-ranking Federal Police officers and civilian intelligence agents arrested for their role in the kidnapping ring had been accused of serious human rights violations committed during the "dirty war" waged by the military dictatorship in the 1970s. They were still on active duty because the Punto Final (Full Stop) and Due Obedience laws had limited prosecutions to all but a few high-ranking officers.
The Right to Monitor
Human rights monitoring remains a tremendously dangerous business for domestic activists in many countries, and has proved deadly in 1991 for several individuals in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru. Even in countries where monitors need not fear being killed for their work, threats, harassment and intimidation are an occupational hazard. Four human rights activists were murdered and a fifth disappeared in Guatemala in 1991. In addition, three sons of Guatemalan human rights monitors were also slain. The activists were members of the rural human rights group CERJ.1 Evidence suggests the involvement of the security forces or civil patrols in most of the cases. President Serrano has further endangered Guatemalan monitors by publicly voicing his conviction _ unsupported by evidence _ that CERJ and its director are in league with leftist guerrillas.
Peru's beleaguered human rights movement is attacked physically and rhetorically by both sides. The insurgent Shining Path assassinated human rights advocate Porfirio Suni Quispe in 1991, while government forces are suspected of having sent a letter bomb that exploded in the hands of human rights attorney Augusto Zúñiga Paz, taking off his forearm. President Fujimori has on numerous occasions effectively encouraged violence against monitors by slanderously linking them with the Shining Path. Meanwhile, the Shining Path has publicly denounced human rights as a "bourgeois" concept created to "deny class struggle."
Two human rights monitors were murdered in Colombia in 1991 and many more received serious threats while investigating cases involving the army. Government agents or paramilitary death squads are suspected in the two killings.
The gradual falling away of Cold War attitudes in Washington has created a tremendous opportunity for the United States to use its undeniable influence in the hemisphere as a force promoting human rights. Unfortunately, the record is highly disappointing. To a large extent, Washington's preoccupation with fighting the "drug war" on Latin American soil has obscured concern for human rights, just as Cold War considerations about communism preempted human rights principles in the 1980s. Drug-war priorities have impelled the United States to provide substantial aid and equipment to police and military forces engaged in widespread abuses against the populations in Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Congressional efforts to condition military aid to Peru on respect for human rights led to the announcement of possibly significant human rights reforms, but similar efforts are lacking with regard to Colombia and Mexico, where the flow of U.S. aid and the accent on militarization only contributes to severe human rights problems.
With few exceptions, the Bush Administration continues the tradition established by its predecessor of withholding human rights criticism in countries with elected civilian governments. Thus the enormous human rights problems in Brazil go unmentioned, as do those in Colombia and Mexico. Under pressure from human rights groups and the U.S. Congress, human rights have become an important bilateral issue in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. Yet even in those countries, what should be an unequivocally stern message is undermined by other Administration actions, such as the unquestioning provision of Economic Support Funds to Guatemala, the failure to use military aid as a lever for improvements in Honduras, and the release in compliance with congressional conditions on aid of a "determination" that Peru respects human rights, when all available facts indicate otherwise.
The increasingly desperate economic plight of most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean increases Washington's already substantial leverage. This should be used to send a consistent and strong message that systematic human rights violations must end. In addition, the United States should raise its voice in favor of accountability for past abuses _ often the key rights issue in countries experiencing transitions from military to civilian government.
In Haiti, the Bush Administration has played a positive role, supporting hemispheric efforts to restore the legitimate elected government of President Aristide and refusing to recognize the soldiers who seized power on September 30. At the same time, the Administration has appropriately taken issue with President Aristide's tolerance, and on occasion encouragement, of popular violence and threats of violence against alleged government opponents. These abuses have contributed to the army's adamant refusal to contemplate Aristide's return.
However, the Administration's concern with Haitians' human rights quickly ended for those who sought to flee political persecution and violence by taking small boats headed for Florida's shores. Until a federal court temporarily halted the process, the Administration forcibly returned over five hundred Haitians to Port-au-Prince after summary proceedings without the presence of counsel in hearings that were incapable of reliably distinguishing political refugees.
The Work of Americas Watch
Americas Watch has continued its persistent scrutiny of human rights violations in 1991 with the publication of twenty-seven reports and newsletters covering eighteen countries based on thirty-eight missions to the countries covered. On eight occasions, we testified about human rights concerns before congressional committees.
In the latter half of 1991, we devoted special attention to Peru, as the Bush Administration, attempting to satisfy congressionally imposed human rights conditions on aid, declared that the Peruvian authorities respect human rights. The certification was designed to win release of military aid and security assistance to combat drug production and trafficking in Peru. Timed to coincide with the debate in Congress, Americas Watch issued a report, Into the Quagmire: Human Rights and U.S. Policy in Peru, which evaluated human rights conditions during President Fujimori's first year and opposed U.S. military aid in light of those conditions. The recommendations made in the report for changes in Peruvian government policies were largely reflected in the demands of congressional leaders to the U.S. and Peruvian governments during the aid debate.
Also in the second half of 1991, our attention was riveted on Haiti, with the bloody September 30 coup against the Aristide government. On November 1, in conjunction with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR) and Caribbean Rights, we issued a report evaluating the Aristide government's human rights record. The report, timed to address growing controversy over human rights in Haiti under President Aristide, noted several positive steps taken by the Aristide government, but also contained criticism of President Aristide's tolerance and occasional encouragement of mob violence. Noting the important human rights violation inherent in overthrowing an elected government and the horrendous human rights record of the successor military regime, the report strongly supported the collective action taken to restore the Aristide government to power. In early December, Americas Watch participated in a mission to Haiti with the NCHR to document the widespread and continuing abuses of the military regime. A preliminary report of the findings was released in late December.
Americas Watch has also been outspoken in challenging the Bush Administration's efforts to return Haitians by force to their country. These efforts lack adequate screening mechanisms to ensure that refugees are not returned to face political persecution. Nor is it possible for the U.S. government to obtain meaningful guarantees against persecution from the brutal and lawless military regime in Port-au-Prince.
One new area of research in 1991 has been violations committed by federal agents, particularly the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service border patrols, against aliens crossing the U.S. border from Mexico. A report on the research will be released in early 1992.
We have intensified our efforts to cover Brazil, with its vast and complex human rights problems and dizzying statistics of violence. Our work on Brazil in 1991 included publication of two full-length reports: Rural Violence in Brazil and Criminal Injustice: Violence Against Women in Brazil, the latter released jointly with the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch. Americas Watch also issued a newsletter, "The Search for Brazil's Disappeared: The Mass Grave at Dom Bosco Cemetery," published jointly with Physicians for Human Rights and the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A project begun in 1990 to increase cooperation with Physicians for Human Rights continued in 1991. The two organizations worked together in researching and producing the Brazil newsletter as well as in jointly sponsoring exhumations of clandestine cemeteries in Guatemala and the publication of a joint report, Guatemala: Getting Away with Murder.
In November, our publishing project with Yale University Press produced a book by Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero. Further books are under production on Peru and Mexico.
Americas Watch continued to devote attention to regional mechanisms for human rights protection established by the Organization of American States. To that end, together with several prominent human rights organizations in Latin America, we helped to establish an independent center for litigation in the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the OAS Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The newly formed Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), headed by Chilean attorney José Miguel Vivanco, shares offices with Americas Watch and joins us in handling dozens of cases before the Commission, as well as several before the Court.
In 1991, Americas Watch and CEJIL, working through the Inter-American Commission, successfully won an injunction from the Inter-American Court ordering the government of Guatemala to protect endangered human rights activists. Two cases against the government of Peru, handled jointly by the two groups in partnership with Peruvian human rights organizations, are now pending before the Court as well.
Council of Ethnic Communities "We Are All Equal"