During 1994, the crises of Cuba and Haiti dominated international news from the Americas. The repression facing Cubans and Haitians at home was widely documented and condemned, as were the erratic immigration policies of the United States, which turned back tens of thousands of refugees in violation of international refugee law. The untold story of the region, however, was the persistence of the egregious, systematic human rights violations in countries with institutional democracies.
In many Latin American nations, even where civilian governments appeared firmly established, respect for human rights had not emerged as a central, functioning component of "democracy" and had failed to bring either political tolerance or the rule of law. Torture, police abuse, assassinations of political activists and "disposable people," electoral irregularities, and threats against the press coexisted with nominally democratic governments and were tolerated by them. Particularly abusive was the civilian government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, which turned the nation's judicial system into a tool of repression and showed open contempt for human rights precepts. But torture was commonplace throughout the region: in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and El Salvador, among others. Elsewhere, as in Honduras and Nicaragua, despite some positive efforts by the governments, the military and police continued to have sufficient independence from civilian control to carry out abuses frequently and with impunity.
The closely watched democratic transition in Haiti after the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in October was unique in many ways, but also reflected some of the challenges facing other recently established civilian governments in the region. Like Haiti, a large number of Latin American governments faced the pressing need to establish an independent judiciary, to replace notoriously abusive security forces, and to ensure accountability for past human rights violations. Throughout the hemisphere the institutions of democracy have to some degree opened space for the emergence of an active civil society, which has expanded political debate and empowered previously marginalized members of society. Nevertheless, the process of transition has created new human rights concerns. So long-established a democracy as Venezuela struggled with a nearly complete incapacitation of its judicial system; El Salvador and Chile continued to confront the need for the replacement of abusive officials and for prosecutions in human rights cases from their military pasts.
Some governments made notable efforts to increase the effectiveness of human rights monitoring and protection. In Nicaragua, a new military code passed in August, mandating that members of the armed forces accused of common crimes be tried in civilian rather than military courts. In Honduras, the government of President Carlos Roberto Reina fulfilled an earlier initiative to establish civilian control over the police forces by dissolving the military-controlled Dirección Nacional de Investigaciones (DNI), infamous for its human rights abuses, and transferring investigative powers to the civilian-controlled Criminal Investigating Bureau.
Other countries took several steps to address crimes committed under former military regimes. The judiciary in both Paraguay and Chile actively pursued cases against former human rights abusers. In Argentina, the government began paying compensation to victims of arbitrary detention under its military regime, and the Argentine Congress was studying a law to compensate the families of the "disappeared."
Despite these efforts, state security forces, even under elected governments, acted with impunity and were among the principal perpetrators of human rights violations, as they had been in the past. The targets of these violations were not only political suspects, but criminals, prisoners, and other groups marginalized by society. In Colombia, paramilitary squads often linked to the military continued campaigns of "social cleansing," targeting street children, homosexuals, beggars, and other so-called disposable people. These violations persisted because too often, investigations of state agents in Latin America did not occur, and when they did, the exercise of military jurisdiction usually guaranteed acquittals. Deep social and economic cleavages, which ensure certain individuals' marginalization, also contributed to the lack of justice in cases of abuses committed against them.
Frequently, these abuses were committed in the name of internal security. In Peru and Colombia, the ongoing internal war between the military and insurgent armies resulted in violations of international humanitarian law on both sides. In Mexico, during its suppression of a rebellion that erupted on January 1 in the southern state of Chiapas by the previously unknown Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), the army was responsible for numerous human rights violations, including serious cases of extrajudicial executions and extensive use of torture. In Venezuela, President Rafael Caldera cited the country's economic crisis as reason to declare a state of emergency on June 27. While officially justified as an economic necessity, grounds which are not consistent with international law, the state of emergency provided a pretext to detain without due process grass-roots leaders, opposition politicians, and socially and economically marginalized individuals.
In 1994, accountability for human rights abuses suffered serious setbacks in both Colombia and Guatemala. On July 7, Colombian President César Gaviria vetoed a proposed "Disappearance Law." By establishing the crime of "forced disappearance of persons," the law would have placed perpetrators under civilian jurisdiction and ended the impunity with which disappearances are committed. It would also have eliminated the "due obedience" defense by which military personnel have been routinely exonerated for crimes committed following superior orders. In Guatemala, the administration of President Ramiro de León Carpio backtracked from its commitment to demilitarize the National Police, firing key reformers in the government and permitting several individuals linked to the army once again to infiltrate the agency. As a result, there was a marked increase in violence by police and military agents in 1994.
At the same time, in Peru and Colombia, "faceless courts," in which the identities of the judges and witnesses were concealed, arbitrarily convicted thousands of civilians often relying strictly on evidence provided by state agents or the testimony of a single witness.
Another problem endemic to Latin America's judicial system was the excessive use of pre-trial detention. Many prisoners interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Americas in Venezuela's Sabaneta Prison, for example, were jailed and awaiting trial for periods longer than the maximum sentences which they were facing. The overcrowding that resulted was a central cause of the January riot and fire in Sabaneta, which led to more than one hundred deaths as guards looked on. In Honduras, only 12 percent of the country's 6,100 prisoners had been tried and sentenced. Besides violating the rights of those being detained, the situation of excessive pre-trial detention exacerbated conditions of overcrowding, filth, lack of food, and violence, which already existed in many of the region's prison systems. In October, unsanitary conditions and systematic abuses in Argentine prisons led to massive hunger strikes by inmates in several penal institutions.
Unelected governments, at the same time, committed human rights violations as state policy while rejecting even the pretense of democratic institutions. Until its demise in September, upon arrival of the U.S.-led occupation force, Haiti's military regime conducted an intensive campaign throughout 1994 to eliminate supporters of exiled President Aristide. The government of General Raoul Cédras employed extrajudicial execution, disappearance, and torture to crush political opposition and create a climate of terror. Rape was used as a tool of state terror by police, soldiers, and armed civilian auxiliaries (known as attachés) to punish women thought to support Aristide. The multinational, U.S.-led intervention ultimately returned Aristide to Haiti and created hope for the beginnings of democratic participation for the long-abused Haitian people. This was only after tightening repression on the island cost thousands of lives and forced tens of thousands to flee the island and seek refuge in the U.S. state of Florida.
Like Haiti, Cuba contributed to the flood of refugees landing in Florida. The exodus of Cuban rafters focused attention on the country's law prohibiting "illegal exit," a violation of the right to freedom of movement, and an unprecedented riot on August 5 in Havana underscored the growing discontent on the island. After the riot, the Cuban government briefly suspended enforcement of the illegal exit law but reimposed it in September as part of an agreement with the United States. On the island, the government maintained its repression of political and civil rights and cracked down further on political dissidents.
The involvement of the Organization of American States and the United Nations in the region produced mixed results for human rights during the year. The OAS continued to avoid condemning systemic human rights violations by elected civilian governments in certain countries. On the other hand, individual cases of human rights violations brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights underscored the abuses that routinely occurred in these countries.
In Haiti, the U.N.'s performance, like that of the Clinton administration, shifted dramatically and was notably weak in early 1994. Early in the year, despite the Cédras regime's abrogation of the Governor's Island Accord, U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Dante Caputo pressed Aristide to make additional concessions to the military rulers. The U.N. also failed to renew the mandate of the U.N./OAS Civilian Mission, opening its staff to the harassment of state security forces. Later, at U.S. urging, the U.N. took several steps to tighten the economic embargo on the island and on July 31, passed Resolution 940, which permitted the use of any means to ensure the departure of the military leaders, in effect sanctioning a U.S.-led invasion of the island.
The U.N. also played a central role in monitoring human rights violations in El Salvador and pressing negotiations between the government and guerrillas in Guatemala. In Guatemala, while the political will to enforce human rights protections established by the negotiations seemed absent, the peace process provided the U.N. a tool to press for greater political will.
Overall, the trend in Latin America toward consolidation of civilian governments did not_in many countries_guarantee that vulnerable members of society, dissenters, labor organizers, the press, or voters could confidently exercise their rights. In this context, Latin American governments increasingly focused on achieving economic success through such partnerships as NAFTA and Mercosur, the subregional pact which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. At the Rio Group Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in September, regional leaders supported the creation of a South American Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), to create a region-wide free trade zone which would make the region's products more competitive in the world economy. But these plans proceeded without addressing a crucial precondition for balanced, sustainable economic development_respect for human rights.
United States Commerce Secretary Ron Brown explained to reporters in November, "Our strategy of commercial engagement, we believe is the most effective strategy to have a positive impact on labor rights and human rights." The concept that trade is a conduit for respect for human rights, echoed by other officials in the Clinton administration as well as leaders from the rest of the hemisphere, was disproved by the experiences of several countries in Latin America where free market policies, like the formal institutions of democracy, coexisted with gross human rights violations. The disassociation of civilian government and economic planning from a human rights agenda was of grave concern to Human Rights Watch/Americas. To the extent that free trade agreements define a community of nations, governments should insist that the community be founded on the shared fundamental values of respect for the rights of the individual. As such, it would be important that such agreements include an explicit commitment to respect and enforce the human rights standards enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights and that they include a mechanism for the adjudication of individual complaints of human rights violations that may arise in the context of the commercial relations permitted under the agreement.
The Right to Monitor
The institutions of democracy, which have mushroomed throughout the hemisphere, have in part contributed to the remarkable growth of civil society in Latin America. During 1994, human rights organizations and groups with common goals ranging from labor unions to indigenous groups to women's organizations participated actively in civil society and sought to expand democratic guarantees. An active press served both as a watchdog to monitor abuses of power and as an effective medium for expressing alternative views. In many countries, however, such activism was still dangerous, as human rights monitors, political dissidents, and journalists covering governmental abuses faced threats to their freedom, their security, and their lives.
In Cuba and under the Cédras regime in Haiti, human rights monitors continued documenting abuses despite ever-present threats to their safety. Between January and its expulsion from the country in July, the U.N./OAS human rights mission was briefly allowed to return to Haiti, during which time it was able to document 1,400 cases of human rights violations despite severe restrictions on its movements. Domestic groups documented numerous other cases despite continued threats to their safety. In Cuba, human rights monitors and members of so-called illegal organizations continued to be the targets of arbitrary arrest, physical violence, and intimidation, particularly after the August 5 riot in Havana, which prompted the government to tighten its repression on the island's growing dissident movement.
In other countries as well, human rights monitors continued to face intimidation. In Mexico and Colombia, human rights activists faced arbitrary detention, surveillance, illegal searches, and death threats.
In Guatemala, the government made it apparent that it would seek to limit the role of the United Nations in monitoring human rights in the country. On the one hand, the government was seeking to terminate the mandate of the United Nations Human Rights Commission's independent expert once the U.N. Verification Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) was installed. On the other hand, it was attempting to restrict MINUGUA's mandate to the point of undermining its mission by denying authorization to investigate human rights cases and only permitting the mission to "strengthen domestic institutions."
On September 19, U.S. troops occupied Haiti in what the Clinton administration termed "a semi-permissive environment," after a delegation constituted by former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn, and General Colin Powell negotiated with the Haitian military high command. The operation, which sought to restore deposed President Aristide to power, seemed to put into practice the administration's stated policy goal of "enlargement," the expansion and strengthening of democracy, set forth by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake as the thematic successor to the Cold War policy of containment.
The intervention also marked a radical shift from the considerably less critical United States policy toward the Haitian military at the beginning of the year. Despite ample evidence of massive human rights abuses early in 1994, United States officials consistently downplayed the situation, even suggesting that human rights violations were being exaggerated and manipulated by Aristide supporters for political reasons.
The underlying motivation for the administration's policy was the fear that Florida shores would be flooded by masses of Haitians fleeing the island. In response to the refugees, the United States first assumed a policy of forcible return, in violation of the international prohibition on refoulement, and later shifted to a policy of safe haven, transferring Haitians intercepted at sea to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
When the United States did intervene, its troops landed on the island with the conflicting objectives of returning Aristide and democracy to Haiti and of maintaining the existing Haitian armed forces as the interim police force and scaled-down army. During the first days of U.S. occupation, a series of incidents, including an attack on unarmed demonstrators by heavily armed Haitian police officers, which left two dead as U.S. troops watched and did nothing, made it obvious that the two goals were irreconcilable. Responding to these contradictions, the Clinton administration shifted policy in a positive direction, changing the rules of engagement so that U.S. soldiers could respond to such incidents. Nonetheless, the United States' reliance on the existing security forces to maintain order, the lack of an adequate plan to screen human rights abusers out of the new police force, and the reluctance to disarm all members of paramilitary forces, represented possible threats to the establishment of democracy. While outcome could not be predicted at this writing, by early December the Clinton administration had the opportunity to help foster a true democratic opening on the island and thus send an important message in support of human rights to the rest of the hemisphere.
The shifting U.S. policy toward human rights violations in Haiti over the year reflected the inconsistency in human rights policy toward the continent as a whole. While democratic ideals were invariably incorporated into political discourse, these ideals were frequently overshadowed by other considerations, most notably trade and immigration. As was previously mentioned, when faced with a second refugee crisis, this time from the neighboring island of Cuba, the United States reached an agreement with the Cuban government requiring Cuba to take measures to stop the refugee flow. This accord essentially made the United States an accomplice in the violation of the fundamental guarantee of freedom of movement, including the right to leave one's own country, by encouraging Cuba to criminalize emigration.
It was not immigration but trade considerations that explained the Clinton administration's notably weak response to the human rights violations committed by the Mexican army in suppressing the EZLN uprising in Chiapas. Fearing the implications for the recently approved NAFTA agreement, the Clinton administration took nearly a month to publicly acknowledged that human rights abuses had been committed by the Mexican army. The administration proved equally passive regarding the labor rights mechanisms incorporated into the NAFTA treaty. In 1994, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich refused to pursue two cases presented for consideration, both of which charged that Mexico had failed to enforce labor organizing rights.
Human rights concerns should also have played a more central role in determining U.S. aid to Latin America. Despite its abysmal record on human rights, Colombia was the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere. Meanwhile Honduras, a country flooded with U.S. aid during a period of horrendous human rights abuses, in 1994 received little assistance from Washington as the reformist government of President Carlos Roberto Reina strove to build a new civilian police force.
The Summit of the Americas, scheduled to begin December 9, offers President Clinton an ideal opportunity to remind the hemispheric leaders gathering in Miami that even after the days of brutal dictators, serious human rights problems endure. Unfortunately, human rights issues have been entirely absent from the Summit's agenda, despite the apparently coincidental timing of the meeting on International Human Rights Day, December 10. Instead, plans for the Summit focused almost entirely on proposals for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone, with business leaders welcome at the conference and nongovernmental organizations politely excluded.
The Work of
Human Rights Watch/Americas
In 1994, accountability for human rights violations continued to be a central objective of Human Rights Watch/Americas's efforts. The obligation of the state to prevent and investigate human rights violations; prosecute and punish their perpetrators; and to safeguard the right of the victim to seek justice is the only guarantee that the institutions of democracy will foster a truly democratic society.
Human Rights Watch/Americas was encouraged that the newly restored Haitian parliament resisted diplomatic pressures to enact a broad amnesty that would have included human rights abuses committed by the former Haitian military rulers, opting instead for a narrow amnesty, covering only political crimes: that is, the military coup. Human Rights Watch/Americas had pressed the Aristide government in exile, the United States government, and the United Nations to reject a blanket amnesty. It also pressed for the establishment of an autonomous and vigorous truth commission to investigate human rights abuses and of independent courts to try those responsible.
In pressing for greater accountability, Human Rights Watch/Americas also continued to use the human rights mechanisms of the Organization of American States to focus international attention on individual cases of impunity. Human Rights Watch/Americas presented numerous cases, together with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 1994, a friendly settlement was reached in the case of Guillermo Maqueda, from Argentina, who had been unjustly sentenced to ten years in prison for alleged participation in a failed takeover of a military installation in 1989. By the terms of the settlement, the President of Argentina commuted Maqueda's sentence, resulting in his immediate release. This marked the first time that a case was presented before the Inter-American Court for human rights violations in Argentina, which, as in other cases brought before the Commission, was cooperative with the Inter-American system. In another case petitioned by Human Rights Watch/Americas, the Court ordered provisional measures to protect witnesses and human rights monitors in Colotenango, Guatemala. In the aftermath of the slaying of a human rights activist by members of the military-organized civil patrols there, patrollers beat and threatened several witnesses and monitors who had pursued the case in court. Although a judge ordered the patrollers arrested, the police refused to carry out the order, leaving witnesses and monitors totally unprotected.
In 1994, we continued to focus international attention on political rights and fair elections. Prior to the elections in El Salvador and Mexico, we published reports documenting cases of electoral irregularities and political violence. We also urged President Joaquín Balaguer of the Dominican Republic to investigate reported incidents of fraud in that country's elections.
With the shift away from military dictatorships in Latin America, Human Rights Watch/Americas also focused increasing attention on human rights violations that were directed not at a political enemy but at certain sectors of society such as slum dwellers, prison inmates, and detainees. These violations, perhaps because they were committed under the guise of democracy, did not receive the international attention that their prevalence would warrant. In 1994, we investigated cases of torture and killings of street children in Brazil and, with the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project, carried out a similar investigation in Colombia and documented the abysmal penal conditions in which minors are detained in Jamaica. Of particular concern, too, were human rights violations specifically targeting women. In 1994, Human Rights Watch/Americas released, with Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, a report documenting the politically motivated rape of women in Haiti. We also conducted an investigation into the forced prostitution of women and girls in Brazil. In all of these efforts, we maintained close and productive relations with human rights colleagues throughout the hemisphere.
If Latin America and the Caribbean has seen substantial progress over the last decade in building the institutions for civilian government, transitions to democracy will nevertheless remain incomplete unless human rights are incorporated as central to the process and impunity for violations is ended. The continued prevalence of torture, including rape, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, intimidation, and violations of due process and the freedom of expression indicate the gulf between these democratic ideals and reality in the region.