Uruguay’s commitment to human rights at home and abroad is clear, but the country must address a series of challenges, including “inhumane” prison conditions, widespread violence against women, dropout rate in education, the situation of adolescents in pre-trial conditions and continuing impunity for violations committed during military rule, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said at the end of a two-day visit.
“The Uruguayan authorities have made significant efforts to integrate human rights into public policy, and there is clear political will to make progress in this area,” Zeid said, highlighting the adoption of laws and policies that aim to tackle discrimination, reduce poverty and enhance the rights of women and LGBTI persons.
The High Commissioner noted that Uruguay’s efforts to improve its overall situation are recognized domestically and internationally. “Uruguay is a country with tremendous potential, which has dared to make a difference in many areas. However, the progress made to date is not enough: the country can do more to tackle the serious human rights violations that continue to occur,” he said.
“To do so, Uruguay must ensure that the strategies to respond to its most pressing challenges are firmly based on human rights, which also means that the Government, Congress and, very importantly, the judiciary, uphold and implement the country’s obligations under international human rights law,” Zeid said.
During his meetings with Uruguayan authorities and civil society representatives, the High Commissioner expressed concern about serious human rights issues in the country, such as the reportedly “appalling and inhumane” conditions in many detention centers. “In a country that has succeeded in so many ways, it is difficult to understand why the authorities are still unable to address the longstanding deficiencies of the prison system,” Zeid said.
The High Commissioner acknowledged the steps Uruguay has taken since 2010 to improve conditions in its jails, including through the Parliamentary Commissioner for Prisons. He also welcomed the adoption of a new Criminal Procedure Code, which will enter into force next November, and expressed hope that this new regulation will help to relieve the country’s overloaded prison system.
However, Zeid voiced alarm at the situation of adolescents in conflict with the law, particularly the excessive duration of pre-trial detention. He called on Uruguay to ensure that young offenders are protected from violence and discrimination, and can have a real opportunity for reintegration into society. “In a country ageing as rapidly as Uruguay, the whole of society needs to realize that youth is their hope for the future,” he said.
Zeid also called on Uruguay to make every effort to ensure all allegations of torture or ill-treatment are investigated properly. “Uruguay needs to use imprisonment as a last resort, implement more non-custodial sentences and introduce more rehabilitation programs,” he said.
“The persistently high rates of gender-based killings of women, in many cases by their partner or ex-partner, is troubling, as is the difficulty many women victims of violence face in accessing justice,” the High Commissioner said. He also urged the Government to remove any restrictions and barriers to reproductive health services, including safe abortion procedures, which were decriminalized in 2012, and post-abortion care.
During his visit, the High Commissioner met President Tabare Vazquez and several Government ministers, including the Minister of Social Development. Zeid welcomed recent measures such as a new national integrated care system; the promotion of bills such as one on the right to work of persons with disabilities; and the recently adopted law on mental health.
However, he was disturbed by problems such as high dropout rates in the education system, as well as the persistent discrimination against some groups, including homeless people, Afro-Uruguayans, and persons with disabilities.
“Authorities must embrace the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which means leaving no one behind,” the High Commissioner said. “By doing so, the country will be able to address its main challenges in an inclusive manner, making its human rights situation coherent with the standards of living in a modern country like Uruguay,” he added.
The High Commissioner acknowledged the Government’s attempts to address impunity for past crimes committed during the military dictatorship of 1973 to 1985, but highlighted the lack of progress in providing victims with truth, justice and reparation. “It is 32 years since the dictatorship ended, but Uruguay has yet to deal adequately with a brutal period in its recent history. This is essential for society to look to the future without fear and for this, international human rights law is key,” he said.
Zeid also urged the authorities to pursue investigations into death threats made against officials, lawyers and human right defenders involved in the prosecution of criminal cases linked to serious human rights violations during the dictatorship.
The High Commissioner recognized Uruguay’s strong support for human rights on the international stage, including its work as an elected member of the Security Council on peace and security, and its engagement with the Human Rights Council where it has been the main sponsor of resolutions on a variety of issues.
“Uruguay has the opportunity to become a model country for others to follow. With the considerable strengths Uruguay has, and bearing in mind its international human rights obligations, I am convinced that the country is capable of overcoming its most pressing human rights challenges for the benefit of its people,” he said, adding that his Office, including through its Regional Office for South America, stands ready to continue providing support in this endeavor.
During his visit, Zeid also attended the 165th ordinary period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Montevideo, where he launched a joint action plan with the IACHR to contribute to the protection of human rights defenders in the Americas. He also met civil society representatives from across the region.