North-South Centre - European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity

HUMAN RIGHTS in Latin America :
Analysis on the the challenge of the years to come

Professor Dr. Alicia Cabezudo
School of Education / University of Rosario, Argentina
UN University for Peace / Costa Rica
Master in Peace Education

A number of Latin American countries are undergoing a transition to a more democratic form of government. This does not necessarily mean that the human rights situation is improved.

In most of Latin America, the human rights movement emerged in conditions of dictatorship. Human rights violations were viewed as the product of authoritarian regimes. Under conditions of sweeping repression, political and civil rights, although actually separate, became indistinguishable from security rights in practice. Human rights became a rallying cry for broad opposition to the status quo. The early goals of human rights organizations were shaped by an authoritarian setting. Strategies were directed not only toward immediate remedies, but also toward changing the larger regimes producing the violations in the first place.

This setting has changed in the last decades. Elected civilian governments have now replaced military dictatorships. The new regimes are often labeled democracies because of their electoral origins. They do allow somewhat greater political space for pluralistic political liberties, and in most cases have reigned over less egregious and arbitrary repression than military governments. But in this new setting, however, human rights organizations have had no lack of problems to address.

Although many are restricted democracies – so called “young democracies “- they do provide a different context for human rights work. With at least partial political freedom, human rights become politicized in ways not possible under authoritarian regimes. Human rights groups accustomed to critiquing the institutional sources of violations now have more ambiguous targets in the partial democracies. Crimes and violence may multiply in ways that indicate not overwhelming state power but rather state impotence: they give new saliency to concerns about maintaining public order. With militaries apparently no longer in direct control, questions of accountability become blurred. Instead, the political will of governments becomes more important. Indeed, human rights groups now find themselves functioning with some strange bedfellows: new government offices and partisans purportedly also opposed to repression.

The present situation , therefore, present a significantly different context for promoting human rights in Latin America. It requires fresh thinking about new opportunities and new dangers. Accordingly, we explore herein four of the most pressing issues facing human rights groups in this hemisphere: a) the meaning of democracy, b) military accountability, c) public order and political violence, and d) the role of the U.S. government.

For those concerned about human rights, the broad trend toward greater Latin American democracy is a welcomed trend. Elected governments the possibility of popular influence and the rule of law.

But we must transcend the idea, popular in the U.S and in Europe , that elections make a democracy.

Despite elections, underlying undemocratic power structures usually remain, with pernicious social and economic consequences for the poor majority. Civilian populist governments have failed to meet those needs in the past; newly elected regimes will be no more legitimate if they, too, fail.

In fact, many questioned if these democratic governments are really representative. Political transitions have produced important gains in free expression and association, in political space. But the political spectrum is invariably narrow, notable in Central America - important political forces which should be represented through institutional channels are instead excluded. In very few of these regimes can it be said that governments have consolidated institutional protections for basic political, civil and other human rights, especially for the poor. Despite regime changes in the 1980s and 90s, the poor have increased and have suffered a sharp deterioration in their living conditions - which is an important consideration on the analysis of human rights problem now in the 2000’s.

Latin American human rights groups have experienced first hand the ambiguities of civilian, elected governments. On the one hand, they recognized how these regimes fall short of real democracy, producing repression, not so terrible but make society remember that occurring under military governments. On the other hand, it’s important to recognize the important opportunities that may be provided by new political spaces, and the possibility that the human rights general recognition won at civil society level .

Of key importance is the direction of the newly elected regimes: are they becoming more or less democratic, politically and economically? .Political judgments about human rights priorities must be made, given the possible opportunities offered by partial democracy. And a range of factors in the political system must be monitored. Here are some of the key considerations.

Although Latin American nations have long alternated between civilian and military rule, a new possibility emerged in the late 1980s and particularly along the 90s. Now consolidated in the 2000’s - which means around 20 years now.

In the first phase and in the name of national security, the military refrained from actually overthrowing the civilian government yet retain autonomous authority over the most important national policy. This situation existed in regimes as different as Brazil and Guatemala or Uruguay , and in varying degrees in almost all the Latin American nations. A repressive, mixed civilian-military regime – una democradura, which is neither democracy nor dictatorship emerged in many countries as a kind of transition .

Attempts to hold military personnel responsible though legal channels for human rights violations have had limited success even now. In Peru, for example, no military officer has yet been convicted of violating human rights, and efforts to try the military in civilians courts have been in vain. The Military code of Justice contains no provisions against murder or torture, so defendants in military courts are accused only of negligence or abuse of authority. The experiences in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay all indicate the narrow array of political options, thus significantly lessened the chances for real justice.

In Central America, despite formal civilian governments, the military continues to exercise great power except in Panama and Costa Rica. Beyond possibly overthrowing a government, the military’s power extends even more deeply into Central American political and economic structures, drawing upon special relationships with the U.S.
A good example is the Reagan administration that while claiming it was supporting Latin American democracy through military assistance, the aid served instead to strengthen the very military institutions which posed the greatest human rights threat. Although some of the U.S. government rhetoric has now subsided, the Bush administration still relies on military solutions to the region’s problems, as was painfully evident in the U.S.’s Panama invasion and its policy with Colombian “guerrilla”.

In a second phase – that is the present situation - the human rights groups working under Latin America’s new civilian regimes decided strategically how they can best promote the rule of law in a context of globalization and increased of poverty.
To what degree, in what ways, in what circumstances, should a group cooperate with state structures: with the judiciary and police, with government human rights offices, with the armed forces?
If cooperative, is the group helping democratize the government or is it legitimizing repressive rule?
How can human rights groups work to project fundamental rights of expression and association in popular organizations without underwriting the repression of the “democratic states “ who may work with such organizations?
How can the different kinds of state, political, and social violence be distinguished?

Their international significance and volume of repression make Colombia , for example, particularly noteworthy. In each case the state, facing a significant, armed challenge, has made credible yet ineffective efforts to respond to human rights violations. Has this ineffectiveness resulted from a lack of political will or from the limits of state authority?

Democracy and Human Rights

In order to trace the link between democracy and human rights in Latin America and to identify the tenuous aspects of this linkage, it is important to recall the two levels of creative tensions around which democracy is constructed.

At the first level sits the tension between democracy as a universal aspiration for popular self rule and as a historically bounded form of governance in modern states (i.e. liberal democracy). The second level sits the tension between democratic institutions and the diverse forms and discourses of democratic politics in particular national and regional contexts.

The reflexive thing about it is that democratic institutions and the respecto for human rights will only flourish if they are supported by broad-based democratic politics. The design and structure of democratic institutions also opens spaces for democratic politics, and shapes how elected governments deal with the substantive issues of participation, socio-economic justice, and conflict .

In the attempt to find tools to help us manage diversity, the human rights approach has emerged as an instrument of choice in international discourse of the late 1990s and particularly in the South. This is a legislative and social justice-focused strategy which emphasizes the balance of rights, not content of rights, in the promotion of tolerance. This approach is backed by the United Nations as proclaimed in its Charter, which states that human rights are "for all without distinction".

In its substance, the human rights approach in Latin America links the understanding and promotion of human rights to the resolution of the problem of poverty. Ideally, it is stated in literature that this approach pays attention to the root causes of poverty, injects economic and social rights into the discussions on poverty, and empowers people to demand development and justice as a right and not as charity. It also focuses on the relation between the state and its citizens with the principal duty holder of all human rights being the state (UNDP 2000).

Democracy and human rights are not rewards for development but are critical in achieving it. This implies that there is a collective commitment based on the vision of humanity, and the solidarity required in order to fulfil the vision of a better life for all. The value addition element in the HRA is the introduction of the moral dimension, urgency, responsibility and accountability to the implementation of development objectives.

But like democracy, tolerance and globalization, the human rights discourse need some critical attention as well. Falk has drawn attention to some historical fact that when the 1948 Human Rights declaration was drawn within the UN framework, the United States was the triumphant power that had just rescued Europe from itself. The US’s emphasis at that point in time, was on the failure of the liberal democracies to heed the Nazi internal repressiveness in the years of the build-up to WWII. It seemed important then, to posit an international humanitarian responsibility in relation to the possible re-emergence of totalitarian abuses of the future.

For the old East, the UDHR was not contentious because the communists saw in it a clear ideological high ground with respect to issues of societal well being on which they had scored remarkably well. Moreover, they had the political power to contest the economic model of capitalism on which the development of the west was premised, and had the military power to back their position and safeguard their inherent values, ideology and political systems. They therefore regarded diplomacy related to human rights as an opportunity to challenge the western emphasis on individual civil and political rights by championing and invoking the socialist emphasis on the economic and social rights of a collective nature.

To political and intellectual elites on both sides of the divide as well as in the South, human rights was regarded as providing an arena for the exchange of propaganda charges on the plane of international relations . The small and large scripts associated with the crafting of the UDHR were therefore not about a better world for all, but a mixture of triumph, minimalism, and containment.

The liberal democracies with strong class structures in particular were intent on ensuring that redundancy in this area was achieved, because of their worries about potential activism from the poorer sections of their respective citizenries. Authoritarian states in the old East for their part, could subscribe to such normative standards which were so incompatible with their operating codes because of the sense that there was no prospect for either implementation from without, or pressure from within.

But it was the anti-colonial struggle which involved countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America that drew attention to active forms of oppressive rules at the transnational level; and the anti-authoritarian campaigns that created robust transnational political support for the human rights of self determination, which, though initially absent from the Universal Declaration, became a foundational basis for human rights in general. The right to self determination was later elevated to the eminence of being posited as a bridge between economic, social and cultural rights; and political and civil rights .

Apart from these movements, there was a significant partially subversive presence within many government that adhered to idealist views and believed in some sort of global community based on law and morality that was both possible and necessary. This force was guided mainly by notions of civilizational solidarity rather than conquest.
Latin America as a whole is a good example of this.

Professor Alicia Cabezudo
November 2008 - Lisboa Forum