Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-AMERICAS: Democracy Brings Change of Uniform for Impunity

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, May 8 1998 (IPS) - Democracy has not brought the Americas a reduction in impunity when it comes to human rights violations. But the biggest violators no longer wear a military but a police uniform, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) warned Friday.

The massacres, torture and other human rights abuses reported to the CIDH are no longer perpetrated by the armed forces, said the commission’s vice-chairman, Robert Goldman.

The police today are the biggest violators of human rights throughout the entire continent, Goldman, a U.S. national, said at the end of a week-long meeting in the capital of Venezuela.

The chairman of the CIDH, Venezuela’s Carlos Ayala, said that more than 70 percent of the cases filed with the commmission still involve violations of citizens’ rights to life, liberty and moral and personal integrity.

Ayala and Goldman said it is highly disturbing that extrajudicial executions and other abuses committed by those whose duty it is to protect citizens go unpunished.

In its 99th session, the CIDH issued only one report of international condemnation, against the government of Mexico, which failed to meet the commission’s requests to investigate and sanction the police responsible for two summary executions committed in 1995.

Most of the nine cases heard involved police brutality that went unpunished, such as the case of Walter Bulacio, killed by the police in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The other cases were from Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Chile and Peru.

With the consolidation of democracy in the Americas, the victims of abuses and their families, with the support of human rights groups, have begun to increasingly take legal recourse in the CIDH.

The commission – which passes judgement on specific cases, while the Inter-American Human Rights Court delivers sentences – is currently studying around 1,000 cases, but will only issue reports on 46 this year, said Argentina’s Jorge Taina, executive secretary of the CIDH. The members of the CIDH explained that only those cases that set precedents for all countries in the region were selected.

Ayala said the CIDH’s alarm over the impunity enjoyed by police who violated human rights did not run counter to its view that both armed forces and police were absolutely necessary.

“We need well-structured, professional, well-equipped and well- paid police forces,” which are necessary for protecting citizens, fighting crime and keeping order, the Venezuelan jurist stressed.

“The police should be the main front of protection for human rights, watching over people and their rights, but that is not what is being seen on the continent,” he added.

“The police often blend with crime and disregard and violations” of rights, said Ayala, speaking in the name of the CIDH, which brought up the problem of impunity before the leaders of the 34 members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) at the Apr. 18-19 Summit of the Americas in Chile.

Goldman said the fact that human rights violations “are not state policy in the countries of the Americas” was a positive change brought by the restoration of democracy in the region.

But governments and other public powers maintain “excessive tolerance, which implies responsibility” for the abuses and disproportionate force with which police in the region tend to act, he added.

“There are places where the police are almost criminal enterprises and people don’t dare turn to them,” said Goldman. “That is a disgrace for democracy and the citizenship.”

The knowledge that they will not be punished, the special privileges enjoyed by police, lack of training and low salaries combined with ignorance regarding their role as human rights defenders rather than violators all compound the problem.

Ayala and Goldman also stressed the weakness of legal systems throughout the continent, a legacy of dictatorships and a result of insufficient modernisation of democratic states.

“A robust, independent legal system is urgently needed in order for democracy to translate into a real state of law,” said Goldman.

Ayala commented that one proof of the weakness of the legal system is that 70 percent of prison inmates throughout the region have not yet been sentenced.

Goldman said the problem of impunity was part of the larger dilemma of the socioeconomic deterioration in Latin America and the Caribbean, which feeds crime and spills over into inadequately prepared police forces.

 
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