CHILE: Doubt Cast on Government's Commitment to Human Rights

  • by Daniela Estrada (santiago)
  • Inter Press Service

'I believe the authorities and different public institutions do not fully comprehend the obligation to respect and promote human rights, as established by the constitution itself,' Jorge Contesse, director of the Human Rights Centre at the private Diego Portales University (UDP), told IPS.

To illustrate, Contesse pointed to the way the government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, in office since March, reacted to the hunger strike that around 30 Mapuche indigenous prisoners held for more than 80 days earlier this year.

The lawyer applauded the fact that Piñera persuaded the protesters to lift the hunger strike, sending Congress two bills to reform the military justice system and the controversial counter-terrorism law -- reforms that have long been called for by human rights defenders in Chile and around the world.

But he said the bills 'do not fully live up to international human rights standards.'

'The modification of the military justice system is only partial, because the bill submitted by the government would still leave open the possibility that civilians could be subject to military jurisdiction. That is inadmissible, from the international point of view,' Contesse said.

He added that if the bill is not improved, Chile will run the risk of once again being found guilty on that front by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an Organisation of American States (OAS) body based in Costa Rica.

With regard to the second bill, Contesse says progress has been made in some respects. However, the bill includes a definition of terrorism that is 'so vague that even a serial murderer' could be found guilty of that crime, he said.

These are some of the questions analysed by the 2010 version of the annual report on human rights in Chile presented to the media by the UDP on Nov. 25.

With respect to the military justice system, the report questions decisions by public prosecutors to refer cases in which the victims are civilians to the military courts, which it says demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge, or disregard, of an earlier Inter-American Court ruling on the issue.

Early this month, various 'sites of memory', like the Londres 38 and Villa Grimaldi torture centres, preserved to recall the abuses committed during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, complained that the government had withdrawn the direct financing that these national heritage sites currently enjoy from the bill for the 2011 budget.

After a public campaign, and with support from opposition legislators, an agreement was reached with the Piñera administration to reinstate the budget funds.

The Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) then accused the Interior Ministry's Human Rights Programme of 'sitting on' more than 60 legal cases involving politically-motivated killings and forced disappearance committed during the dictatorship, which the Programme was to bring before the courts.

The AFDD sent a letter to Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and has requested a number of interviews to discuss the issue.

'But we haven't received a response,' Gabriela Zúñiga, head of the AFDD, which currently lacks financing, told IPS. She said the organisation is in hope of a government response to the grant proposal they have presented in search of funds.

The AFDD has also called into question activities by the current secretary of the Ministry's Human Rights Programme, Rossy Lama, such as meetings she has held with retired military officers.

There are currently 700 people facing prosecution for human rights violations in this South American country, and nearly 300 have been sentenced, according to the Human Rights Programme.

More than 3,000 people were the victims of politically-motivated murders or forced disappearance during the Pinochet regime, and 27,000 were tortured.

'According to the figures provided by the Programme in May 2010, there are 350 cases open in Chile for forced disappearance, torture, illegal burials or conspiracies that date back to the dictatorial period,' the UDP report says.

'These represent one-third of the official number of recognised victims, which means that most of them have not yet initiated legal proceedings,' it adds.

One promising signal was sent out on Nov. 25 by the government, when it announced that legal action would be taken against those responsible for the March 1974 assassination of José Tohá, a former interior and defence minister of socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973), who was overthrown by Pinochet. Until now, Tohá's death was labelled a suicide.

The former minister died in a military hospital, where he was brought, malnourished and in extremely poor condition, from Isla Dawson, an island in the extreme south of the country, where he had been tortured.

On Nov. 15, a court in Santiago ordered the exhumation of his remains and an investigation into the real cause of his death.

The director of the governmental National Human Rights Institute, Lorena Fríes, welcomed the initiative and urged 'the authorities to pronounce themselves with the same vigour and speed with respect to the lawsuits in cases of politically-motivated murders that are pending in the Interior Ministry's Human Rights Programme.'

The Supreme Court has also been criticised by human rights groups, principally for reducing sentences handed down to human rights violators, while invoking the statute of limitations.

The Supreme Court also has a policy of throwing out lawsuits against the state that seek reparations in cases of human rights abuses, the report says.

The UDP Human Rights Centre also studied the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court with respect to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples, which went into effect in Chile in 2009.

'The tendency of appeals courts to give precedence to the Convention's standards, even above national standards, as required by international public law, has been appreciated,' the report says.

However, when cases reach the Supreme Court, arguments based on Convention 169 fall apart.

'With the exception of one case, in which the civil chamber of the Supreme Court ruled, the apex court has developed, in the constitutional court, jurisprudence that disregards Chile's obligations and puts the State -- once again -- on the route of incompliance with its international commitments, exposing it to reprimands from treaty oversight and monitoring bodies,' the report concludes.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service