Uruguay’s Citizens Challenge Impunity

Government officials stunned when one-fifth of Uruguay's
population sign referendum petition

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 8
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Uruguay’s "Impunity Law," which shields the military from prosecution for past human rights abuses, has been challenged by a courageous campaign involving what may be the most pluralistic and representative coalition ever created in this South American nation’s history.

Over 600,000 registered voters – one-fifth of Uruguay’s population – signed a petition calling for a national referendum to repeal the Law. This monumental feat stunned government officials and returned to Uruguay’s people the right to set their own course.

The military ruled Uruguay from 1973 until 1985, when it stepped aside to allow the elections that brought current President Julio María Sanguinetti to power. During transition talks in 1984, military and political leaders had agreed that while the Executive branch of the new government would not prosecute human rights violators, the civilian courts would still be free to pursue the matter without interference.

But Mr. Sanguinetti, citing threats by the Armed Forces to ignore judicial subpoenas, pushed the Impunity Law through Parliament on December 22, 1986 – just in time to exempt the first group of military and police officers due to appear in court on charges of torture, extrajudiciary execution, abduction and "disappearance."

Within 24 hours citizens formed the National Pro-Referendum Commission, led by the grandmother of a "disappeared" girl , the widows of two murdered parliamentarians, and other prominent Uruguayans representing the entire political spectrum. In the following weeks some 300 grassroots neighborhood committees started organizing throughout the country in preparation for the petition drive, launched in February 1987.

"Mission Impossible," said the government. Uruguay’s Constitution requires the signatures of 25% of the registered voters to put such a referendum on the ballot, and voter rolls are swollen by mandatory registration at the age of 18. The government was also banking on the legacy of fear left behind by a very recent dictatorial experience.

Just to be on the safe side, however, government spokesmen warned that the undoing of the Impunity Law could lead to a military coup and suggested that the signatures be controlled by the ministries of Internal Security and National Defense. Such pronouncements were widely interpreted as part of an attempt to intimidate potential signers, especially those with government jobs.

But the broad appeal of the Pro-Referendum Commission helped to compensate for these and other handicaps, such as a shortage of funds and very restricted access to the media. Tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life collected signatures door-to-door as well as in public places, private and public offices, shops and factories all over Uruguay. Actors, musicians, singers and other artists toured the country offering benefit performances, and pro-referendum groups abroad collected signatures and funds from Uruguayans living in other countries.

After a 10-month effort that went almost unreported beyond Uruguay’s borders, the Commission delivered to the nation’s Electoral Court more signatures than the highly politicized Court could honestly count. The Court then spent a year questioning the validity of the signatures, in effect daring some 37,000 citizens to come forward in person to confirm their support for the referendum (and, by consequence, to publicly identify themselves to the ever-threatening military).

The overwhelming majority of these citizens rose to the challenge. The Court was forced to concede defeat, and the petition was officially certified on December 23, 1988. The national vote will take place on April 16, 1989.

No similar recourse against unpopular laws is available in any other Latin American country, but the implications of the campaign in Uruguay reverberate throughout the region. Impunity is a source of increasing concern to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, which noted in a June 1988 report that Uruguay’s impunity measure, "by undermining the law’s ability to deter future abuses … could encourage some to see ‘disappearance’ as an acceptable practice and contribute to the occurrence of similar abuses in the future."

And America’s Watch, assessing the Argentine public’s reaction to a military mutiny that paved the way to a similar impunity measure, commented in 1987 that "Never in Argentine history has there been such a demonstration of overwhelming support for the democratic process and such outspoken opposition to authoritarian rule."

Although the threat posed by an unrepentant military cannot be overemphasized, these examples of popular opposition to impunity indicate that civilian governments grossly underestimate the resolve of their people to uphold the rule of law. Uruguay’s National Pro-Referendum Commission proved right the slogan it had adopted: "Each signature counts." In anticipation of a final test, which is sure to see the government and military fielding all their resources in defense of the "Impunity Law," the Commission is again reaching out to the Uruguayan people – this time with the message, "Each vote counts."

Carlos Varela is a Uruguayan journalist and U.N. correspondent for ANSA, the Italian news agency.

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