Uruguay's Supreme Court Ignores International Human Rights Norms

Article excerpt

While Uruguayans marked the 40th anniversary of the June 27, 1973, civilian-military coup, and all cities in the country paid tribute to victims of the dictatorship, the Suprema Corte de Justicia (SCJ) received a new condemnation from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), various UN agencies, and world-renowned jurists such as Spain's Baltasar Garzon.

The SCJ does not recognize the primacy of international human rights treaties signed by Uruguay and, contrary to all global norms, gives national law precedence and considers that crimes such as kidnapping, torture, disappearance, and assassination are not crimes against humanity and are therefore subject to statutes of limitations like common crimes such as robbery.

Unlike Argentina, which maintains open cases against those accused of genocide, or European countries, which still pursue and try Nazi war criminals, Uruguay absolves such persons of all guilt after a certain number of years.

With the telling slogan "memory and justice," acts of remembrance were held in plazas and streets, in theaters and sports arenas, in Congress and schools during the week of June 27.

SCJ closes important human rights cases

However, in a very different vein, on the day before the 40th anniversary of the bloodiest coup in the country's history and on June 27 itself, the SCJ announced two decisions that make clear the real political and ideological position of four of the five SCJ justices. First, the court closed two cases in which high-ranking Army and Air Force officers were on trial for torture, forced disappearance, and murder. Second, it exonerated two soldiers responsible for the 1981 hanging death of a political prisoner.

The SCJ has been showing signs of moving in this direction since late 2012. In early 2013, by declaring unconstitutional a law passed by Congress that imposed a small tax on large landowners, the high court showed its willingness to make explicit its loyalty to certain powerful sectors of society.

In February 2011, in the Gelman case (NotiSur, April 15, 2011), the SCJ decision rejected the argument that the crime of disappearance is permanent and only ends with the appearance of the victim either alive or dead. In response, the IACHR informed the SCJ that its decisions must conform to provisions of international humanitarian treaties. The Gelman case is a paradigmatic example of Operation Condor, the coordinated repression by Southern Cone dictatorships during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The victim was Marcelo Gelman, son of Argentine poet Juan Gelman.

Now, the SCJ has issued similar rulings. Along with the IACHR, Pablo de Greiff, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of nonrecurrence, his colleague Juan Mendez, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and Gabriela Knaul, special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers were especially harsh on the SCJ.

"It is troubling that crimes committed during the dictatorship still go unpunished and that the paths of access to justice and compensation for victims and their relatives remain closed," said De Greiff.

"Uruguay must keep in mind that it is obliged to remove any obstacle that favors impunity for those responsible for human rights violations," said Mendez. "As public officials, the judges have the obligation to ensure respect for and promotion of human rights and the rule of law," said Knaul.

High court sides with large landowners

In February, the SCJ had given the first indication of its alignment with the powerful when it ruled unconstitutional the rural property tax (Impuesto a la Concentracion de Inmuebles Rurales, ICIR). The government-proposed law imposed a small tax on properties larger than 2,000 hectares, according to a scale that began at US$8 per ha for smaller parcels and US$17 for properties of more than 10,000 ha. …