Paraguay is a constitutional republic with a strong executive branch and an increasingly important bicameral legislature. The President is the head of government and cannot succeed himself. The 1998-99 Government of President Raul Cubas Grau was marked by growing attempts by the executive to undercut the constitutional authority of the legislative and judicial branches. In turn, Congress and the Supreme Court challenged the President for months, and on March 23, Cubas foe and Vice President Luis Maria Argana was assassinated, allegedly by supporters of retired General Lino Oviedo. On March 28, President Cubas, General Oviedo's protege, resigned, and Senate president Luis Gonzalez Macchi assumed the presidency. The succession, while tense, was orderly and took place as mandated in the Constitution. The Congress, Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the Supreme Court agreed that the new President should serve the remainder of the former President's term, until 2003. President Gonzalez Macchi formed a "national unity" government that included, for the first time in 50 years, the two major opposition parties. Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary and the Supreme Court continued a reform process, the courts continued to be subject to pressure from politicians and others.
The military no longer plays an overt role in politics; however, many citizens remained concerned about possible erosion of its apolitical status. The military's decision to support the democratic transition in late March was viewed as a sign of its increasing professionalism and acceptance of its role in a democracy. The national police force has responsibility for maintaining internal security and public order; while it is nominally under the authority of the presidency, in practice it reports to the Ministry of the Interior. The civilian authorities maintain effective control of the security forces. Members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.
Paraguay has a market economy with a large informal sector. The formal economy is oriented toward services, with less than half of the $7.9 billion gross domestic product resulting from agriculture and industry. Over 40 percent of the population are engaged in agricultural activity, and approximately 20 percent of families depend on cotton farming. Wealth continues to be concentrated, with both urban and rural areas supporting a large subsistence sector. Agricultural commodities (soybeans, cotton, lumber, and cattle) were the most important export items. The economy shrank by approximately 1.5 percent in 1999. Annual per capita income was approximately $1,500. About 30 percent of the population live in extreme poverty.
The Government's human rights record generally remained poor, and there continued to be serious problems; however, there were improvements in some areas under the Gonzalez Macchi administration. The principal human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and mistreatment of criminal suspects, prisoners, and military recruits, extremely poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy pretrial detention, general weaknesses within the judiciary, infringements on citizens' privacy rights, violence and discrimination against women, abuse of children, discrimination against the disabled and indigenous people, incomplete protection at times for worker rights, instances of forced labor, and allegations of forced child labor.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
The March 23 assassination of Vice President Argana has been widely attributed to retired general and coup-plotter Lino Oviedo, and his protege, then-President Cubas. The assassination, during which Argana's bodyguard Francisco Barrios Gonzalez also was killed, led to protests during which the police and civilian supporters of President Cubas fired on unarmed student demonstrators, killing 8 and injuring over 100. As the most prominent anti-Oviedo and anti-Cubas leader of the ruling Colorado Party, Argana had sought unsuccessfully in February to get Congress to approve Cubas' impeachment. The assassination and subsequent deaths of the demonstrators, widely viewed as political killings, intensified opposition within Congress, while at the same time the lower house impeached Cubas on charges that he had failed to abide by a Supreme Court order to take retired General Oviedo into custody; Cubas resigned on March 28 before the Senate could vote to convict him and fled the country.
The allegations that Oviedo and his key advisers planned Argana's murder are plausible. There are also credible allegations that Oviedo and the police command ordered supporters to fire on protesters later that week. Although the authorities freed some of those arrested from prison and placed them under house arrest, they kept others jailed on weak or no evidence, with no provision for due process. There also have been plausible accusations that the police tortured two of those persons they arrested.
The police and the military were responsible for some extrajudicial killings. On July 2, members of the president's military guard, with assistance from a unit of the Antinarcotics Secretariat Police (SENAD), shot and killed Jose "Coco" Villar during a raid on his home. Villar was a suspect in the assassination of Vice President Argana, which a congressional commission was investigating. The SENAD claimed that Villar was armed and shot at its agents when they raided his home. The Prosecutor General criticized the SENAD's role in the raid, since its mandate is limited to investigation and action in narcotics and firearms cases.
On July 13, agents from the Antinarcotics Police (DINAR) shot and killed Guillermo Jara Ramirez in Nueva Germania, San Pedro. Jara allegedly was harvesting marijuana leaves along with two other persons, who were not harmed, when the DINAR agents approached them. The DINAR reported that the suspects opened fire on agents, who fired back in self-defense, killing Jara.
Some military recruits died as a result of beatings by superior officers (also see Section 1.c.). According to the National Obligatory Service Law, conscripts may be assigned to service either in the armed forces or in the National Police. In April two military recruits were killed while serving at two different police stations; one, Fernando Aristides Gutierrez, was shot to death in a petty dispute with another recruit. The other, Marcial Torres, a 17-year-old conscript working in a police station in Puerto Antequera, in San Pedro province, died as the result of severe injuries inflicted in a beating by the station commander, Ramon Duarte. Although Torres' mother filed an official complaint against Duarte, no investigation or other judicial action had been taken against Duarte by year's end. Human rights monitors, including a support group for families of military recruits, report that 94 recruits, some underage, have been killed or died in accidents since 1989 while serving their mandatory military service.
Three female inmates died as the result of a prison fire of undetermined origin that broke out in their isolation cell (see Section 1.c.).
There has been no further action in the criminal investigation into the killing of Gustavo Daniel Gonzalez Delgado in 1997. Human rights monitors claim that police officers shot Gonzalez three times following a traffic incident between Gonzalez's car and a police vehicle.
There was no further action in the killing of Gumersindo Pavon Diaz, a peasant laborer on land expropriated from a businessman. The killing, allegedly by armed civilian security guards, provoked violence by peasants against the company operating on the land.
There was no further action in the investigations into the 1995 killing of peasant protester Pedro Jimenez and the 1994 killings of peasant leaders Sebastian Larrosa and Esteban Balbuena.
Authoritarian regimes ruled the country until 1989, when dictator Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown by General Andres Rodriguez, who was elected President later that year. In 1996 an appellate court affirmed the convictions for human rights abuses of five Stroessner-era officials: Former police Investigations Director Pastor Coronel and police officers Lucilo Benitez Santacruz, Agustin Belotto Youga, Camilo Almada Morel, and Juan Aniceto Martinez. In September a judge added additional lengthy sentences to each of the prisoners' terms for their roles in the 1976 murder of two brothers, Rodolfo and Benjamin Ramirez Villalba.
In December a court sentenced Stroessner-era police chief, retired General Ramon Duarte Vega, to over 13 years in prison for the attempted murder and systematic torture of former political prisoner Sebastian Castillo. The authorities had arrested Duarte in 1997 and kept him in military prison for acts of torture committed in 1963.
The 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom drew renewed attention to extrajudicial killings and other abuses that occurred under the Stroessner regime. There were renewed allegations that Stroessner cooperated in Operation Condor, a regional plan to eliminate leftists. One human rights activist, who was a political prisoner during that time, has filed cases with Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who was preparing the case against Pinochet, and provided him with documents from Paraguayan archives that he claims implicate General Pinochet in Operation Condor.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Constitution prohibits torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment; however, torture (primarily beatings) and brutal and degrading treatment of convicted prisoners and other detainees continued. A human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Committee of Churches, reported several cases of torture and other abusive treatment of persons designed to extract confessions, punish escape attempts, or intimidate detainees. The Attorney General's office and the Committee of Churches compiled numerous examples of police abuse and extrajudicial killings.
Some of the more than 40 Oviedo supporters arrested following Vice President Argana's assassination alleged that the police tortured or otherwise abused them (see Sections 1.d. and 1.e.).
In addition, there were several allegations of mistreatment of military recruits by noncommissioned and commissioned officers. One NGO claims to have documented five cases of torture of recruits during the year, leading to the death of one of them (see Section 1.a.). Credible reports continued that landowners living near the border in the Alto Parana, Canindeyu, and Amambay departments forcibly removed squatters from their property with the help of the police, without the required judicial order. Some of the evictions reportedly were violent, with paid armed civilians operating in conjunction with police personnel. The authorities undertook no effective action in response to these reports.
In March police armed with a detention order for 6 persons arrested 24 squatters on the property of an absentee landlord outside of Ciudad del Este and imprisoned them for 3 weeks. According to one of those detained, the police beat several of the women and children in the group when their friends protested their arrest. One of them, a woman who was 7 months pregnant, had her baby prematurely as a result of the beating. During their imprisonment, the prisoners reportedly were required to walk up to 15 miles each day to pick beans for their own meals and to collect wood to be carried back to the prison to be used as cooking fuel. After 3 weeks, during which their fellow squatters demonstrated on their behalf in front of the Justice Ministry in Asuncion, the Government released the prisoners and granted them a small plot of land.
Violence accompanied protests and demonstrations from January through April and included the use of excessive force by police and military forces. On two occasions in January, unknown attackers--allegedly Oviedo supporters--threw Molotov cocktails and fired shots into the residences of Supreme Court justices. Similarly, shots were fired into the home of former president Juan Carlos Wasmosy in the same month.
Violence peaked in March as the impeachment proceedings against then-President Cubas continued and following the assassination of Vice President Argana. A bomb threat to the Supreme Court closed the building. On March 23 and 24, police attacked protesters from peasant organizations and unions, as well as Oviedo supporters and proimpeachment activists with tear gas and a water cannon. On March 25, 37 protesters and 6 police officers were injured in confrontations. The police allowed factions involved in the protest to assault one another using rocks, sticks, and firecrackers. On March 26, increasingly violent confrontations resulted in the deaths of 8 persons and injuries to almost 100 others (see Section 1.a.). According to press reports, Oviedo supporters shot at least 20 persons, allegedly without any action by the police.
Prison conditions are extremely poor. Overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions were the most serious problems affecting all prisoners. Prisons generally serve one meal a day and prisoners seldom get vegetables, fruit, or a meat protein source, unless they have individual means to purchase them. Mistreatment of prisoners is also a serious problem. Tacumbu prison, the largest in Asuncion, was built to hold 800 inmates but housed over 1,700 for most of the year. Other regional prisons generally hold about three times more inmates than originally planned. Jailing large numbers of landless peasants for trespassing exacerbates prison overcrowding.
In January at Buen Pastor, the Asuncion women's prison, a fire in the isolation cell killed two prisoners, and a third died of her injuries a month later. There were no guards near the cell, and women in a neighboring cell had to alert prison authorities to the fire, which slowed assistance to the victims and led a judge to claim that he had been unaware of the degree of isolation of the women's confinement. Although laws governing the prisons forbid male guards in the women's prisons, the laws are not always observed in practice, and there have been several reported rapes of prisoners by their guards.
Security is another problem. At one point during the year, there were 114 guards for over 1,800 prisoners at Tacumbu prison, before a court ordered some 200 released because of overcrowding; on December 28, another 255 prisoners were released for the same reason. The Congressional Human Rights Commission has criticized the prisons for their poor nutritional standards. Prisons have separate accommodations for well-to-do prisoners, ensuring that those with sufficient means receive far better treatment than other prisoners.
The Government permits independent monitoring of prison conditions by human rights organizations.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Arbitrary arrest and detention are persistent problems. The Constitution prohibits detention without an arrest warrant signed by a judge and stipulates that any person arrested must appear before a judge within 24 hours to make a statement. The police can arrest persons without a warrant if they catch them in the act of committing a crime but must bring them before a judge within 24 hours. However, according to human rights activists, the authorities often violated these provisions.
Following the assassination of Vice President Argana and the killing of student protesters in March, the authorities arrested over 45 persons in connection with these cases. Many of those arrested were well-known political figures, including legislators allied with the former government. There was little evidence presented to support the charges against them, and most of the accused were held without bail, leading some to question whether due process had been observed. For example, those arrested included Senator Jose Francisco Appleyard, accused because he had accompanied Oviedo to a political rally in 1998, and former Vice President Angel Seifart, accused of having made remarks that somehow contributed to the deaths in March. By year's end, few suspects had been cleared of the charges against them (see Section 1.e.).
In November the authorities arrested 14 members of the army who were suspected of disloyalty when rumors circulated that a coup was being planned. At year's end, they remained incarcerated.
Pretrial detention remains a serious problem. About 93 percent of the over 5,000 prisoners were held pending trial, many for months or years after their arrest. While the law encourages speedy trials, the Constitution permits imprisonment without trial until the accused completes the minimum sentence for the alleged crime, which often occurs in practice. However, there were several cases in which detainees were held without conviction for terms longer than the maximum sentence associated with the crimes with which they were charged. A bail system based on judicial discretion exists for most crimes. Judges frequently set relatively high bail, and many accused persons are unable to post bond. The Supreme Court, the Public Ministry, and a judicial working group have taken steps to reduce the large number of pretrial detainees but have achieved only modest results. The Supreme Court and many criminal court judges also make quarterly visits to the prisons to identify and release improperly held individuals.
The Constitution expressly prohibits forced exile, and it is not practiced.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the courts often are pressured by politicians and other persons whose interests are at stake. There were credible allegations that members of the judiciary who issued arrest warrants for the Oviedo supporters following the events of March did so in response to political pressure. The judges defended their actions by noting the risk that the defendants might flee, and the need to investigate fully the 10 murders. The courts dismissed charges against some persons originally accused of the March killings. Although the detained Oviedo supporters assert that they are held for political reasons, they face criminal charges in a system plagued by slow movement, as well as political pressures. The judiciary is not allied with any one political group.
In early November, the Senate voted not to confirm three of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, basing its authority to do so on a disputed article of the Constitution. Many persons assume that the vote was based on partisan political considerations. Two of the justices appealed the vote to the Court's Constitutional Chamber, which temporarily suspended the Senate's decision until it could be reviewed further.
The nine-member Supreme Court appoints lower court judges and magistrates, based upon recommendations by the Magistrate's Council. There are five types of appellate tribunals: Civil and commercial, criminal, labor, administrative disputes, and juvenile. Several minor courts and justices of the peace fall within these five functional areas. The military has its own judicial system.
The judicial system remains relatively inefficient, but the enactment of new criminal procedure and penal codes is expected to improve the judicial system's efficiency. However, the judiciary continues to suffer from insufficient resources. There was also a large backlog of cases, but the judiciary undertook to eliminate up to 40 percent of the cases that are inactive or invalid due to the statute of limitations. The Constitution stipulates that all defendants have the right to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, but this right often is not respected in practice. Many destitute suspects receive little legal assistance, and few have access to an attorney sufficiently in advance of the trial to prepare a defense. In Asuncion, for example, there are only 20 public defenders available to assist the indigent, and just 77 nationwide. Some judicial districts have not even been assigned public defenders. Moreover, the public defenders lack the resources to perform their jobs adequately.
New penal and criminal procedures codes entered into force in 1998 and 1999 to replace antiquated codes. They provide for protection of fundamental human rights, and include procedures for an oral and accusatorial system, as well as a faster and more transparent criminal trial process. Although trials still were conducted almost exclusively by presentation of written documents to a judge, who then renders a decision, the new penal and criminal procedure codes are expected to introduce oral proceedings gradually. A Public Ministry official is responsible in most cases for bringing charges against accused persons. Defendants and the Public Ministry can present written testimony of witnesses and other evidence. In practice, testimony is oral and generally taken by members of the judicial staff, without a judge present. All interested parties have access to all documents reviewed by the judge, and defendants can rebut witnesses' statements. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. The judge alone determines guilt or innocence and decides punishment. During the pretrial phase, the judge receives and may request investigative reports. In this phase, the judge is also likely to make a personal inspection of the scene of the crime and of the available physical evidence. The accused often appears before the court only twice: to plead and to be sentenced. If the sentence is appealed, an appellate judge reviews the verdict, and the law provides for appeals to the Supreme Court in certain cases.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Government and its security forces generally did not interfere in the private lives of citizens; however, human rights activists claimed that local officials and police officers abuse their authority by entering homes or businesses without warrants and harassing private citizens. The Constitution provides that police may not enter private homes except to prevent a crime in progress or when the police possess a judicial warrant. There was evidence that the Government occasionally spied on individuals and monitored communications for political and security reasons. There were allegations of the forced conscription of underage youths (see Sections 5 and 6.c.).
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice; however, there were numerous instances of societal violence and threats against journalists during the year.
The print and electronic media are independently owned. The media commonly criticized the Government and freely discussed opposition viewpoints.
Reflecting political tensions in society, journalists reported some incidents of intimidation and violence, although the victims could not link any of them conclusively to the Government. In August an unknown person threw a hand grenade into the garden outside the home of ABC Color newspaper publisher Aldo Zucolillo. Also in August, shots were fired at the house of Radio Nanduti owner Humberto Rubin, and the residence of the editor of the daily newspaper Popular was broken into and ransacked. In August an armed person stopped three employees of the La Nacion newspaper outside the city of Aregua, and ordered them at gunpoint to turn over their film, cameras, cellular phones, and other material. The gunman was identified as an off-duty narcotics policeman providing guard service to the subject of the journalists' investigation. In September shots were fired at the house of Noticias reporter Esteban Areco.
On January 26, members of the opposition-controlled National Congress filed a suit against four journalists--Julio Osvaldo Dominguez Dibb, publisher of La Nacion; Alberto Vargas Pena, columnist and editorial writer of that newspaper; Raul Melamed, announcer of the radio station Montecarlo; and Juan Carlos Bernabe, director of the radio station Nanawa--accusing them of "committing punishable offenses against constitutional institutions, offenses against the State, and offenses against the maintenance of the social order." Melamed and Bernabe in particular urged that Oviedo supporters physically intimidate Supreme Court justices who had ruled against the Cubas Government in December 1998. Melamed, who was the master of ceremonies at the December 1998 Oviedo demonstration in which Oviedo promised "rivers of blood" for his opponents, was particularly active in using the radio as a form of intimidation. In June the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) sent a delegation to look into press freedom issues raised by these cases. It filed a preliminary report that concluded that the media were highly polarized and requested that the authorities ensure that press freedom be protected. In July the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, along with members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), visited to demonstrate the international community's support for press freedom. The OAS Special Rapporteur expressed concern over acts of violence and threats against journalists, rulings by judges that affected freedom of expression, and lack of progress in the investigation of the 1991 murder of journalist Santiago Leguizamon.
In June a lower court judge in the city of Villarrica ordered the arrest of two radio journalists for transmitting comments critical of the judge's rulings. The Journalists' Union immediately filed a protest and a motion that won the release of the journalists. A month later, an official of the Attorney General's office determined that the judge had acted outside her authority, a decision later upheld by the Attorney General.
The Government does not restrict academic freedom.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for the right of all citizens to peaceful assembly, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. In 1997 the Government amended a law regulating demonstrations in Asuncion, which further restricted the areas where demonstrations may take place; however, it expanded slightly the hours in which they may be held. Union groups were the most vocal opponents of the modifications. The law requires that organizers notify the Asuncion police 24 hours before any planned rally in the downtown area. The police may ban a protest but must provide written notification of such a ban within 12 hours of receipt of the organizers' request. The law permits a police ban only if another party already has given notice of plans for a similar rally at the same place and time. In addition, the law prohibits public meetings or demonstrations in front of the presidential palace and outside military or police barracks. This law does not apply to religious processions.
On December 17, the authorities arrested 32 Oviedo supporters as they inaugurated a new branch office of the Colorado Party. They were held without charges for 24 hours and then released. When pressed by journalists for a reason for the arrests, the prosecutor claimed that the persons were "co-conspirators" of Oviedo.
With the notable exception of the violent protests in March, political demonstrations and rallies occurred without major incidents. Labor unions continued to demonstrate for better working conditions and peasant organizations closed roads on a number of occasions to bring attention to the needs of the rural population. While police kept order, demonstrations were not hindered.
The Constitution provides for the right of freedom of association, and the Government respects this right in practice.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of conscience for all persons, and the Government respects this right in practice. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, but there is no official religion and all persons are free to worship as they choose. Foreign and local missionaries proselytize freely. All religious groups must be registered with the Ministry of Education and Culture, but the Government imposes no controls on these groups.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
All citizens may travel within the country with virtually no restrictions, and there are no restrictions on foreign travel or emigration. However, in March the Government temporarily closed its borders and the international airport in Asuncion during the search for suspects following the assassination of Vice President Argana.
The Government cooperates with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There are no established provisions to grant asylum or refugee status; the Immigration Department determines each request on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the Ministries of Foreign Relations and the Interior and the nongovernmental Committee of Churches (which investigates claims to refugee status). The issue of the provision of first asylum has never arisen.
There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government
Citizens have the right and ability to change their government through democratic means. Multiple parties and candidates contest the nation's leadership positions. Three parties are represented in the Congress. The Constitution and the Electoral Code mandate general elections every 5 years, voting by secret ballot, and universal suffrage. Debate in Congress is free and frank. The Congress often rejects the executive branch's proposals.
There are three major political parties and a number of smaller ones. The opposition's power had increased as a result of the changes brought about by the 1992 Constitution and the subsequent election of a civilian president and an opposition-controlled Congress. However, the Colorado Party swept the 1998 general elections, and the opposition lost control of both chambers of Congress.
The succession of Luis Gonzalez Macchi to the presidency, following the resignation of President Raul Cubas in March, was in large part attributable to the actions of civil society, which, for the first time in recent history, took to the streets to seek a peaceful change of government following the assassination of the Vice President. The Government that emerged received the support of all major political parties, and President Gonzalez Macchi formed a government of national unity by giving selected ministries to the former opposition. However, by the end of the year, the coalition faced a crisis and the Liberal Party threatened to withdraw from the Government. Political opposition factions that supported former General Oviedo protested the decision to allow Gonzalez Macchi to finish Cubas' term.
There are no legal impediments to women seeking to participate in government and politics; however, in practice they are underrepresented. There are 9 women in Congress (7 of 45 senators and 2 of 80 national deputies), and there is 1 woman in the Cabinet. The new Electoral Code requires that, in their internal primaries, 20 percent of each party's candidates for elective office be women.
Members of indigenous groups are entitled to vote, and the percentage of indigenous people who exercised this right has grown significantly in recent years. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of some indigenous communities report being threatened and inhibited from fully exercising their political rights. Members of indigenous groups are underrepresented in government and politics.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
Several human rights groups operate, including the Committee of Churches (an interdenominational group that monitors human rights, investigates refugee claims, and provides legal assistance), Tekojoja (a group dedicated to the protection of children's rights), and SERPAJ (a group that defends conscientious objectors and provides legal assistance to those with grievances arising from military service). On July 22, 32 NGO's, civil organizations, and trade unions officially formed the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinator (CODEHUPY). The Government did not restrict the activities of any human rights group; however, it has a mixed record in cooperating with or responding to recommendations.
The 1992 Constitution calls for the Congress to name a human rights ombudsman through whom citizens can press claims against the State; however, the Congress has yet to do so, nor has it set up any alternative interim mechanism to serve this purpose until an ombudsman eventually is appointed. The IACHR criticized the failure to name an ombudsman during its July visit.
The Director General of Human Rights, located in the Ministry of Justice and Labor, chairs the National Commission on Human Rights. The commission sponsors seminars to promote human rights awareness. The Director General's office has access to congressional, executive, and judicial authorities. It does not have subpoena or prosecutorial powers but may forward information concerning human rights abuses to the Attorney General for action. It also serves as a clearinghouse for information on human rights and has trained thousands of educators in human rights law.
The office of the Attorney General's Special Adviser on Human Rights has been extremely active in pursuing justice against human rights abusers from the Stroessner regime. Although the position has little real authority, the adviser is a key spokesman for the human rights community and the rights of the disenfranchised and uses his position to identify and publicize human rights abuses by the Government.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
Although the Constitution and other laws prohibit discrimination, certain groups faced significant discrimination in practice.
The most pervasive violations of women's rights involved sexual and domestic violence, which is both widespread and vastly underreported. Spousal abuse is common. While the new Penal Code criminalizes spousal abuse, it stipulates that the abuse must be habitual before being recognized as criminal, and then it is punishable only by a fine. Thousands of women are treated annually for injuries sustained in violent domestic situations. According to women's rights activists, official complaints rarely are filed, or when filed soon are withdrawn due to spousal reconciliation or family pressure. The Secretariat of Women's Affairs chairs a national committee, made up of other government agencies and NGO's, which has developed a national plan to prevent and punish violence against women. Pursuant to the plan, an office of care and orientation receives reports on violence against women and coordinates responses with the National Police, primary health care units, the Attorney General's office, and NGO's. The Secretariat also conducts training courses for the police, health care workers, prosecutors, and others.
Violence against women has been targeted as a key area of concern by several NGO's and the Secretariat of Women's Affairs. According to a 1995-96 national poll on reproductive health, 14 percent of women reported that they were physically abused at some point in their lives. Most observers believe that this number understates the reality. In Asuncion alone, observers believe close to 5,000 cases of violence against women go unreported each year. Almost 30 percent of the women who responded that they had been abused physically but did not report the abuse said that they had believed that they could resolve the situation themselves. Approximately 20 percent had feared reprisals from their attacker. About 25 percent of all violent crimes take place in the home, with the vast majority directed against women. Almost 20 percent of women with less than 2 years of education reported being abused; roughly 10 percent of women report being hit by their spouses. Women's rights and advocacy groups succeeded in widening the debate about violence against women. The Women's November 25th Collective operates a reception center where female victims of violence can receive legal, psychological, and educational assistance. No shelters for battered and abused women are available outside the capital of Asuncion.
In July an IACHR report stated that in 1998 one case of rape was reported to the press every 3 days. During the first 4 months of the year, there was one case of rape reported each day. There are no specialized police units to handle complaints involving rape.
The law prohibits sexual exploitation of women; however, the authorities do not enforce it effectively. Prostitution by adults is not illegal, and exploitation of women, especially teenage prostitutes, remains a serious problem. Law enforcement officials regularly stage raids on houses of prostitution, and there were cases of arrests and closures of brothels where minors were involved in prostitution.
The Secretariat of Women's Affairs continued to sponsor programs intended to enable women to have free and equal access to employment, social security, housing, land ownership, and business opportunities. Sex-related job discrimination continues to be common and widely tolerated. Recognizing that a majority of women in the workplace face sexual harassment, several unions have sponsored an ongoing campaign against it.
Women have much higher illiteracy rates than men. In addition, maternal mortality rates are high, at 192 per 100,000 live births, and as many as 65 percent of such deaths are related to poor medical care. Several groups work to improve conditions for women. One is Women for Democracy, which is active in civic and electoral education. Other groups include Sumando, an NGO that promotes educational reform policy and voter participation in elections; and SEFEM, which highlights such issues as women and public policy, women and social policy, participation of women in local development, and women in the Americas.
The Constitution protects children's rights and stipulates that parents and the State should care for, feed, educate, and support children. The population is very young, with 41 percent under the age of 15, and 60 percent under age 20. Boys and girls are entitled to equal treatment in education and health care. The educational system does not provide adequately for the educational needs of the population. The Government recently made elementary school education compulsory through the seventh grade and plans to extend it through grade nine; however, it lacks the resources to implement these changes in practice. Statistics from the Ministry of Education and Culture indicate that some 35,000 children leave school each year, with only 60 percent of children finishing the sixth grade. In rural areas that figure can be as low as 3 percent, and female access to education is markedly lower than in urban areas.
Abuse of children is a problem. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 1 in 3 children (some 462,000) between the ages of 7 and 17 work, many in unsafe labor conditions. Recent studies indicate that 42 percent of these children began working by the age of 8. According to a study by a local NGO, between 3,700 and 6,000 children and adolescents work in the streets of Asuncion. Many of these children suffer from malnutrition, lack of access to education, and disease. The typical workday extends from before 7:00 a.m., uninterrupted, until 5:00 p.m. The employers of some of the estimated 11,500 young girls working as domestic servants or nannies deny them access to education and mistreat them. Employers sometimes file false charges of robbery against those who seek to leave domestic jobs and turn them over to the police. Children age 14 and older are treated as adults for purposes of arrest and sentencing. The Labor Code requires that domestic workers be paid at least 40 percent of the minimum wage, and allows them to work up to a 12-hour day. It is common practice for families who cannot afford to raise a given child to send him or her to relatives or colleagues, where the child may be expected to work in exchange for room, board, and access to education. Sometimes these children are abused by those charged with providing for them.
Sexual exploitation is a problem, and of all the females who report being exploited sexually, 58.5 percent are 16 years old or younger (see Section 6.f.). According to the Attorney General's office, there are approximately 200 complaints per month regarding mistreatment and sexual abuse of minors. The Government has taken effective steps to combat the problem of baby trafficking (see Section 6.f.). The Government has ordered military officers responsible for recruiting to ensure that all conscripts meet the legally mandated age of 18 for military service. However, only 16 percent of those serving in 1999 met that requirement, and over 35 percent were age 15 or younger. There were frequent allegations that military recruiters forced underage youths to join units. The military took no significant disciplinary action against those responsible for underage recruits. Human rights groups and some military personnel confirm that poor families knowingly send underage children to the armed forces for the economic benefits.
People with Disabilities
The Constitution provides for equal opportunity for the disabled and mandates that the State provide them with health care, education, recreation, and professional training. It further requires that the state formulate a policy for the treatment, rehabilitation, and integration into society of the disabled. However, the Congress has never enacted legislation to establish such programs. Many persons with disabilities face significant discrimination in employment; others are unable to seek employment because of a lack of accessible public transportation. The law does not mandate accessibility for the disabled, and the vast majority of the nation's buildings, both public and private, are inaccessible to the disabled.
The Constitution provides indigenous people with the right to participate in the economic, social, political, and cultural life of the nation. Nevertheless, the indigenous population, estimated at 75,000 to 100,000, is unassimilated and neglected. Low wage levels, long work hours, infrequent payment (or nonpayment) of wages, job insecurity, lack of access to social security benefits, and racial discrimination are common. Weak organization and lack of financial resources limit access by indigenous people to the political and economic system. Indigenous groups relied primarily upon parliamentary commissions to promote their particular interests. The Constitution also protects the property interests of indigenous people, but these rights still are not codified fully. The Constitution provides that Public Ministry officials may represent indigenous people in matters involving the protection of life and property.
A lack of access to sufficient land hinders the ability of indigenous groups to progress economically and maintain their cultural identity. This is made worse by insufficient police and judicial protection from persons encroaching on their land. The Government's National Indigenous Institute (INDI) has the authority to purchase land on behalf of indigenous communities and to expropriate private property under certain conditions to establish tribal homelands. However, there have been significant allegations of wrongdoing within INDI, and in 1997 a congressional human rights committee requested an accounting of INDI's land purchases and transfers. During the year, allegations of poor performance because of corruption continued, a previous INDI director was arrested for embezzlement, and three different persons served as director. Many indigenous people find it difficult to travel to the capital to solicit land titles or process the required documentation associated with land ownership.
Significant problems facing the indigenous population are lack of education, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and economic displacement resulting from other groups' development and modernization. Scarce resources and limited government attention resulted in little progress in dealing with these problems.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution allows both private and public sector workers (with the exception of the armed forces and the police) to form and join unions without government interference. The Constitution contains several provisions that protect fundamental worker rights, including an antidiscrimination clause, provisions for employment tenure, severance pay for unjustified firings, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. Approximately 121,000, or 15 percent, of workers are organized in approximately 1,600 unions.
In general, unions are independent of the Government and political parties. One of the nation's three labor centrals, the Confederation of Paraguayan Workers (CPT), traditionally was aligned closely with the ruling Colorado Party, but these ties appear to be loosening. In March the largest labor union, the Central Worker's Party (CUT) was involved in the political demonstrations in front of Congress after the assassination of Vice President Argana. The CUT called for an indefinite work stoppage, accusing then-President Cubas and former General Oviedo of ordering the assassination. Union members were among those protesters shot and injured during the violent demonstrations.
All unions must be registered with the Ministry of Justice and Labor. The registration process is cumbersome and can take several months. Employers who wish to oppose the formation of a union can delay union recognition further by filing a writ opposing it. However, virtually all unions that request recognition eventually receive it. The Constitution provides for the right to strike, bans binding arbitration, and prohibits retribution against strikers and leaders carrying out routine union business, a prohibition often violated by employers. Voluntary arbitration decisions are enforceable by the courts, but this mechanism still is employed rarely. Senior Labor Ministry officials are available to mediate disputes.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts has noted deficiencies in the application of certain conventions ratified by the Government. These include conventions dealing with minimum wage fixing machinery, abolition of forced labor, minimum age of employment, freedom of association, equal remuneration, and employment policy.
There were numerous strikes by members of all three worker centrals and smaller unions. Many of these were related to the firing of union officials, management violations of a collective contract, management efforts to prevent the free association of workers, or demands for benefits such as payment of the minimum wage or contributions to the social security system.
Unions are free to form and join federations or confederations and affiliate with and participate in international labor bodies.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law provides for collective bargaining. The number of negotiated collective contracts continued to grow; at year's end, there were close to 100. However, they were still the exception rather than the norm in labor-management relations and typically reaffirmed minimum standards established by law. When wages are not set in free negotiations between unions and employers, they are made a condition of individual offers of employment.
The Constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, the firing and harassment of some union organizers and leaders in the private sector continued. Union organizers sometimes are incarcerated for their role in leading demonstrations. For example, in 1998 the authorities jailed six union members accused of leading bus drivers in a demonstration. Fired union leaders can seek redress in the courts, but the labor tribunals have been slow to respond to complaints and typically favored business in disputes. The courts are not required to order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. As in previous years, in some cases where judges ordered the reinstatement of discharged workers, the employers disregarded the court order with impunity. There are a number of cases in which trade union leaders, fired as much as 5 years earlier, have not yet received a decision from the courts.
The failure to meet salary payments also frequently precipitated labor disputes. Principal problems included bottlenecks in the judicial system and the inability or unwillingness of the Government to enforce labor laws. There were also complaints that management created parallel or "factory" unions to compete with independently formed unions. There were several cases of workers who chose not to protest because of fear of reprisal or anticipation of government inaction.
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced labor, including that performed by children; however, cases of abuse of national service obligations occurred. There were reports of conscripts forced to work as servants or construction workers for military officers in their residences or privately owned businesses. There also were allegations of forced conscription of underage youths (see Section 5). Apart from the abuse of national service obligations, the authorities appear to enforce the law effectively.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment
The Director General for the Protection of Minors in the Ministry of Justice and Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws. The law prohibits forced or bonded labor by children, and generally is enforced effectively; however, there were allegations of forced conscription of underage youths (see Sections 5 and 6.c.). Minors between 15 and 18 years of age may be employed only with parental authorization and cannot be employed in dangerous or unhealthy conditions. Children between 12 and 15 years of age may be employed only in family enterprises, apprenticeships, or in agriculture. The Labor Code prohibits work by children under 12 years of age, and all children are required to attend elementary school through the seventh grade. However, in practice many thousands of children, many of them younger than 12 years of age, may be found in urban areas engaged in informal employment such as selling newspapers and sundries, shining shoes, and cleaning car windows. According to UNICEF, one in three children between the ages of 7 and 17 work, many in unsafe conditions (see Section 5). In rural areas, it is not unusual for children as young as 10 years of age to work beside their parents in the field. Local human rights groups do not regard families harvesting the crop together as an abuse of child labor.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The executive, through the Ministry of Justice and Labor, has established a private sector minimum wage sufficient to maintain a minimally decent standard of living for a worker and family. Theoretically, the minimum salary is adjusted whenever annual inflation exceeds 10 percent and was approximately $179 (591,444 guaranies) per month at year's end. However, the Ministry is unable to enforce the minimum wage, and most analysts agree that 50 to 70 percent of workers earn less than the decreed minimum.
The Labor Code allows for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours (42 hours for night work), with 1 day of rest. The law also provides for an annual bonus of 1 month's salary and a minimum of 6 vacation days a year. The law requires overtime payment for hours in excess of the standard, but many employers violate these provisions. There are no prohibitions on excessive compulsory overtime. Workers in the transport sector routinely stage strikes to demand that their employers comply with the Labor Code's provisions on working hours, overtime, and minimum wage payments.
The Labor Code also stipulates conditions of safety, hygiene, and comfort. The Ministry of Justice and Labor and the Ministry of Health did not enforce these provisions effectively, due in part to a lack of inspectors and other resources. In 1997 the Ministry sponsored the reconvening of a tripartite group of government, labor, and employers in an effort to update the labor inspection manual, which was severely outdated. In addition to updating the labor manual, the program expanded transparency in the labor inspection process.
Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment, but they may not do so until such conditions are recognized formally by the Ministries of Justice and Labor and Health. Although there are laws intended to protect workers who file complaints about such conditions, many employers reportedly took disciplinary action against them.
f. Trafficking in Persons
There are no laws specifically addressing trafficking in persons, but the Constitution proscribes slavery, personal servitude, and trafficking in persons. The Penal Code contains provisions prohibiting compelling persons to travel to or from the country for purposes of prostitution, compelling a minor under 18 years of age to serve as a prostitute, and pandering for a prostitute. There were unconfirmed reports in Brazil of trafficking in women and girls from Paraguay for purposes of prostitution. Other than that, there were no reports of trafficking of persons in, to, or from the country.
The Government has taken effective steps to combat the problem of baby trafficking. The Penal Code criminalizes the act of compelling a child's parent or legal guardian to give up a child for adoption or relocation to another family. In 1995 the Government enacted a moratorium on international adoptions, but in September 1997 began to allow them again on a case-by-case basis depending on the nationality of the prospective parents.
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