Costa Rica, a constitutional democracy with a population of approximately 4.2 million, is governed by a president and unicameral Legislative Assembly directly elected in free multiparty elections every four years. In 2002 Abel Pacheco de la Espriella, of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), won elections that generally were considered free and fair. While civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, some members of the security forces committed isolated human rights abuses.
The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens and improved its human rights performance in several areas. The following human rights problems were reported:
The following improvements in the human rights situation occurred: increased prison capacity reduced system-wide overcrowding to 4 percent; government agents were held accountable for human rights violations; and the government initiated comprehensive efforts to eradicate child labor and reduce the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
Although the law prohibits such practices, some members of the security forces committed abuses. Any statement obtained through violence is invalid, and the government investigated, prosecuted, and punished agents responsible for confirmed cases of abuse.
In August the Criminal Court of the First Judicial Circuit of the Atlantic Zone found four police officers guilty of abuse of authority for beating a suspect who resisted arrest for public disturbance. Each officer received a three-year suspended sentence. All four defendants appealed the judgment, and the appeals were pending at year's end.
In May a former police officer stood trial for allegedly beating a robbery suspect in an attempt to force a confession following an arrest in 2003. At year's end the criminal trial was still ongoing. The officer resigned his post in March, which nullified all administrative actions against him and ended the internal investigation.
The ombudsman's office lodged and recorded complaints of police misconduct (see section 4). As of August the ombudsman's office had received 47 reports of police abuse of authority or misconduct. Of these, 34 reports remained under investigation, 1 was determined to be legitimate, and 12 were found to be without merit.
On November 10, an individual was attacked by two guard dogs on private premises he had unlawfully entered during the early morning hours. Seven public security officers witnessed the attack but did not intervene for nearly an hour while the dogs mauled the victim. The officers alleged they could not shoot the dogs for fear of injuring the victim, who was found to be Nicaraguan. An investigation into the officers' actions proceeded at year's end.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Although the government worked to improve prison conditions during the year, overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of health services, and violence among prisoners remained problems in some prison facilities. The ombudsman's office investigated all complaints and referred serious cases of abuse to the public prosecutor. Illegal narcotics were readily available in the prisons, and drug abuse was common.
While penitentiary overcrowding remained a problem, recent expansions at several prison facilities reduced the prison population rate at year's to its capacity level. The major expansion of prison capacity occurred in the maximum security and youth facilities at the La Reforma prison complex. Crowding remained a problem in the San Sebastian and San Carlos prisons, which were 22 and 23 percent over capacity, respectively. At year's end the Social Adaptation Division of the Ministry of Justice reported 12,819 persons under its supervision, including 7,459 jailed prisoners, 812 persons required to spend nights and weekends in jail, 3,999 persons in supervised work programs requiring no jail time, and 549 juveniles.
Conditions at La Reforma prison improved with the expansion and renovation of the young adult facility, designed to house 72 young adult inmates between the ages of 18 and 21.
San Sebastian, where most prisoners in pretrial detention were held, continued to be overcrowded and unsanitary. Because of increases in the number of persons held in preventive detention arising out of court backlogs, the San Sebastian prison was not able to handle adequately the growing inmate population. Medical care at most facilities generally was adequate for routine illnesses and injuries but was inadequate for complex medical issues, such as HIV/AIDS.
While prisoners generally were separated by sex and by level of security (minimum, medium, and maximum), overcrowding sometimes prevented proper separation. As of June the women's prison held 7 percent more inmates than its intended capacity.
Due to overcrowding at the San Sebastian complex, some pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners in long-term detention facilities throughout the country.
The government permitted prison visits by international and local independent human rights observers, including representatives from the Office of the Ombudsman. Human rights observers were allowed to speak with prisoners and to prison employees in confidence and without the presence of prison staff or other third parties.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The Ministry of Public Security oversees the Public Force, which comprises the general preventive police force, as well as the Drug Control Police, Border Police, and Coast Guard. Traffic control and law enforcement are administered by the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Police forces generally were regarded as effective, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) did not perceive corruption to be a serious problem. Each ministry had an internal disciplinary unit to investigate charges of abuse and corruption against its officers. All new police recruits received human rights awareness training as part of their basic training course.
Arrest and Detention
The law requires issuance of judicial warrants before making arrests, except where probable cause is evident to the arresting officer. The law entitles a detainee to a judicial determination of the legality of the detention during arraignment before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. The law provides for the right to bail, prompt access to an attorney, and prompt access to family members, and the authorities generally observed these rights in practice. Indigents are provided a public attorney at government expense and access to family members, in practice even those with sufficient personal funds were able to use the services of a public defender. With judicial authorization, the authorities are able to hold suspects incommunicado for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days.
On September 4, a police officer was convicted of unlawful arrest and received a three-year sentence for the 2001 detention of a citizen of a foreign country, who had been arrested in a case of mistaken identity. Two additional officers and an attorney were acquitted of the charges.
There were no reports of political detainees.
A criminal court may hold suspects in pretrial detention for periods of up to one year, and the court of appeals may extend this period to two years in especially complex cases. The law requires that suspects in pretrial detention have their cases reviewed every three months by the court to determine the appropriateness of continued detention. According to the Ministry of Justice, in December there were 1,602 persons in pretrial detention, representing 12 percent of the prison population.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected this provision in practice. The legal system faced many challenges, including significant delays in the adjudication of civil disputes and a still growing workload.
The judicial branch of government includes the upper and lower courts, the Judicial Investigative Police, the Office of the Prosecutor, the Office of the Public Defender, forensic laboratories, and the morgue. The lower courts include the courts of first instance and the circuit courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court, with 22 justices known as magistrates. The Legislative Assembly elects those magistrates for eight-year terms, which are renewed automatically unless two-thirds of the assembly opposes such renewal.
The law provides for the right to a fair trial and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.
All trials, except those that include juvenile defendants, are public. A trial is presided over by a single judge or by a three-judge panel depending on the potential penalties arising from the charges. Trials that involve victims or witnesses who are minors are closed during that portion of the trial where the minor is called to testify. There are no jury trials. Accused persons can select attorneys to represent them, and the law provides for access to counsel at state expense for the indigent. The law provides for detainee and attorney access to government-held evidence, and defendants can question witnesses against them and present witnesses on their behalf. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and, if convicted, have the right of appeal. By year's end the government had not enacted amendments to the law as directed by a 2004 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling, that stemmed from a denial of due process case from 1999.
There were no reports of political prisoners, although former presidents Rafael Angel Calderon and Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who were released in October after nearly one year, asserted that their arrests and preventive detentions were politically motivated. In September Calderon asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to review his case. In December he told reporters that the NGO International Society for Human Rights had filed an amicus curiae brief which concluded that his detention was politically motivated. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' review was still pending at year's end.
The constitution prohibits such practices, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice. The law requires judicial warrants to search private homes. Judges may approve the use of wiretaps in investigations of certain crimes such as genocide, homicide, kidnapping, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, production of pornography, trafficking in persons, and the trafficking of persons for their organs. However, legal guidelines on the use of wiretaps are so restrictive that the use of wiretaps was rare.
The law grants considerable rights to squatters who invade uncultivated land, regardless of who may hold title to the property. Irregular enforcement of property rights and duplicate registrations of title harmed the real property interests of many who believed they held legitimate title to land. Landowners throughout the country suffered occasional squatter invasions; sometimes they received government assistance to evict squatters forcibly from private land.
Officials worked to relocate more than 2 thousand of the 4,500 families living in the squatter development of La Carpio, which was constructed in 1994 pursuant to illegal invasion of government-owned land. In July the Office of the Ombudsman requested governmental action to organize and title the land where feasible and to resettle those residents living on lots too small to be plotted or in dangerous areas. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that the project would take several years to complete. At year's end the government had begun to survey and delineate land plots and to identify the most dangerous areas.
Legal hearings continued in the Bambuzal squatters case, which began in 2004 when a large group of squatters attempted to resettle on private property from which they had been forcibly removed. While many of the families accepted rights to lots near the disputed land, a small group of squatters continued to protest in front of the second circuit courthouse in San Jose. In February a court decision overturned the usurpation conviction of 17 squatters. The landowner and the prosecutor's office subsequently appealed the acquittal to the Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. Journalists and media company owners continued to criticize outdated legislation that imposed criminal penalties, including lengthy jail sentences, instead of civil fines, for common press infractions and argued that such legislation promoted self-censorship.
Under current law, reporters are not required to reveal the identity of a source in any civil or criminal trial if the source has requested confidentiality. Reporters are allowed to defend themselves against libel charges by claiming that they were merely repeating a story published by foreign media. Libel convictions are punishable with fines or jail time.
The government had not yet modified the law to comply with a 2004 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling that the government should reform within a reasonable amount of time the press freedom laws on media prosecution. The ruling arose out of a 1999 conviction of a journalist for defamation.
A 2002 informal prohibition made by President Pacheco, on the placement of paid advertising by government institutions, remained in effect. The law provides persons criticized in the media with an opportunity to reply with equal attention and at equal length. Media managers reported that it was difficult to comply with provisions of this law. The law outlines a series of "insult laws" that establish criminal penalties of up to three years in prison for those convicted of insulting the honor or decorum of a public official. The law also identifies defamation, libel, slander, and calumny as offenses against a person's honor that can carry criminal penalties. The Inter-American Press Association cited as problems President Pacheco's informal ban on government advertising in La Nacion newspaper and stalling of attempts to adopt legislative reforms to press laws.
At year's end the March 2004 separate convictions of 2 journalists with sentences of 30 days and 10 days, respectively, were overturned on appeal. The February 2004 conviction of a third journalist for publishing a story accusing a public employee of misuse of public funds remained on appeal.
At year's end six defendants who were accused during the year of killing and/or illicit association in relation to the 2003 killing of journalist Ivannia Mora awaited trial. The trial was scheduled to begin in May 2006.
In December the trial of 10 defendants arrested in 2004 for the 2001 killing of radio host Parmenio Medina began.
The Commission on Control and Rating of Public Performances rates films and has the authority to restrict or prohibit their showing if it is determined that the films are pornographic or violent in nature, or incite crime or vice. The commission has similar powers over television programs, radio programs, and stage plays. In addition the commission regulates the sale and distribution of written material deemed pornographic, enforcing specific packaging and display regulations. A tribunal reviews appeals of the commission's actions.
On October 31, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed to review allegations of censorship brought against the rating commission by the owner of a local tabloid magazine that the government closed in May 2004 after the owner printed semi-nude photographs in a 2003 issue without first submitting that issue for the rating commission's review.
In an unrelated case decided in February, La Nacion newspaper was found not to have violated the country's antipornography laws in 1999, when it published explicit still images within the context of a movie review.
There were no government restrictions on the Internet or academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice.
Although Roman Catholic religious instruction is provided in the public schools, it is not mandatory and students may obtain exemptions from the instruction with the permission of their parents. The school director, the student's parents, and the student's teacher must agree on an alternative course of instruction for the exempted student during the instruction time. Religious education teachers in public schools must be certified by the Roman Catholic Church Conference, which does not certify teachers from other denominations or faiths. In April the public National University alleged that the Catholic Church Conference certification requirement was discriminatory and requested that the Ministry of Public Education reform the teachers' law to allow teachers certified in religious instruction by an entity other than the Roman Catholic Church to teach religion in the public school system.
There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination including anti-Semitic acts during the year. There was a small Jewish population.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2005 International Religious Freedom Report. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The constitution provides for these rights, and the government generally respected them in practice. The law requires that adults carry national identification cards at all times. Persons who fail to produce such documents at security checkpoints may be detained until their identity and immigration status are verified.
The constitution prohibits forced internal or external exile, and it was not used in practice.
Protection of Refugees
The law and a series of executive decrees provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. In practice the government provided protection against refoulement, the return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. The government granted refugee status or asylum, and cooperated with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.
The Refugee Department, in the General Directorate of Migration, is in charge of refugee status determination. The law requires refugee applications to be adjudicated within a month of receipt.
There were allegations that immigration and other border officials abused refugees.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage and by secret ballot every four years. The independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal ensured the integrity of elections, and the authorities and citizens respected election results. Presidents may seek reelection after sitting out two four-year terms, and assembly members may seek reelection after at least one term out of office.
Elections and Political Participation
In the 2002 national elections, Abel Pacheco of the PUSC won the presidency in elections that generally were considered free and fair.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal requires that a minimum of 40 percent of candidates for elective office be female and that women's names be placed accordingly on the ballots by party slate. The first vice president (who was also the minister of the presidency), the minister of child and adolescent issues, the minister of health, the minister of justice, and the minister of women's affairs were women. There were 20 women in the 57-seat Legislative Assembly, including 9 legislative committee chairwomen.
Indigenous people did not in practice play significant roles in politics or government except on issues directly affecting their welfare, largely because of their relatively small numbers and physical isolation. There were no indigenous members in the Legislative Assembly.
There were three black members in the assembly. There were no minority members in the cabinet.
Government Corruption and Transparency
Transparency International noted an increase in perceived corruption compared with 2004. There continued to be allegations of corruption against the executive branch. In October two former presidents, Rafael Angel Calderon and Miguel Angel Rodriguez, were released from house arrest after each spent one year in custody but they remained under investigation for separate and unrelated cases of suspected corruption (see section 1.e). Former President Jose Maria Figueres Olsen remained in Switzerland despite a standing request by the Legislative Assembly for his return to answer questions regarding kickbacks received by his former company. In May the press criticized President Pacheco for receiving gifts from foreign business persons, including those seeking tourism development rights from the government.
During the year two legislative committees charged with investigating allegations of campaign finance irregularities in the 2002 elections ended their investigations with no conclusive results. The committees' reviews revealed that, although the alleged actions, if proven, would violate existing law, the law contained no penalties for the proscribed actions.
There were no new developments reported in the 2004 corruption investigation of the former president and board of directors of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund.
The law provides for public access to government information, and the government generally respected this right. Government institutions published reports that detailed the year's activities. On May 5, the ombudsman's office launched a web page dedicated to further enhancing transparency by improving citizen's access to public information.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
Various domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Section 5 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally effectively enforced these prohibitions.
The government continued to identify domestic violence against women and children as a serious and growing societal problem. The law prohibits domestic violence and provides measures for the protection of domestic violence victims. Criminal penalties range from 10 to 100 days in prison for aggravated threats and up to 35 years in prison for aggravated homicide. Between January and December, the autonomous National Institute for Women (INAMU) provided assistance to 6,967 women, including counseling and lodging for battered women in INAMU shelters. During that same period, INAMU reported that 35 women and girls were killed in incidents of domestic violence, compared with 20 victims during 2004. INAMU also maintained a domestic abuse hotline. During the year authorities arrested more than 9,300 suspects for domestic violence, representing a 24 percent increase compared with 2004.
The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Domestic Violence and Sexual Crimes for the San Jose area investigated 1,118 cases.
The Law Against Domestic Violence established a number of victims-assistance mechanisms including basic training for new police personnel on handling domestic violence cases, that required public hospitals to report cases of domestic violence against women, and denied perpetrators possession of the family home in favor of the victim. The public prosecutor, police, and ombudsman had offices dedicated to this problem.
The law defines various types of rape and provides sanctions dependent upon a victim's age and other factors such as an assailant's use of violence or position of influence over the victim. The law provides for sanctions from 10 to 18 years in prison for rape and 2 to 10 years in prison for statutory rape. The judiciary effectively enforced rape law and provided due process for both victim and defendant. According to the INAMU, the rape law applies in the same manner to spousal rape, although spousal rape cases are much more difficult to prove. INAMU reported that there have been only three convictions for spousal rape.
Through September 2004 judicial authorities reported approximately 5,708 cases of sex crimes. Approximately 17 percent of the prison population was serving sentences as a result of convictions related to sex crimes. Adolescent girls between 14 and 16 years of age were particularly vulnerable, and constituted the largest single age group of rape victims. During the year, 91 rape cases were reported by 14 to 16 year old girls, out of 424 cases reported to OIJ Police. Authorities acknowledged that many known rape cases were not investigated due to reluctance by the victim or family of the victim to press charges against perpetrators.
Prostitution is legal for persons over the age of 18, and was practiced openly throughout the country, particularly in areas with heavy concentrations of tourists. The penal code prohibits individuals from promoting or facilitating the prostitution of individuals of either sex, regardless of the individual's age, and the penalty is increased if the victim is under the age of 18. There are no specific laws against sex tourism, which was growing; however, law enforcement agencies initiated investigations under existing legislation that prohibits the promotion of prostitution. The government and several advocacy groups also initiated awareness campaigns publicizing the dangers of sex tourism and its association with child sexual exploitation (see section 5, Trafficking in Persons).
The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions, and the Ministry of Labor generally enforced this prohibition. The law imposes penalties ranging from a letter of reprimand to dismissal, with more serious incidents subject to criminal prosecution. Through July the ombudsman's office received 40 complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Law for the Promotion of the Social Equality of Women prohibits discrimination against women and obligates the government to promote political, economic, social, and cultural equality. The government maintained offices for gender issues in most ministries and parastatal organizations. The Ministry of Labor was responsible for investigating allegations of gender discrimination. INAMU implemented programs that promoted gender equality and publicized the rights of women.
According to a UN Development Program report issued during the year, women over age 15 represented 38 percent of the labor force. Approximately 80 percent worked in the service sector, 15 percent in industry, and 4 percent in agriculture. Women occupied 45 percent of professional and technical positions and 30 percent of legislative, senior official, and managerial positions. The law requires that women and men receive equal pay for equal work. The estimated earned income for women was approximately 78 percent of the earned income for men.
The government was committed to children's rights and welfare through systems of public education and medical care. Primary education is compulsory, free, and universal. The law requires six years of primary and three years of secondary education for all children, and attendance is required until age 15.
The Ministry of Education reported that the estimated primary school dropout rate was 3.3 percent, and the secondary school dropout rate was 11.6 percent; these figures were based on actual registration per school year and did not reflect students who did not register at the beginning of the school year. In contrast, the UN Children's Fund reported that approximately 40 percent of primary school students never entered secondary school, and that 35 percent of secondary school students dropped out before graduation.
The law provides equal access to education and health care services to all minors, regardless of gender or legal residency status.
In recent years the autonomous National Institute for Children (PANI) increased public awareness of abuse of children, which remained a problem. From January 1 to June 30, PANI assisted 6,562 children and adolescents, including 2,860 cases of physical abuse, 2,171 cases of sexual abuse, 986 cases of psychological abuse, and 545 cases of substance abuse. Traditional attitudes and the inclination to treat sexual and psychological abuse as misdemeanors at times hampered legal proceedings against those who committed crimes against children.
In September a court found the government liable for damages in the 1992 rape of a 12-year-old student by her teacher, that resulted in the minor's pregnancy, and awarded the victim $110 thousand (53 million colones).
The government, security officials, and child advocacy organizations acknowledged that the commercial sexual exploitation of children remained serious problems (see section 5, Trafficking). PANI estimated that three thousand children suffered from commercial sexual exploitation and street children in the urban areas of San Jose, Limon, and Puntarenas were particularly at risk. During the year PANI reported that it provided assistance to minors in 120 separate cases of commercial sexual exploitation.
The law provides special occupational protection for minors and establishes a minimum working age of 15 years. Child labor was a problem mainly in the informal sector of the economy (see section 6.d.).
Trafficking in Persons
Although the law prohibits the trafficking of women and minors for the purpose of prostitution or forced labor, there is no comprehensive legislation to address all forms of trafficking. The lack of a comprehensive antitrafficking law inhibited the government's ability to prosecute and convict traffickers, and prosecutors relied on several criminal statutes to bring traffickers to justice. There were reports that persons were trafficked to, from, and within the country, most often for commercial sexual exploitation.
The law provides for sentences of between 2 and 10 years' imprisonment for anyone who engages in sex with a minor and between 4 and 10 years' imprisonment for managing or promoting child prostitution. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Domestic Violence and Sexual Crimes for the San Jose Area raided 7 brothels as part of the investigation of commercial sexual exploitation cases, and conducted 15 raids related to cases of sexual exploitation of minors. The raids resulted in the arrest of 12 suspects, who remained in preventive detention awaiting trial, and 6 suspects with other preventive measures.
During the year the Judicial Investigative Police created a new investigative unit dedicated solely to trafficking in persons. By year's end the government secured 10 convictions among the different prosecutors' offices for trafficking-related offenses. Hundreds of investigations into the commercial sexual exploitation of children were initiated, but few resulted in successful prosecution as a result of governmental inefficiency and inability to protect witnesses. Minimal coordination among government offices responsible for trafficking-related offenses also frustrated enforcement efforts.
Government agencies responsible for combating trafficking and child sexual exploitation included the special prosecutor on domestic violence and sex crimes, the judicial investigative police, the national institute for children, the foreign ministry, the labor ministry, the public security ministry, and the tourism ministry.
Cases of trafficking involved persons from Cuba, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, the Philippines, China, Russia, and countries of Eastern Europe. While evidence suggested that most trafficked persons remained in the country, some transited to Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Some female citizens, generally from impoverished backgrounds, also were trafficked to Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Traffickers often recruited victims with a promise of secure employment and good pay.
There were reports of corruption among immigration officials involving trafficking in persons along the country's borders, but the Immigration Directorate reported that no disciplinary actions were taken.
A governmental Inter-Ministerial Group on Trafficking made efforts to raise awareness of trafficking issues and sexual exploitation of children and to encourage law enforcement and prevention measures, particularly at the local level; however, these efforts were hampered by a lack of resources.
While there were limited formal mechanisms specifically designed to aid trafficked victims, the government offered indirect assistance, such as stay-in-school programs, to child victims of trafficking. Foreign victims were not granted temporary or permanent residence status and often were deported immediately to their country of origin.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, education, health care access, or provision of other state services, and there were no reports of individual, intentional discrimination against persons with disabilities in education or in the provision of other state services. There were two reports of discrimination in rural areas involving access to rehabilitative health care. There were no reports of employment discrimination, but the ombudsman's office reported to the Legislative Assembly that, due to poor facilities access and entrenched business practices, unreported discrimination occurred.
Although a 1996 law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities and establishes a 10-year deadline for the government to make necessary installations and upgrades, the government did not enforce this provision in practice, and many buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Public transportation services were almost entirely inaccessible to wheelchair-bound passengers.
The Ministry of Education operated a program for persons with disabilities, including a national resource center that provided parents, students, and teachers with advanced counseling, training, and information services. The ministry reported that 14,033 special education students were registered in the school system during the year, and there were 537 special education centers to assist special education students and students with disabilities. In addition 1,040 primary and secondary schools had programs to provide some support to students with disabilities.
The country's 100 thousand blacks, who mostly resided in Limon Province, enjoyed full rights of citizenship, including the protection of laws against racial discrimination. There were no reports with the ombudsman's office of racial discrimination against blacks. Approximately 15 percent of the permanent population was foreign-born. There were sporadic reports of discrimination, usually directed against Nicaraguans, but there were no government-endorsed patterns of discrimination. Undocumented illegal immigrants were sometimes denied discretionary or long-term medical care because they were not participants in the national health care insurance program.
Indigenous people, comprising nearly 64 thousand persons among 8 ethnic groups, accounted for approximately 1 percent of the population. While indigenous persons were not subject to official discrimination, social and health network gaps diminished their quality of life. Approximately 73 percent of the indigenous population lived in traditional communities on 24 reserves, which, because of their remote locations, often lacked access to schools, health care, electricity, and potable water. Few government health care facilities had been established in indigenous reserves. The law nominally protects reserve land as the collective, nontransferable property of the indigenous communities. Some indigenous landowners, however, sold their land to pay off debts, sometimes illegally to nonindigenous people. The ombudsman had a unit dedicated to investigating violations of the rights of indigenous people and sought to return reserve land to indigenous groups.
At year's end an unknown number of nonindigenous property owners continued to hold title to land on reserves legally set aside for indigenous occupation. The law requires that the government purchase all pre-existing land titles within the reserves in order to secure exclusive use and ownership rights for the indigenous populations.
Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination
Although there are no laws prohibiting discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation, discrimination based on HIV/AIDS in health care, employment, and education was prohibited by law and by presidential decree. The ombudsman's office received no reports of complaints of such discrimination during the year.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law specifies the right of workers to join unions of their choosing without prior authorization, and workers exercised this right in practice. The law also provides for the right not to join a union and to leave a union and accordingly prohibits any action that might infringe that right. The Ministry of Labor reported that approximately 9 percent of workers were unionized.
Some trade union leaders contended that the existence of worker "solidarity associations" in some enterprises displaced unions and discouraged collective bargaining. The law prohibits these non-dues-collecting associations from representing workers in collective bargaining negotiations or in any other way that assumes the functions of or inhibits the formation of trade unions. Solidarity associations offered membership services, including credit union programs, matching-fund savings accounts, and low-interest loans. Approximately 330 thousand workers were members of solidarity associations, 95 percent of whom worked in the private sector.
Although the law provides protection from dismissal for union organizers and members during union formation, including reinstating workers fired for union activities, enforcement was lax, and employers often failed to comply with this provision in practice. In its annual report, the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts identified as a problem "slow and ineffectual procedures for penalties and redress in the event of antiunion acts." In addition the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Annual Survey states that there is no legal mechanism to oblige an employer to comply with a court order to reinstate a fired worker. Workers who are denied reinstatement under a court decision must file a new action with the labor court.
During the year the Center for Alternative Resolution of Labor Disputes handled 4,200 cases, some 37 percent of which resulted in an agreement between the parties. Year-end statistics indicated a relatively high settlement rate when both employer and employee attended the hearing; with both parties present, two-thirds of the cases reached successful resolution.
To reduce backlogs caused by the lengthy labor dispute resolution process, the Ministry of Labor trained arbitrators and educated workers and unions on labor rights, and the Supreme Court undertook a large-scale labor reform project.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Workers exercised the constitutional right to organize and the right to voluntary collective bargaining. Foreign nationals are expressly prohibited from exercising direction or authority in unions. There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in export processing zones.
The law requires employers to initiate the bargaining process with a trade union if at least 34 percent of the workforce requests collective bargaining, and the government enforced this law in practice.
Although private sector unions had the legal right to engage in collective bargaining with employers, direct bargaining arrangements between employers and unorganized workers occurred more commonly. As of October the Ministry of Labor reported 19 new collective agreements and 7 new direct agreements.
The law provides for the right to strike, and workers exercised this right in practice; however, unions complained of burdensome administrative requirements in order for a strike to be legal. The law requires that at least 60 percent of the workers in the enterprise support strike action. Pursuant to a constitutional court ruling, restrictions on the right to strike apply only to essential services that concern the national economy or public health.
In October the Water and Sewage Institute staged a strike to demand higher wages. Workers complained that they were the lowest paid of all government entities, with many employees earning less than the federally mandated minimum wage. Administrative functions, including connecting or disconnecting residential water service, were disrupted during the strike. On November 10, the national labor tribunal declared the strike illegal and the employees accepted a 9.8 percent salary increase.
On July 11, a group of municipal trash collectors went on strike to demand higher salaries and renewal of school tuition benefits. After labor court judges declared the strike illegal, the mayor fired 67 striking workers on August 19. That same day the workers filed an injunction with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, and 12 of them launched a hunger strike. On August 23, the court ordered the workers temporarily reinstated pending a review of the case, which was pending at year's end.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for
The law provides special occupational protection for minors and establishes a minimum working age of 15 years. Adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 may work for a maximum of 6 hours daily and 36 hours weekly with special permission from PANI. The law prohibits night work and overtime for minors. Certain activities considered to be unhealthy or hazardous typically require a minimum age of 18. In addition minors are entitled to facilities allowing them to attend educational establishments through school arrangements and timetables adapted to their interests and employment conditions, and to participate in apprenticeship training programs.
The Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with PANI, generally enforced these regulations effectively through inspections in the formal sector; the regulations were not effectively enforced in the informal labor sector as a result of inadequate resource allocations by the government.
Child labor continued to be a problem in formal and informal agricultural operations and in informal activities such as domestic work and family-run enterprises. Child prostitution and other types of child sexual exploitation remained serious problems (see section 5).
The Ministry of Labor maintained an Office for the Eradication of Child Labor (OATIA), which was responsible for coordinating government efforts and programs targeted at child labor. In June OATIA presented its second national plan of action for the eradication of child labor, designed to eliminate child labor within five years, and which contains built-in financing that requires each participating government agency to include program funding in its annual budget.
During the year the government continued to provide small loans and economic aid to families with at-risk children and scholarships for poor families to cover the indirect costs of attending school. In July the Ministry of Education initiated a new child labor education campaign to remove children from work and return them to school. OATIA reported that, through October, it had registered 850 children working under the legal age. Working in coordination with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor removed these children from the work environment and placed them in schools.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law provides for a minimum wage, which is set by the National Wage Council. Monthly minimum wages for the private sector ranged from approximately $150 (72,586 colones) for domestic employees to approximately $588 (285,635 colones) for university graduates. The Ministry of Labor effectively enforced minimum wages in the San Jose area, but was not generally effective in enforcing the wage laws in rural areas, particularly those where large numbers of migrants were employed. The national minimum wage did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.
The constitution sets workday hours, overtime remuneration, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. Workers generally may work a maximum of 48 hours weekly. While there is no statutory prohibition against compulsory overtime, the Labor Code stipulates that the workday may not exceed 12 hours under any circumstances. Nonagricultural workers receive an overtime premium of 50 percent of regular wages for work in excess of the daily work shift. However, agricultural workers did not receive overtime pay if they worked voluntarily beyond their normal hours. Hourly work regulations generally were enforced in the formal labor market in San Jose but were enforced poorly in rural areas and in the informal sector.
While the ministries of labor and health shared responsibility for drafting and enforcing occupational health and safety standards, they did not enforce these standards effectively as a result of to inadequate allocation of government resources. The law requires industrial, agricultural, and commercial firms with 10 or more workers to establish a joint management-labor committee on workplace conditions and allows the government to inspect workplaces and to fine employers for violations. Most firms subject to the law established such committees, but they either did not use the committees or did not turn them into effective instruments for improving workplace conditions. Resource constraints continued to hinder the Inspection Directorate's ability to carry out its inspection mandate. Workers who consider a work condition to be unhealthy or unsafe must make a written request for protection from the Ministry of Labor or the Ministry of Health in order to remove themselves from the condition without jeopardizing their continued employment.
Societal Abuses and Discrimination