Nş 46/06




At the invitation of the Government of Bolivia, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a visit from November 12 to 17, 2006, to observe the overall human rights situation.  The Commission met with high government officials and numerous civil society organizations.  It also visited the Chonchocorro, San Pedro, and Orientación Femenina Obrajes penitentiaries.  At the end of its visit, the Commission gave a lecture on the inter-American human rights system.


The Commission is an autonomous, principal body of the Organization of American States (OAS), established in keeping with the OAS Charter and charged with the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas.  It is composed of seven independent experts elected in their personal capacity by the member states of the Organization.  The IACHR delegation consisted of Commission members Evelio Fernández Arévalos, President; Florentín Meléndez, Second Vice President and Rapporteur for Bolivia; and Victor Abramovich.  They were joined by Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary; attorneys Débora Benchoam, Leonardo Hidaka, and Silvia Serrano; and Gloria Hansen, Documents Technician from the Executive Secretariat.


The Commission believes the outcome of the recent elections in Bolivia represents the beginning of an important process of democratization and increasing inclusiveness, which may help the traditionally excluded majority of the population to participate actively in decision-making on political, economic, and social questions that affect them directly.


The Commission stresses that, despite the severe crises of recent years, Bolivian society has found ways to embark on a democratic transition in a manner consistent with its Constitution.  However, efforts toward inclusiveness in Bolivia may be seriously hindered by the country’s political instability. The Commission has learned of important proposals for social and political transformation by the present government.  It believes it is essential for this process to be based on strengthening democratic dialogue and the rule of law.


Bolivia is a multiethnic, multilingual, and pluricultural nation, where indigenous peoples, who make up over 60% of the population, traditionally have been subject to discrimination and social exclusion.  Approximately 70% of indigenous Bolivians live in poverty or extreme poverty, with little access to education or to minimal services to support human health, like clean drinking water and sanitation systems.  Many Bolivians living in poverty or extreme poverty are doubly vulnerable as women, children, or the indigenous elderly.  The Commission recognizes that the severe problems facing the majority of Bolivians trace back to prior decades and have been passed on to the present government.  These preliminary observations and the Commission’s report on this visit are intended to assist the Bolivian state, indicating the major elements required to safeguard the human rights of all Bolivians.


Bolivia has instituted significant reforms to safeguard and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples by enacting special laws, creating specific ministries to address these questions, ratifying Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, and constitutionally declaring Bolivia a multicultural state.  However, in practice, these important advances have not yet brought about substantial improvements in the situation of indigenous peoples and other groups historically subject to discrimination.


Poverty and social exclusion can lead to human rights violations. The lack of equal participation hinders the development of democratic, pluralistic societies and heightens intolerance and discrimination. The inclusion of all sectors of society in processes of communication, decision-making, and development is essential to ensuring that policies and decisions take account of their needs, views, and interests.  The American Convention on Human Rights, in its preamble, states that "the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights as well as his civil and political rights."


In connection with recent initiatives, the Inter-American Commission welcomes the creation and startup of the Vice Ministry of Community Justice as a first step toward coordination and harmonization of the formal justice system with the community justice system.  The Commission also welcomes Bolivia’s recent ratification of the Protocol of San Salvador on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and hopes that, continuing in the direction of this important step in recognizing international human rights standards, Bolivia will promptly ratify the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty.  Lastly, the Commission recommends most especially, in the context of the present constitutional process, that constitutional rank be accorded to the international human rights instruments ratified by the Bolivian state.


The Commission reaffirms as essential to any social inclusiveness process the full independence of the branches of government, particularly the guarantee of an impartial judiciary, access to justice, the enforceability of rights recognized under the Constitution and international law, strict compliance with due process without discrimination, policies for coordination between the community and formal justice systems, and, most especially, fighting the severe problem of impunity for those responsible for human rights violations.  During this visit, the Commission paid special attention to each of these issues.


The Commission learned of alarming statistics related to access to justice, especially in rural areas.   It noted in particular that only 55% of municipalities in Bolivia have any judicial authority and only 23% have a prosecutor


The Commission also noted with deep concern that only 3% of municipalities have public defenders. In this connection, although the Commission welcomed the Public Defenders Act as a positive initiative, it finds that, three years after its entry into force, serious deficiencies in its application persist.  The Commission reaffirms that every law must be accompanied by the political will to implement it with the necessary budgetary and human resources, especially when it directly affects the full exercise of human rights, such as due process and access to justice.


As for the Office of the Attorney General, the Commission welcomes recent efforts by the Attorney General of the Republic such as the creation of decongestion units, notification centers, and secure evidence archives.  It is essential that authorities take all necessary measures, whether budgetary or involving technical or personnel support, to have these initiatives swiftly implemented.


The Commission also observed that for years there had been no uniform criminal prosecution policy, and that this had been aggravated by obstacles to the effective development of the prosecutorial profession. The Commission also took note of difficulties in coordination among district attorneys, prosecutors, and judicial technical police officers working in investigation.  Beginning with the implementation of the accusatory criminal justice system, such police were to be under the command and control of the appropriate district attorneys.  The Commission has learned that the police officers are still assuming investigative tasks under orders from their hierarchical superiors, not from officials of the Attorney General’s Office.


Another matter of concern in the area of investigations is the lack of cooperation among various agencies of other branches of government, especially the reluctance on the part of security agencies and the Armed Forces to provide essential information.  Despite the implementation of the new accusatory criminal system, the IACHR learned of instances in which complaints were rejected and investigations were dismissed by the Attorney General’s Office. This could be adding to the problem of impunity.


On the operations of the judiciary, the Commission observed an alarming backlog of cases on various issues, especially labor rights, social security, and criminal matters.


The Commission is concerned over the direct impact of this case backlog on the high percentage of detainees who have not been sentenced: over 70%.  Immediate measures must be taken to correct prison overcrowding, to separate detainees according to specific categories, especially juveniles, convicts, and those being tried, and to ensure that family cohabitation within prisons conforms to international human rights standards.


One of the major safeguards the state must institute to lessen the backlog in the administration of justice is an effective, transparent, independent, and impartial disciplinary system to ensure that Republic’s judges adhere to the Constitution and the law.


Similarly, it is essential to strengthen the judicial career service by instituting improved, transparent procedures for the selection of judges at all levels, so as to ensure their suitability, independence, and impartiality. The Commission noted with concern the large number of vacancies at the highest levels, both at the Office of the Attorney General, where the highest official has an interim appointment, and in the posts of four ministers of the Supreme Court of Justice and five principal and/or alternate magistrates at the Constitutional Court.


As for the application of military criminal justice, the Commission points to the judgment by the Constitutional Court, in May 2004, which adopts international standards in this area, in addition to recent statements by military authorities indicating that investigations and trials concerning the grave events of September and October 2003 could be conducted by the ordinary justice system.  The Commission, however, expresses its concern over overt instances of contempt of court by the Armed Forces who intended to disregard constitutional precepts and remain under military jurisdiction.  In particular, it remains unclear whether the soldiers accused in the events of February 2003 will be placed under ordinary jurisdiction.


The Commission appreciates certain instances of progress in recognizing the community justice system and indigenous law, both in the Constitution and under criminal procedural law, and notes with concern the lack of state policies to strengthen those institutions, or of clear guidelines for harmonizing them with, and integrating them into, the formal justice system. The Commission believes that the recognition of juridical pluralism, including respect for the indigenous justice system should be accompanied by means of guaranteeing its effective application in the context of constitutional and international human rights parameters.


Finally, working meetings were held on petitions, cases, and precautionary measures being considered by the Commission, with participation by representatives of the state, petitioners, and victims. The Commission is gratified at the willingness and readiness expressed by the parties to some of these matters to enter into friendly settlement proceedings, and by the state’s manifest commitment to implement the precautionary measures discussed.  The Commission will continue to monitor these matters and to observe closely the development of the human rights situation in Bolivia.


The visit that concludes today has been a valuable opportunity to enrich the Commission’s dialogue, in its areas of competence, with the Bolivian authorities and Bolivian society. The Commission will continue to work with the Government of Bolivia and with civil society to strengthen the defense and protection of human rights.


The Commission emphasizes that it was entirely at liberty to meet with any person of its choosing. The authorities of the Bolivian state extended their full assistance and cooperation to the Commission so that it could carry out its agenda. The Commission thanks the Government of President Evo Morales for this assistance. It also thanks the various civil society organizations and representatives for their cooperation and the information they provided.


In the context of ongoing cooperation with the Government, and with the aim of pursuing increased and improved protection of human rights in Bolivia, the Commission, under the functions and powers granted it in Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights, will issue its observations on the impressions it has gathered before and during this visit, as well as its final conclusions and recommendations, in a report on the situation of human rights in Bolivia, which will be submitted to the Bolivian state for its consideration and made public in the near future.


La Paz, Bolivia, November 17, 2006