The crisis caused by COVID-19 deepened structural inequalities, especially impacting the rights of those historically marginalized. The Urgent Consideration Act (LUC) threatened the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. Inadequate prison conditions continued to worsen. Violence against women increased. Impunity remained a concern and evidence emerged indicating key information about past human rights violations had been withheld.
The COVID-19 response had an adverse impact on the access to economic and social rights of people in marginalized communities. Confinement measures affected economic activity, which deepened pre-existing structural inequalities. The University of the Republic reported that in April more than 100,000 people fell below the poverty line, a 35% increase compared to December 2019. Media reported that in August, more than 40,000 people were reliant on food banks. Access to housing was difficult for sex workers, domestic workers, migrants and refugees.
Approved in July, the LUC included broadly worded provisions that restrict freedom of expression and assembly and could outlaw demonstrations and social protests.
Concerns about the LUC included issues relating to the principle of the presumption of innocence for police officers and provisions that allow increased use of pre-trial detention. The LUC also removed some fair trial guarantees and introduced longer prison terms for certain crimes. These measures risked increasing the prison population in a prison system where overcrowding and insanitary conditions were rife. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in November there were 13,077 incarcerated adults, of whom almost 20% were awaiting trial. Uruguay’s rate of incarceration of 370 per 100,000 inhabitants was one of the highest in the region.
The government expressed its intention to search for those who disappeared during the civil-military regime (1973-1985). In February, the Public Prosecutor’s Office started criminal proceedings against four retired military personnel on charges of torture for acts committed in 1972. On 24 May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights referred the case of three girls subjected to enforced disappearance in 1974 and two other cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
In August, the notes of a 2006 Military Tribunal of Honour were published, showing that the army tortured and executed Uruguayan detainees in Argentina during the 1970s and confirming that evidence had been concealed.
COVID-19 confinement measures led to an increase in cases of domestic violence against women and girls. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 33,004 complaints were registered between January and October, 203 more than in the same period in 2019. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic did not include proper mechanisms to prevent violence against women.
Despite the lack of official data on child pregnancy for 2020, it remains a low visibility-problem in Uruguay. Girls giving birth under the age of 15 are mostly a consequence of situations of sexual abuse and exploitation. According to the National Committee for the Eradication of Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, in 2020 there was a 41% increase in reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents.
Difficulties in accessing sexual and reproductive health services increased during COVID-19 confinement measures, especially access to abortion, which is legal in the country but difficult to access due to health professionals’ refusal to perform this service on religious grounds and a lack of access to health centres in rural areas.