Using a popular referendum to oppose impunity

The Comisión Nacional Pro-Referéndum (CNR) organized a referendum in Uruguay for the public to vote on the congressional decision to grant impunity to human rights abusers employed by the military.

Nearly every Uruguayan was affected by human rights abuses during the brutal dictatorship from 1973 to 1984. During that time many political dissidents were watched, tortured, and killed. The military and police detained 55,000 people (1 in 50 of the total population) and 300,000 people went into exile either out of fear or because of the rapidly deteriorating economy.

Through democratic reforms came in 1984, the legacy of Uruguay’s violent political past was never confronted through legislation. In 1986, Uruguay’s nascent democracy decided to ignore that legacy altogether: they refused to allow judicial investigations into crimes committed by the military during the dictatorship by granting impunity to all agents of the military. 

CNR sought to exercise the constitutional right to hold a popular referendum on this law. In order to petition the government to hold a popular referendum, CNR needed to collect 25% of the population’s signatures within a year of the law passing. This amounted to nearly 600,000 signatures.

Gathering one quarter of the population’s signatures required tremendous organizational skills, as well as extensive volunteer involvement. Some volunteers came from political parties, many more came from student groups and trade unions, but the greatest support came from women’s movements. Note that this is a country where women were disenfranchised politically. At the time there was not a single woman in Uruguay’s congress. 

Organizing the movement’s participants posed a significant challenge. For example, during a day-long National Campaign to gather signatures, organizers coordinated the efforts of 9,000 brigadistas or volunteer signature collectors. This kind of massive undertakings, the work of the movement, would not have been feasible without computers and spreadsheets used to tabulate the signatures. 

The government and media establishment opposed the organizers from the beginning. The Uruguayan television networks and newspapers ignored the entirety of the signature collection process. Despite this obstacle, CNR gathered more than the required number of signatures. After 634,702 signatures were collected and submitted to the government, CNR fought with the Electoral Review committee over the validity of the signatures. Signatures supporting the referendum were being rejected, for what many considered unfair reasons. To most of the organizers and supporters, the validity of the Electoral Review and the democratic reforms required a fair review. Unlike the signature collection process, the battle over admitting the signatures was fought in public, this time with heavy opposition from the media. CNR was given an ultimatum: it needed to verify thousands of signatures in order for the referendum to be held. In the end, CNR worked to validate another 10,000 signatures.

The difficulties did not end with the setting of the referendum. The heavy opposition in the media continued. In fact, parties in favor of impunity received more than three times as much coverage in the media. In response, CNR focused all its energy on grassroots organizing, holding rallies, distributing leaflets, hanging banners, making posters, holding music festivals, bike marathons and the like. 

The referendum was held and turnout was high. Despite CNR's efforts, 51% of the voters chose to uphold impunity and that night CNR issued a press release saying that they accepted the results. However, the next day CNR was disbanded.

Although the referendum did not pass, CNR’s work had a large impact in the Uruguayan political scene. One of every three Uruguayans was visited by CNR volunteers during the campaign--a success in any democratic country. Since then, eight more popular referendums have been attempted. CNR’s work created a new tool with which to shape Uruguayan democracy. The leaders and volunteers from CNR have continued to play a role in politics. For example, CNR treasurer and executive committee member Tabarao Vasquez became mayor of Montevideo.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

The idea of holding a general referendum can apply to any situation in which the government opposes popular opinion. However, it requires that a provision for this referendum procedure exist in the country or community. An organization that wishes to organize a referendum must be aware of the provisions for this action, the feasibility of the project, and the chance of success. They must have adequate resources, both financially and in terms of employees or volunteers, to carry out a campaign. They must also be aware of the political climate of their country or community, because in some cases it may be dangerous to act in an overtly political manner in a way that opposes those in power. Nevertheless, organizing a referendum can be a powerful tool by which the people can take a greater role in the politics that affect them.