Raising public awareness of impunity through a referendum or petition drive

Using a constitutional provision that had never been invoked, Comisión Nacional Pro-Referéndum (CNR) orga­nized a referendum in Uruguay, so that the public could vote on the congressional decision to grant impunity to human rights abusers employed by the military. In order to petition the government to hold a popular referendum, CNR needed, within one year of the impunity law’s passage, to collect the signatures of 25 percent of citizens who were qualified to vote.

Gathering one quarter of the population’s signatures required tremendous organization as well as extensive vol­unteer involvement, most of which came from women’s movements. Organizing the 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. In this massive undertaking, they used comput­ers and spreadsheets to tabulate the signatures.

After the signatures were collected and submitted to the government, CNR publicly defended their validity before the electoral review committee. Throughout the process of collecting and submitting the signatures, CNR used grassroots organizing to combat heavy governmental and media opposition. It distributed leaflets, hung banners and posters, and held rallies, music festivals and bike marathons.

Although the referendum was narrowly defeated, CNR’s work created a new tool with which to shape Uruguayan democracy. One in three Uruguayans was visited personally by brigadistas during the campaign and eight more popular referendums have since been attempted. The brigadistas and leaders at CNR have continued to play a role in politics.


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

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Sometimes legislative and government tools exist but the public is unaware of them or does not know how to put them to use. A group in Uruguay organized a remarkable public effort aimed at preventing abusers in the Uruguayan military from being granted immunity from prosecution.

The CNR did not achieve its ultimate goal of overturning the law granting impunity, but it did mobilize civil so­ciety in Uruguay in an unprecedented way and made impunity a national issue. The brigadistas’ visits made an extraordinary number of people aware of the law first-hand and many more became aware of the issue through media coverage.

Legal provisions like the little-used referendum power in Uruguay are not available in every country. Signatures can still be collected on petitions, however, as an avenue of public awareness and a declaration to the govern­ment that the public is dissatisfied with government policies.