Human Rights by region

Women demonstrate opposite Peru’s Palace of Justice in Lima, calling for justice for their disappeared relatives, July 2010.

© Karin Orr, 2010 Peace Fellow

We have suffered too much with so much violence... we are not asking, we are demanding rights: demarcation of our lands with urgency so that we can return to live in peace, with happiness and dignity.”

Open letter from the Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous People to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, August 2010

In the Americas many human rights have been recognized in law, if not always in practice, over the past 50 years. While abuses clearly persist – particularly against vulnerable groups – the region has undeniably seen progress, albeit slow and partial. Governments can rightly claim some credit for these changes. However, it is the communities most affected by human rights abuses who have been the real driving force behind these advances. It is they who have spoken out and campaigned for change, often at great personal risk. It is their determination and persistence that have inspired millions and made it increasingly difficult for states to ignore the growing clamour for fundamental and irreversible change. The year began, however, with a sharp reminder of how fragile these hard won rights can be. In January, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, leaving more than 230,000 people dead and millions homeless. By the end of the year, more than 1,050,000 people displaced by the disaster were still living in tents in makeshift camps, denied their rights to adequate shelter and vulnerable to attack. The dramatic increase in rapes was a clear indictment of the failure of the authorities to ensure the security of women and girls living in the camps.

Haiti was a potent symbol of what the lack of political will to prioritize the protection of rights can mean for ordinary people. However, it also provided powerful evidence of the way grassroots organizations at the forefront of human rights protection overcome seemingly insuperable odds to keep hope and dignity alive. The Commission of Women Victims for Victims (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, KOFAVIV) is one such organization, offering support to the growing number of survivors of sexual violence in Haiti’s camps. Most KOFAVIV members are themselves rape survivors and many lost everything in the earthquake. Yet despite their own personal tragedies, they have stepped in to provide survivors with the kind of medical, psychological and financial support that the Haitian state should be providing, but does not.

Even in times of relative peace and stability, governments frequently fail to ensure that rights are upheld in practice, especially for those at greatest risk of abuse, such as people living in poverty, Indigenous Peoples, and women and girls. This is particularly true in cases where powerful economic interests view upholding the rights of poor and marginalized communities as contrary to their economic goals.

Human rights defenders

Defending human rights continued to be dangerous work in many countries in the region. Activists were killed, threatened, harassed or subjected to arbitrary legal proceedings in a number of countries including Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela. Often they were targeted because their work threatened the economic and political interests of those in power.

In countries such as Colombia and Brazil, some protection measures were implemented to address the risks faced by human rights defenders. However, in others, the year ended without the creation of integrated measures to tackle the problem. For example, in Mexico, where there was growing concern about the security of activists, the authorities made little progress in implementing a protection programme, despite a commitment to do so first made in 2008.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples in the Americas have become increasingly vocal and organized in defence of their rights in recent years. Nevertheless, the legacy of widespread human rights abuses against them, and the failure to hold those responsible to account, helped perpetuate long-standing discrimination and poverty in Indigenous communities throughout the region.

The expansion of the agricultural and extractive industries and the introduction of huge development projects such as dams and roads into traditional Indigenous lands represented a significant and growing threat to Indigenous Peoples. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, Indigenous Peoples seen as standing in the way of commercial interests were threatened, harassed, forcibly evicted, displaced and killed as the drive to exploit resources intensified in the areas where they lived.

Although states in the Americas voted in favour of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, by the end of 2010 none had enacted legislation ensuring that development projects affecting Indigenous Peoples could only be undertaken with the communities’ free, prior and informed consent.

Peru came close to approving landmark legislation in May when the Law on the Right of Indigenous People to Prior Consultation, drawn up with the participation of Indigenous Peoples, was passed by Congress. However, President García refused to promulgate it. Paraguay continued to fail to abide by two decisions handed down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005 and 2006 ordering the state to return traditional lands to the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa. In August, the Court ruled on a third case involving Indigenous Peoples’ rights and condemned Paraguay for its violation of the rights of the Xákmok Kásek. In Brazil, where the right of Indigenous Peoples to their “traditionally occupied lands” was enshrined in the Constitution as long ago as 1988, the Guarani-Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul state faced numerous obstacles and protracted delays in getting their land claims settled. While their claims stalled in the courts, the Guarani-Kaiowá were harassed and attacked by gunmen hired by local farmers to remove them from the land.


In Colombia, the 45-year internal armed conflict continued to take a heavy toll on the civilian population, which bore the brunt of the hostilities. Thousands of people were the victims of forced displacement, unlawful killing, kidnapping or enforced disappearance by guerrilla groups, the security forces and paramilitaries. The most marginalized groups – Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, as well as the urban poor – were targeted by the warring parties. Promises by the newly elected President, Juan Manuel Santos, that he would prioritize human rights and the fight against impunity raised hopes that his administration would show the political will to tackle the long-running human rights crisis in the country. However, continued attacks on human rights defenders, activists and community leaders, especially those working on land rights issues, showed the scale of the difficulties that lay ahead.

A number of countries, particularly in the Andean region, saw mass demonstrations against government policies and legislation on issues such as access to natural resources, land, education and public services. In September, Ecuador appeared to be on the brink of civil conflict after hundreds of police officers took to the streets in protest at government proposals to change their pay and benefits. President Correa, who became caught up in the protests, was briefly hospitalized for the effects of tear gas.

Public security

Poverty, criminal violence and the proliferation of small arms created and perpetuated the conditions in which human rights abuses flourished. Residents of poor urban neighbourhoods – particularly in parts of Mexico, Central America, Brazil and the Caribbean – continued to be caught between the violence of organized criminal gangs and human rights abuses by the security forces.

In many cases, endemic corruption in state institutions undermined their ability to respond adequately to organized crime. However, governments showed little appetite for addressing this long- standing and systemic problem. Rather, they increasingly resorted to the deployment of the military in response to organized crime and other perceived threats to security.

In Mexico, for example, the deployment of the military to combat organized crime resulted in numerous reports of serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. In Jamaica, a state of emergency was declared in May in parts of the country following an outbreak of gang violence. During the state of emergency, at least 4,000 people were detained and 76 killed, including three members of the security forces. More than half the killings were alleged to have been extrajudicial executions.

Counter-terror and human rights

US President Obama’s promise that the Guantánamo detention centre would be closed by January 2010 was not fulfilled. By the end of the year, 174 people remained held in the prison. The only Guantánamo detainee so far transferred to the US mainland for prosecution in a federal court was tried and convicted. Two Guantánamo detainees were convicted by military commission during the year after pleading guilty. Revised rules, issued in April, governing military commission proceedings for so-called “war on terror” suspects showed that there was little hope that the US administration would make substantial reforms and uphold human rights.

Justice and impunity

In several Latin American countries, most notably the Southern Cone, there were continued and significant advances in efforts to bring to justice some of those responsible for serious and widespread human rights violations under past military regimes.

In Argentina, Reynaldo Bignone, former military general and former President, was found guilty in April of torture, murder and several kidnappings that occurred while he was commander of the notorious Campo de Mayo detention centre between 1976 and 1978. In July, General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez and Roberto Albornoz, former head of the intelligence police, were sentenced to life imprisonment for human rights violations committed at a secret detention centre in Tucumán province during the military regime (1976-1983).

In July, Manuel Contreras, former head of the infamous Chilean National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, DINA), was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment for his part in the killing in Argentina in 1974 of General Carlos Prats, a member of cabinet in the government of President Salvador Allende (1970-73), and his wife.

In a landmark ruling in October, the Uruguayan Supreme Court declared a 1986 amnesty law unconstitutional. However, the ruling was specific to the case against former President Juan María Bordaberry (1971-1976) and will not, therefore, lead to the reopening of previously archived cases.

Also in October, members of Peru’s “Colina group” death squad and former high-ranking officials in the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) were convicted of the killing of 15 people and the enforced disappearance of 10 others in 1991 and 1992.

In Colombia, retired Colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in June for the enforced disappearance of 11 people in 1985 when the military stormed the Palace of Justice, where people were being held hostage by the M-19 guerrilla group.

However, in many cases progress was severely hampered by the fact that military institutions failed to co-operate with, and in some instances showed outright resistance to, investigations into human rights violations. In Bolivia, for example, officials investigating enforced disappearances dating from 1980-1981 continued to face obstacles in getting access to military archives, despite two Supreme Court orders for the declassification of the archives.

In Mexico and Colombia, the military justice systems continued to claim jurisdiction in cases of alleged human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces. New legislation in Colombia and proposed legal reforms in Mexico did not guarantee that all human rights violations would be excluded from military jurisdiction, despite clear evidence of the lack of independence and impartiality of military courts and prosecutors.

Efforts to introduce legislation to combat impunity stalled in some countries, while in others progress made in previous years was rolled back. For example, in April the Chilean Supreme Court upheld a decision that the 1978 Amnesty Law should apply in the case of Carmelo Soria Espinosa, a Spanish diplomat killed in 1976 by the security forces. Also, in April, the Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal upheld the interpretation that crimes committed by members of the military – extrajudicial executions, torture and rape – were political or related to political acts and, therefore, covered by an amnesty law passed by the military regime in 1979. However, in November the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the 1979 Amnesty Law was null and void, and reminded the Brazilian authorities of their obligation to bring perpetrators to justice. Meanwhile in Peru, Congress voted to revoke Decree Law 1097, which effectively granted amnesties to human rights violators, but two decrees allowing members of the armed forces accused of human rights violations to be tried in military courts remained in place.

In El Salvador, President Funes signed into law an Executive Decree in January creating a new National Search Commission for Disappeared Children to search for children who disappeared during the armed conflict (1980-1992). By the end of the year, however, the new Commission was still not operational and the whereabouts of hundreds of disappeared children remained unknown.

Meanwhile, in the USA, those responsible for crimes under international law committed as part of the “war on terror”, such as torture and enforced disappearance, were not held to account. In November, former President George W. Bush admitted that he had authorized the use of “water-boarding” (a form of torture in which the process of drowning a detainee is begun) during his administration. Nevertheless, accountability and remedy for human rights violations committed as part of the USA’s programme of secret detention and rendition remained non-existent. In November, the US Department of Justice announced, without further explanation, that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the destruction in 2005 of 92 tapes depicting evidence of “water-boarding” and other torture techniques used against two detainees held in 2002.

International justice

In December, 14 people – 12 Chilean former military officials, including General Manuel Contreras; a Chilean civilian; and an Argentine former military official – were sentenced in absentia to between 15 years and life imprisonment by a court in France. The 14 were convicted in connection with the disappearance of four French-Chilean nationals during the early years of the Chilean military government of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Judges in the Americas made use of international human rights law to re-open cases of human rights violations that had been closed because statutes of limitations had expired. In Colombia, for example, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in May that former Congressman César Pérez García should be prosecuted in connection with a 1988 massacre in Segovia by paramilitaries in which more than 40 peasant farmers were killed. The Court argued that the massacre amounted to crimes against humanity and was, therefore, not subject to the statute of limitations.

During 2010, St. Lucia became the 113th state to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Paraguay and Brazil ratified the International Convention on enforced disappearance, but neither recognized the competence of the Committee against Enforced Disappearance to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims.

Death penalty

Forty-six prisoners – 45 men and one woman – were put to death in the USA during the year. This brought to 1,234 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976.

In Guatemala, Congress passed legislation in October that could lead to the resumption of the use of the death penalty. However, the President vetoed the bill, and in December Guatemala voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

In December, Cuba commuted the sentences of the last three prisoners facing the death penalty.

Although death sentences were handed down in the Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, no executions were carried out.

Freedom of expression

The Americas remained a dangerous region for those working in the media. Only Asia recorded more killings of journalists during 2010. Almost 400 media workers were threatened or attacked and at least 13 journalists were killed by unidentified assailants. Mexico accounted for more than half of these deaths, followed by Honduras, Colombia and Brazil. In many cases, those killed were believed to have been targeted because of their efforts to uncover corruption or to expose the links between officials and criminal networks.

A significant number of TV stations, particularly in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, were forced to close temporarily; radio stations were also affected. In the Dominican Republic at least seven TV and radio stations had their transmission signal blocked or were forced to close temporarily in the run-up to the May elections. Some channels had still not been able to resume broadcasting by the end of the year.

In Cuba, journalists continued to be arbitrarily detained and all media remained under state control.

Inequality and development

Progress in poverty reduction was recorded in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. However, although there was evidence that poverty was slowly decreasing in Latin America and the Caribbean, almost a fifth of the region’s population continued to live in extreme poverty, including the vast majority of Indigenous Peoples. Despite a reduction in inequality in many countries, notably Venezuela, many of the least developed nations failed to show any tangible improvements and at the end of 2010 Latin America remained the most unequal region in the world.

Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities were disproportionately represented among those living in poverty, more so than any other group. The repeated, but false, claim that respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples is incompatible with economic growth and development provided the backdrop to a persistent pattern of rights violations. In Guatemala, despite a request by the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights that operations at the Marlin 1 gold mine in San Marcos department be suspended, the mine was still operational at the end of the year. In Canada, the Toronto Stock Exchange took the decision in January to de-list the Copper Mesa Mining Corporation from the exchange. The company was the subject of a lawsuit presented by the Ecuadorian Intang Indigenous People who accused the company of responsibility for human rights violations. In May, an Ontario court struck out the lawsuit; an appeal was before the Ontario Court of Appeal at the end of the year.

Eighteen UN agencies working in Latin America issued a report in July on the progress made by states in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The report revealed that the MDG to reduce maternal mortality was the furthest off track. Tens of thousands of women continued to die from preventable pregnancy-related complications and wide disparities persisted in access to quality health care. The report attributed this to discrimination against women and their low status in society.


Violence against women and girls and the denial of reproductive rights

Violence against women and girls and the denial of reproductive rights Violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, remained widespread and most survivors were denied access to justice and redress. Although states in the region introduced legislation to combat gender-based violence, in practice laws were seldom applied and investigations and prosecutions were rare. A new law in the USA offered hope to Indigenous women survivors of rape by establishing more robust systems to access justice. However, in countries such as Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti and Nicaragua, failing justice systems helped perpetuate impunity for gender-based violence and so contributed to a climate where such violence proliferated.

Thousands of women in the region were raped, forcibly disappeared or killed during the year. Women in certain parts of Guatemala and Mexico and Indigenous women in Canada were at particular risk. The lack of resources available to investigate and prosecute these crimes raised questions about official willingness to address violence against women.

Many of those subjected to gender-based violence were girls under the age of 18. For example, in October, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child requested that Nicaragua take urgent action to eradicate sexual violence against children, following increasing evidence of widespread sexual abuse of girls and teenagers in the country.

Laws banning abortion in all circumstances continued to deny women and girls in El Salvador, Chile and Nicaragua their right to sexual and reproductive health. Laws criminalizing abortion put anyone providing or seeking an abortion at potential risk of imprisonment, including girls and women who were pregnant as a result of rape or who experienced life-threatening complications in their pregnancies.

In some other countries, access to abortion granted in law was denied in practice because of protracted judicial procedures that made access to safe abortion almost impossible especially for those who could not afford to pay for private abortion services.

“I demand that the government respects our rights as women. We are girls and we have rights, and so long as they do not respect these rights, we will continue to fight to demand them,” Clara, youth rights promoter, aged 18, Managua, Nicaragua.

Human rights by region

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