Bolivia 2019
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Bolivia 2019

A series of devastating fires affected Bolivia’s Chiquitano forest causing an environmental and human rights crisis. Those defending human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples continued to be threatened and harassed. Bolivia is experiencing a social, economic, political and human rights crisis since the 20 October elections.

Background

In October, amid protests and allegations of electoral fraud, President Evo Morales declared he had won the elections by a margin that eliminated the possibility of a runoff with the opposition candidate. In response to the protests, President Morales declared a state of emergency during which there were allegations of excessive and unnecessary use of force by the National Police. On the election day, human rights defender, Waldo Albarracín, was injured after being hit with a tear-gas canister.

On 8 November, after days of violent protests, the Police of Sucre, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz declared themselves in mutiny against the government and on 9 November they were joined by the La Paz Police. The same day, President Morales called upon all of Bolivia’s political forces to engage in dialogue to pacify the country.

On 10 November, the OAS released the results of its audit citing serious irregularities in the election and called for new polls to be held. The same day, supporters of the President urged him to step down and the Armed Forces released a statement suggesting that the President should resign in order to bring peace to the country. Later that day, President Morales resigned and violent protests intensified.

There were public reports of attacks and arson attempts against property belonging to journalists and human rights defenders, such as the burning down of the house of Waldo Albarracín, by mobs of supporters from Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, as well as reports of attacks against the property of families of authorities of the resigning government. The National Police requested support from the Armed Forces to carry out joint operations to restore order. 

On 12 November Jeanine Añez took office as interim president with a mandate to call for new presidential elections. Protests by supporters of the MAS continued and on 14 November, the government issued Decree 4078 which provides for the participation of the Armed Forces in “the defence of society and maintenance of public order” and exempts from criminal responsibility Armed Forces personnel participating in operations to re-establish internal order and public security “when, in carrying out their constitutional duties, they act in legitimate defence or out of necessity, while observing the principles of legality, absolute necessity and proportionality”.

With the decree in force, the National Police and Armed Forces carried out joint operations to control demonstrations and there were allegations of excessive and unnecessary use of force, as well as reports of armed protesters such as in Sacaba and Senkata where deaths and dozens of injured people were reported. The Institute of Forensic Research reported that between 20 October and 22 November, it carried out 27 autopsies of people who died in the context of the protests. According to publicly available information from the Office of the Ombudsperson, 35 people died between 30 October and 28 November, and 832 were wounded between 24 October and 21 November. On 27 November, interim President Añez repealed Decree 4078.

During the crisis several cities were rendered inaccessible, resulting in food and gas shortages. There were also allegations of threats and attacks against journalists and other violations of the right to freedom of expression. On 24 November the interim president promulgated a law annulling the 20 October elections and calling for a new electoral process. The elections are due to be held on 3 May 2020.

From 22 to 25 November 2019, at the invitation of the State, a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) carried out an observation visit to Bolivia.

On 12 December 2019, the IACHR and the State signed an agreement to create an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts to support investigations into the acts of violence and human rights violations that took place in Bolivia between 1 September and 31 December 2019.

International scrutiny

In November, the UN Human Rights Committee examined Bolivia’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review process and received 238 recommendations. In July, Bolivia ratified the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Human rights defenders

Concerns remained regarding the deteriorating situation faced by human rights defenders. The authorities, including former President Morales, made statements questioning the work of national and international civil society organizations. The requirements, introduced in 2013, for NGOs, foundations and other not-for-profit entities working in more than one department to operate legally remained in force. The lack of clarity surrounding these requirements put civil society organizations at risk of losing their legal status and prevented them from operating effectively.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

Indigenous Peoples’ rights, particularly their right to participate in decision making on matters that affect their rights, continue to be threatened by the licensing of economic projects, such as oil concessions, on community lands without obtaining their free, prior and informed consent.

Right to a healthy environment

Starting in July, a series of forest fires raged in the Chiquitanía. The fires occurred after former President Morales enacted Supreme Decree No. 3973 on 10 July. This authorizes “the clearing of land for agricultural activities on private and communal land” and “controlled burns in accordance with current regulations” in the provinces of Santa Cruz and Beni, both of which were affected by forest fires. No investigation was initiated by the Bolivian government to establish the causes of the fires and any possible link with the Decree. The Decree remained in force and continued to be applied at the end of the year.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

On 17 March, police and immigration officers arbitrarily detained 14 Venezuelans (three women and 11 men) at a shelter in La Paz. They had participated in a peaceful demonstration at the Cuban Embassy against human rights violations in Venezuela on 15 March. They were taken to an immigration office, interrogated and accused of “conspiracy” and “political activities in exchange for money”, violating their right to due process. According to local organizations and witnesses, many were ill-treated and threatened by police officers. Six were arbitrarily deported to Peru the same day. The other eight, who had applied for asylum, were released but five subsequently fled to Peru fearing further persecution. The three who remained in Bolivia at the end of the year feared persecution and arbitrary deportation.

Impunity

In April, the Truth Commission investigating human rights violations between 1964 and 1982 received declassified documents from the Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Ministry of Justice and historical files from the Plurinational Assembly. The Commission was due to present a final report in 2020.