Despite public discourse about democracy and economic progress as well as hopes of an end at last to its remaining armed conflict in Colombia, the Americas remained one of the world’s most violent and unequal regions.
Across the region, the year was marked by a trend of anti-rights, racial and discriminatory rhetoric in political campaigns and by state officials, which was accepted and normalized by mainstream media. In the USA, Donald Trump was elected President in November – following an election campaign in which he provoked consternation through discriminatory, misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric, and caused serious concerns about future US commitments to human rights domestically and globally.
The region’s human rights crisis was accelerated by a trend of increased obstacles and restrictions to justice and fundamental freedoms. Waves of repression became more visible and violent, with states frequently misusing their justice and security apparatus to ruthlessly respond to and crush dissent, and increasing public discontent.
Discrimination, insecurity, poverty and environmental damage were rampant throughout the region. Failure to uphold international human rights standards was also laid bare by a wide gulf of inequality – in wealth, social wellbeing and access to justice – which was underpinned by corruption and lack of accountability.
Widespread and entrenched obstacles to accessing justice and a weakening rule of law were common to many countries in the region. Impunity for human rights abuses was high, and in some cases a lack of independent and impartial judicial systems further protected political and economic interests.
This backdrop enabled the perpetuation of human rights violations. Torture and other ill-treatment, in particular, remained prevalent, despite the existence of anti-torture laws in countries including Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.
Failures of justice systems – together with states’ failure to implement public security policies that protect human rights – contributed to high levels of violence. Countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela had the highest homicide rates on the planet.
Endemic violence and insecurity were often linked to, and compounded by, the proliferation of illicit small arms and the growth of organized crime, which in some cases had taken control of whole territories, sometimes with the complicity or acquiescence of the police and military.
Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras was one of the world’s most violent places, with more people killed there than in most conflict zones globally. El Salvador’s homicide rate of 108 per 100,000 inhabitants was one of the highest in the world. For many, daily life was overshadowed by criminal gangs.
Widespread gender-based violence remained one of the most appalling of states’ failures in the Americas. In October, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean revealed that 12 women and girls were murdered every day in the region because of their gender (a crime classified as “feminicide”), with most of those crimes going unpunished. According to the US State Department, one in five women in the USA was sexually assaulted during her college years, although just one in 10 incidents was reported to the authorities.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBGTI) individuals across the region faced higher rates of violence and discrimination, and more obstacles in getting access to justice. The shooting rampage at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, demonstrated that LBGTI people were the most likely target of hate crimes in the USA. Brazil, meanwhile, remained the most deadly country in the world for transgender people.
In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a public health emergency after detecting an “explosive” spread of the virus in the region. Fears that mother-to-child transmission of the virus may be linked to microcephaly in newborns – as well as the possible sexual transmission of the virus – highlighted barriers for the effective realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the region.
State failures left power vacuums that were occupied by increasingly influential transnational corporations, especially in the extractive and other industries related to the appropriation of territory and natural resources – mostly in land claimed by and belonging to Indigenous Peoples, other ethnic minorities and peasant farmers, without due respect of their right to free, prior and informed consent. Often, these groups suffered harm to their health, environment, livelihoods and culture, and were forcibly displaced, leading to the disappearance of their communities.
Political repression, discrimination, violence and poverty drove another deepening but largely forgotten humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees – largely from Central America – were forced to flee from their homes to seek protection, frequently placing themselves at risk of further human rights abuses and risking their lives.
Many governments displayed a deepening intolerance to criticism, as they stifled dissent and muzzled freedom of speech.
In Mexico, the authorities’ unwillingness to accept criticism was so severe that it retreated into a state of denial about the country’s human rights crisis. Despite the fact that almost 30,000 people were reported missing, that thousands had lost their lives due to security operations to combat drug trafficking and organized crime, and that thousands were forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of widespread violence, the authorities ignored criticism from Mexican civil society and international organizations, including the UN.
Denial was also a hallmark of a deteriorating human rights situation in Venezuela, with the government putting at risk the lives and human rights of millions by refuting the existence of a major humanitarian and economic crisis, and refusing to request international aid. Despite severe food and medicine shortages, rapidly rising crime rates and continuous human rights violations – including high levels of police violence – the government silenced its critics instead of responding to people’s desperate calls for help.
Notable events during 2016 included US President Barack Obama’s historic state visit to Cuba, which put the two countries’ human rights challenges – including the ill-treatment of migrants in the USA, the impact of the US embargo on Cuba’s human rights situation, and the lack of freedom of expression and the repression of activists in Cuba – in the international spotlight.
The ratification by the Colombian Congress of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after more than four years of negotiations finally ended the country’s 50-year-long armed conflict with the FARC that devastated millions of lives. A peace process with Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group – the National Liberation Army (ELN) – was announced but had yet to start by the end of the year, largely due to the group’s failure to release one of its high-profile hostages.
In Haiti, a deadly hurricane caused a major humanitarian crisis, compounding existing damage from natural disasters. Deeply entrenched and structural problems such as a lack of funding and political will had already left Haiti unable to provide adequate housing for 60,000 people living in displacement camps in appalling conditions following the 2010 earthquake. Presidential and legislative elections were postponed twice over allegations of fraud amid protests, against which the police reportedly used excessive force. In November, Jovenel Moïse was elected President.
Human rights defenders at risk
In many countries in the Americas region, defending human rights remained extremely dangerous. Journalists, lawyers, judges, political opponents and witnesses were particularly targeted with threats, attacks, torture and enforced disappearances; some were even killed by state and non-state actors as a way to silence them. Human rights activists also faced smear campaigns and vilification. Yet there was little progress in investigating these attacks or bringing perpetrators to justice.
Human rights defenders and social movements opposing large-scale development projects and transnational corporations were at particular risk of reprisals. Women human rights defenders as well as those from communities historically excluded were also targeted with violence.
Human rights defenders faced increased attacks, threats and killings in Brazil. In Nicaragua, the government turned a blind eye to human rights violations and persecuted activists. The plight of prisoners of conscience in Venezuela – and the government’s willingness to suppress dissent – was highlighted when severely ill opposition leader Rosmit Mantilla was denied surgery and placed in a punishment cell instead; after intense national and international pressure, he received the urgent medical care he needed, and was later released in November.
Honduras and Guatemala were the most dangerous countries in the world for those defending land, territory and the environment, with a wave of threats, trumped-up charges, smear campaigns, attacks and killings targeting environmental and land activists. In March, the murder of prominent Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres – who was shot in her home by armed men – highlighted the generalization of violence against those working to protect land, territory and the environment in the country.
In Guatemala the criminalization – through baseless criminal procedures and the misuse of the criminal justice system – of human rights defenders opposing projects to exploit natural resources and their identification as “the enemy within” was common. In Colombia, human rights defenders, especially community leaders and environmental activists, continued to be threatened and killed in alarming numbers.
In Argentina, social leader Milagro Sala was arrested and charged with protesting peacefully in Jujuy. Despite her release being ordered, further criminal proceedings were initiated against her to keep her in detention. In October, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that her detention was arbitrary and recommended her immediate release.
In northern Peru, Máxima Acuña – a peasant farmer caught in a legal battle with Yanacocha, one of the biggest gold and copper mines in the region, over ownership of the land where she lived – won the 2016 Goldman Prize, a highly respected environmental award. Despite a campaign of harassment and intimidation in which security personnel were alleged to have physically attacked her and her family, she stood firm and refused to end her struggle to protect local lakes and remain on her land.
In Ecuador, the rights to freedom of expression and association were severely curtailed by restrictive legislation and silencing tactics. The criminalization of dissent continued, particularly against those who opposed extractive projects on Indigenous Peoples’ land.
Despite claims of political openness in Cuba and the re-establishment of relations with the USA the previous year, civil society and opposition groups reported increased harassment of government critics. Human rights defenders and political activists were publicly described as “subversive” and “anti-Cuban mercenaries”. Some were subjected to short-term arbitrary detention before being released without charge, often several times a month.
Threats to the inter-American human rights system
Despite the extent of the region’s human rights challenges, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – critical to defend and promote human rights as well as ensure access to justice for victims who were unable to do so in their own countries – was affected by a financial crisis for most of the year. This was caused by an insufficient allocation of resources by member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) – a striking demonstration of states’ lack of political will to promote and protect human rights both within and beyond their territories.
In May, the IACHR said it faced the worst financial crisis in its history. There was a real danger that progress made by the IACHR in confronting gross human rights violations and structural discrimination would be weakened – precisely when the IACHR needed to play a more vigorous role in ensuring states uphold their obligations under international human rights law.
With an annual budget of US$8 million, the inter-American human rights system remained the world’s poorest human rights system, with fewer resources than its corresponding entities in Africa (US$13 million) and Europe (about US$104.5 million).
Although additional funding was eventually received to complement the IACHR income, there were concerns that the political crisis would continue unless states allocated adequate funding to the institution and co-operated with it, regardless of how critical it was of countries’ human rights record.
There were more specific failures to support the IACHR too. Mexico’s government sought to obstruct its work on the Ayotzinapa case – in which 43 students were forcibly disappeared after being arrested by police in 2014. Despite the authorities’ claim that the students were kidnapped by a criminal gang, and their remains burned and thrown in a dumpster, a group of IACHR-appointed experts concluded that it was scientifically impossible for that many bodies to have been burned in the conditions claimed. In November, the IACHR launched a special mechanism to follow up on the experts’ recommendations, but appropriate support from the authorities was difficult to guarantee.
Refugees, migrants and stateless people
Central America was the source of a rapidly worsening refugee crisis. Relentless violence in this often forgotten part of the world continued to cause a surge in asylum applications from Central American citizens in Mexico, the USA and other countries, reaching levels not seen since most of the region’s armed conflicts ended decades ago.
Hundreds of thousands of people travelled through Mexico either to seek asylum there, or to continue to the USA. Many were detained in harsh conditions, killed, abducted or faced extortion by criminal gangs who often operated in collusion with the authorities. Large numbers of unaccompanied children and adolescents were particularly affected by human rights abuses; women and girls were at serious risk of sexual violence and human trafficking.
Despite overwhelming evidence that many asylum-seekers were at risk of extreme violence should they not be granted asylum, deportations from Mexico and the USA remained steady. Many people were forcibly returned back to the life-threatening situations they were fleeing in the first place; some were allegedly killed by gangs after being deported.
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fuelled this deepening crisis by failing to protect people from violence and to set up a comprehensive protection plan for people who were deported from countries such as Mexico and the USA.
Yet, rather than taking responsibility for their role in the crisis, the governments concerned focused only on the human rights abuses that people suffered while travelling through Mexico to the USA. They also falsely argued that most people were fleeing out of economic need rather than soaring violence and homicides, not to mention the daily threats, extortion and intimidation that most of the population faced under struggles for territorial control from gangs.
In the USA, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, as well as people travelling with their families, were apprehended when attempting to cross the southern border during the year. Families were detained for months, many without proper access to medical care and legal counsel.
Throughout the year, the IACHR expressed concern about the situation of Cuban and Haitian migrants attempting to reach the USA.
Elsewhere, migrants and their families faced pervasive discrimination, exclusion and ill-treatment. In the Bahamas, there was widespread ill-treatment of undocumented migrants from countries including Haiti and Cuba. The Dominican Republic deported thousands of people of Haitian descent – including Dominican-born people who were effectively rendered stateless – while often failing to respect international law and standards on deportations. Upon arrival to Haiti, many people who had been deported settled in makeshift camps, where they lived in appalling conditions.
Despite a commitment from newly elected authorities in the Dominican Republic to address the situation of stateless individuals, tens of thousands of people remained stateless following a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling which retroactively and arbitrarily deprived them of their nationality. In February, the IACHR described a “situation of statelessness… of a magnitude never before seen in the Americas”.
More than 30,000 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada, with a further 12,000 resettled in the USA.
Public security and human rights
Non-state actors – including corporations and criminal networks – wielded growing influence and were responsible for increasing levels of violence and human rights abuses. Overall, however, states mostly failed to respond to the situation in a way that complied with international standards, with significant human rights violations resulting from a tendency to militarize public security.
Some states responded to social unrest – and particularly peaceful protests – with an increased use of the army to undertake public security operations, and adopted military techniques, training and equipment for use by the police and other law enforcement agencies. Although tackling organized crime was frequently used as justification for militarized responses, in reality they enabled states to further violate human rights rather than address the root causes of violence. In countries such as Venezuela, for example, military action in response to protests was often followed by torture and other ill-treatment of protesters.
Protests across the USA – which followed the deadly shooting by police in July of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana – saw police use heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons in response, raising concerns about demonstrators’ right to peaceful assembly. There were also concerns about the degree of force police used against largely peaceful protests opposing the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Meanwhile, the US authorities again failed to track the exact number of people killed by law enforcement officials; media reports put the numbers at almost 1,000 in 2016, and at least 21 people died after police used electric-shock weapons on them.
The Olympic Games hosted by Brazil in August were marred by human rights violations by security forces, with the authorities and the event’s organizers failing to implement effective measures to prevent abuses. Police killings in Rio de Janeiro increased as the city prepared to host the Games. Violent police operations took place throughout the event with severe repression of protests, including through unnecessary and excessive use of force. Throughout the year, the country’s counter-narcotic operations and heavily armed approach to security operations fuelled human rights violations and placed police officers at risk.
Police and other security forces also used excessive and unnecessary force in countries including the Bahamas, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.
Unlawful killings in Jamaica were part of a pattern of police operations that had remained largely unchanged for two decades, while many killings by security forces in the Dominican Republic were reported to have been unlawful. In both countries, security forces were exempt of reforms and were rarely held accountable.
Access to justice and the fight to end impunity
Rampant impunity allowed human rights abusers to operate without fear of the consequences, weakened the rule of law, and denied truth and redress to millions.
Impunity was sustained by justice and security systems that remained under-resourced, weak and often corrupt, compounded by a lack of political will to ensure their impartiality and independence.
The resulting failure to bring the perpetrators of human rights violations to justice allowed organized crime and abusive law enforcement practices to take root and prosper.
Denial of meaningful access to justice also left huge numbers of people – including in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela – unable to claim their rights.
In Jamaica, impunity prevailed for the decades-long pattern of alleged unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions by law enforcement officials. While more than 3,000 people have been killed by law enforcement officials since 2000, only a handful of officials have been held accountable to date. In June, the Commission of Enquiry into alleged human rights violations during the 2010 state of emergency made recommendations for police reform; by the end of the year Jamaica had yet to outline how it would implement the reforms.
In Chile, the crimes of members of the security forces who beat, ill-treated and sometimes even killed peaceful demonstrators and others went largely unpunished. Military courts – which dealt with cases of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces – regularly failed to adequately investigate and prosecute officers suspected of having committed a crime, with trials usually failing to meet the most basic levels of independence and impartiality.
In July, a court in Paraguay sentenced a group of peasant farmers to up to 30 years’ imprisonment for the murder of six police officers and other related crimes, in the context of a 2012 land dispute in the Curuguaty district. No investigation was opened into the deaths of 11 peasant farmers in the same incident, however. The General Prosecutor failed to provide a credible explanation for the lack of investigation into these deaths, or to respond to allegations that the crime scene had been tampered with and that peasant farmers had been tortured while in police custody.
By the end of the year – and two years after a US Senate report on the issue – no one had been brought to justice in the USA for human rights violations committed in the secret CIA detention and interrogation programme after the attacks of 11 September 2001.
The prosecution in Mexico of five marines – who were accused of the enforced disappearance of a man who was found dead weeks after his arrest in 2013 – was a positive step that offered hope of a new approach to tackling the country’s wave of disappearances. Across the country, the fate and whereabouts of tens of thousands of people remained unknown.
In countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, ongoing impunity and lack of political will to investigate human rights violations and crimes under international law – including thousands of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances – that were perpetrated in the context of military dictatorships in previous decades continued to deny victims and their families truth, justice and reparation.
However, in Argentina former de facto President Reynaldo Bignone was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in hundreds of enforced disappearances during a region-wide intelligence operation; 14 other military officers were also sentenced to prison terms. The rulings were a positive step for justice that, it was hoped, might open the door to further investigations.
Although progress to address impunity in Guatemala was slow, in a landmark decision two former military officials were found guilty of crimes against humanity for the sexual and domestic slavery and sexual violence they inflicted on Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ women.
In July, El Salvador’s Supreme Court declared the Amnesty Law unconstitutional. This marked an important step forward for justice for crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed during the 1980-1992 armed conflict.
In Haiti, no progress was made in the investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by former President Jean-Claude Duvalier and his former collaborators.
Rights of women and girls
States made little headway in tackling violence against women and girls. This included failing to protect them from rape and killings as well as failing to hold perpetrators accountable. Reports of gender-based violence came from Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Jamaica, Nicaragua, the USA and Venezuela, among other countries.
Numerous violations of sexual and reproductive rights had a significant impact on the health of women and girls. The Americas had the highest number of countries with a total ban on abortion. In some countries, women were thrown in prison simply for being suspected of having had an abortion, sometimes after suffering miscarriages.
Women living in poverty across Nicaragua continued to be the main victims of maternal mortality, and the country had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the region. Women there were also subjected to some of the world’s harshest abortion laws; abortion remained banned in all circumstances, even when vital to save a woman’s life. In the Dominican Republic, a reform to the Criminal Code that would decriminalize abortion in certain cases was again delayed. Legislative reform proposed to decriminalize abortion in Chile continued to be discussed.
There were, however, small signs of hope. In El Salvador, a court decision to release María Teresa Rivera – who had served four years of a 40-year prison sentence after miscarrying her pregnancy – was a step towards justice in a country where women were treated appallingly. In another human rights victory, a woman sentenced to eight years in prison in Argentina after having a miscarriage was released from detention after a Supreme Court ruling that there were insufficient reasons to keep her detained.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights
In June, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the OAS, after 17 years of negotiations.
In spite of this, Indigenous Peoples across the Americas continued to be victims of violence as well as killings and excessive use of force by the police, with their rights over their land, territory, natural resources and culture often abused. The daily reality for thousands was a life overshadowed by exclusion, poverty, inequality and systemic discrimination – including in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Paraguay.
State and non-state actors – including landowners and businesses – were responsible for forcibly displacing Indigenous Peoples from their own land, in the pursuit of their own economic profit.
Development projects – including by the extractive industry – threatened Indigenous Peoples’ culture, sometimes leading to the forced displacement of entire communities. Yet Indigenous Peoples were frequently denied meaningful consultation and free, prior and informed consent. Indigenous and peasant women across the Americas demanded greater attention to the impact on women of natural resource extraction projects and enhanced participation in decision-making processes about development projects impacting their land and territories.
In May, leaders of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Rama-Kriol communities said that an agreement for the construction of the Grand Interoceanic Canal had been signed without an effective consultation process. There was a surge in violence in Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region, where Indigenous Miskitu Peoples were threatened, attacked, subjected to sexual violence, killed and forcibly displaced by non-Indigenous settlers.
Positive developments included the Canadian government announcing the launch of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
Legislative and institutional progress in some countries – such as the legal recognition of same-sex marriage – did not necessarily translate into better protection against violence and discrimination for LGBTI people.
Across the Americas, high levels of hate crime, advocacy of hatred and discrimination, as well as murders and persecution of LGBTI activists persisted in countries including Argentina, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, the USA and Venezuela.
However, in the Dominican Republic the electoral process during the year saw several openly LGBTI candidates run for seats to increase their political visibility and participation.