Americas 2017/2018

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Americas 2017/2018

Discrimination and inequality continued to be the norm across the continent. High levels of violence continued to ravage the region, with waves of killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. Human rights defenders experienced increasing levels of violence. Impunity remained pervasive. Politics of demonization and division increased. Indigenous Peoples faced discrimination and continued to be denied their economic, social and cultural rights, including their rights to land and to free, prior and informed consent on projects affecting them. Governments made little headway in protecting the rights of women and girls, and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

Huge numbers of people across the Americas region faced a deepening human rights crisis, fuelled by the downgrading of human rights in law, policy and practice, together with increasing use of the politics of demonization and division. Such regression risked becoming endemic in many countries. It exacerbated a lack of trust in the authorities – manifested in low levels of participation in elections and referendums – and in institutions such as national justice systems.

Rather than using human rights as a way to secure a more just and sustainable future, many governments fell back on tactics of repression – misusing their security forces and justice systems to silence dissent and criticism; allowing widespread torture and other ill-treatment to go unpunished; and presiding over rampant inequality, poverty and discrimination sustained by corruption and failures in accountability and justice.

Major regression in human rights was also driven by a series of executive orders issued by US President Donald Trump, including what became known as the “Muslim ban” and plans to build a wall along the US border with Mexico.

Extreme and persistent violence was commonplace in countries including Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela. Violence across the region was frequently driven by the proliferation of illicit small arms and the growth of organized crime. Violence against LGBTI people, women and girls, and Indigenous Peoples was widespread.

According to a UN report, Latin America and the Caribbean remained the most violent region in the world for women, despite strict laws aimed at addressing the crisis. The region had the world’s highest rate of non-intimate partner violence against women, and the second highest rate of intimate partner violence.

Mexico witnessed a wave of killings of journalists and human rights defenders. Venezuela faced its worst human rights crisis in modern history. Killings of Indigenous people and Afro-descendant leaders in Colombia exposed shortcomings in the implementation of the country’s peace process.

Land rights activists were targeted with violence and other abuses in many countries. The region continued to suffer from an alarming rise in the number of threats and attacks against human rights defenders, community leaders and journalists, including through misuse of the justice system.

Huge numbers of people fled their homes to escape repression, violence, discrimination and poverty. Many suffered further abuses while in transit or upon reaching other countries in the region.

The pardon granted to Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori, who in 2009 was sentenced for crimes against humanity, sent a worrying signal about Peru’s willingness to confront impunity and respect the rights of victims.

States’ failure to uphold human rights increased the space for non-state actors to commit crimes under international law and other abuses. These included organized criminal entities, which in some cases controlled entire territories, often with the complicity or acquiescence of security forces. National and transnational corporations sought to take control of the land and territory of groups including Indigenous Peoples and – in countries like Peru and Nicaragua – peasant farmers.

Failures to uphold economic, social and cultural rights caused widespread suffering. A reversal of political rhetoric by the USA under President Trump reduced the chances of the US Congress passing legislation to lift the economic embargo on Cuba – and so perpetuated the embargo’s adverse impacts on Cubans. Paraguay’s authorities failed to ensure the right to adequate housing following forced evictions. There were thousands of new cases of cholera in Haiti.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and struggled with badly damaged infrastructure in countries in the Caribbean, including in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, following two major hurricanes, among other natural disasters. In Mexico, two devastating earthquakes that cost hundreds of lives compromised people’s rights to adequate housing and education.

At the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly, held in Cancún, Mexico, in June, there was a clear lack of political leadership to address some of the region’s most pressing human rights issues. A group of countries tried to condemn the crisis in Venezuela, without acknowledging their own failures to respect and protect human rights. After the previous year’s financial crisis, the OAS took a step forward by doubling the budget allocation for the Inter-American human rights system – although the funding was to be allocated under certain conditions, which could limit the ability of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hold states accountable for human rights violations.

In the USA, President Trump wasted little time in putting his anti-rights rhetoric of discrimination and xenophobia into action, threatening a major rollback on justice and freedoms – including by signing a series of repressive executive orders that threatened the human rights of millions, at home and abroad.

This included abusive USA-Mexico border enforcement practices such as the increased detention of asylum-seekers and their families; extreme restrictions on women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services in the USA and elsewhere; repeal of protections for LGBTI workers and transgender students; and permission for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be completed – threatening the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Indigenous Peoples, as well as violating their right to free, prior and informed consent.

Yet growing disenfranchisement did not equate to disengagement. Emerging social discontent inspired people to take to the streets, stand up for their rights and demand an end to repression, marginalization and injustice. Examples included the massive demonstrations in support of activist Santiago Maldonado, who was found dead after going missing in the context of a demonstration marred by police violence in a Mapuche community in Argentina, and the massive social movement of “Ni Una Menos” (“not one less woman”) – denouncing femicide and violence against women and girls – in various countries in the region.

Massive grassroots and political opposition in the USA resisted some of the policies and decisions by the Trump administration that undermined human rights, including attempts to ban people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA and to reduce the number of refugees eligible for admission; threats to increase the number of detainees at the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay; and an attempt to take away health care coverage from millions in the USA.

Public security and human rights

Venezuela crisis

Venezuela faced one of the worst human rights crises in its recent history, fuelled by an escalation of government-sponsored violence. There were growing protests due to rising inflation and a humanitarian crisis caused by shortages of food and medical supplies. Rather than address the food and health crisis, the authorities instituted a premeditated policy of violent repression of any form of dissent. The security forces used abusive and excessive force against protesters, including by throwing tear gas and firing rubber bullets, leading to more than 120 deaths. Thousands of people were arbitrarily detained and there were many reports of torture and other ill-treatment. The judicial system was used to silence dissent, including through the use of military courts to prosecute civilians, and to target and harass human rights defenders.

Violence and impunity in Mexico

Mexico’s human rights crisis continued, exacerbated by increases in violence and homicides, including a record number of killings of journalists. Arbitrary arrests and detentions remained widespread – often leading to further human rights violations, most of which were not properly investigated. More than 34,000 people remained subject to enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions were rife. Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be widespread and were committed with impunity by the security forces, with people routinely forced to sign false “confessions”. However, the Senate’s approval of a new law on enforced disappearances – following a national public outcry over the case of 43 forcibly disappeared students whose fate and whereabouts remained undisclosed – was a potential step forward, although its eventual implementation will require serious political commitment to ensure justice, truth and reparations. Congress also finally passed a new general law on torture. More concerning was the enactment of a law on interior security that would enable the prolonged presence of the armed forces in regular policing functions, a strategy that has been linked to an increase in human rights violations.

Unlawful killings

Authorities in Brazil ignored a deepening human rights crisis of their own making. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, a spike in violence saw a surge in unlawful killings by the police, with soaring rates of killings and other human rights violations elsewhere in the country. Little was done to reduce the number of homicides, to control the use of force by the police or to guarantee Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The chaotic, overcrowded and dangerous state of Brazil’s prisons resulted in more than 120 deaths of inmates during riots reported in January.

Despite the homicide rate falling in Honduras, there were serious concerns about high levels of violence and insecurity; prevalent impunity undermined public trust in the authorities and the justice system. Massive protests took place throughout the country – denouncing the lack of transparency around the presidential election held in November – and were violently repressed by security forces, leading to at least 31 people being killed, dozens arbitrarily detained and others injured.

Dozens of unlawful killings by the security forces were reported in the Dominican Republic, which endured a persistently high homicide rate. Jamaica’s police continued to commit unlawful killings – some potentially amounting to extrajudicial executions – with impunity.

Protests

Protests were met with unnecessary and excessive use of force by the authorities in countries including Colombia, Paraguay and Puerto Rico.

In Paraguay, protests erupted after a secret attempt by senators to amend the Constitution to allow presidential re-elections was exposed. The Congress building was set on fire by some protesters, and opposition activist Rodrigo Quintana was killed by police. Dozens of people were injured, more than 200 were detained, and local organizations reported torture and other ill-treatment by security forces.

In Nicaragua, police officers prevented rural communities and Indigenous Peoples from participating in peaceful demonstrations against the construction of the Grand Interoceanic Canal.

In Argentina, more than 30 people were arbitrarily detained by police in the capital, Buenos Aires, for taking part in a demonstration following the death of activist Santiago Maldonado. In December, excessive force was used against protesters in Buenos Aires taking part in massive demonstrations against governmental reforms.

Access to justice and the fight to end impunity

Impunity remained pervasive and a key driver of human rights violations and abuses in many countries.

Ongoing impunity and corruption in Guatemala eroded public trust in the authorities and hampered access to justice. There were large protests in August and September and the country faced a political crisis when members of the government resigned in response to President Jimmy Morales’ attempt to expel the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, an independent body established by the government and the UN in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law post-conflict.

Impunity for past and present human rights violations remained a concern in Chile. The closure by the authorities of an investigation into the alleged abduction and torture reported by Mapuche leader Víctor Queipul Hueiquil sent a chilling message to human rights defenders across the country, while it appeared that no comprehensive and impartial investigation was carried out. Indigenous leader Machi Francisca Linconao and 10 other Mapuche people were acquitted of terrorism charges, due to a lack of evidence to implicate them in the deaths of two people in January 2013. However, in December the Court of Appeals declared the judgment null. A new trial was due to start in 2018.

Confronting past human rights violations

Efforts to address unresolved human rights violations often remained slow and sluggish, hampered by a lack of political will.

In Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted a medical pardon and grace to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been sentenced in 2009 to 25 years’ imprisonment for his responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by his subordinates, and was still facing other charges for his alleged responsibility for other human rights violations that could constitute crimes against humanity. Thousands took to the streets to protest against the decision.

In Uruguay, human rights defenders investigating human rights violations that took place during the military regime (1973-1985) reported receiving death threats, the sources of which were not investigated. In November the Supreme Court found that crimes committed during the regime did not amount to crimes against humanity and were, therefore, subject to statutes of limitations.

Yet there was some progress. In Argentina, 29 people were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-1983 military regime, and a federal court issued a historic decision under which four former members of the judiciary were sentenced to life in prison for contributing to the commission of crimes against humanity during those years.

In Bolivia a Truth Commission was established to investigate serious human rights violations committed under military governments from 1964 to 1982.

There was progress in prosecuting some crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996), with five former members of the military sent to trial on charges of crimes against humanity, rape and enforced disappearance. After several failed attempts since 2015, the trials of former military head of state José Efraín Ríos Montt and former intelligence chief José Rodríguez Sánchez finally resumed in October.

Refugees, migrants and stateless people

Denial of protection by the USA

Amid a global refugee crisis in which more than 21 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution, the USA took extreme steps to deny protection to people in need. In the first few weeks of his administration, President Trump issued executive orders to suspend the country’s refugee resettlement programme for 120 days, impose an indefinite ban on the resettlement of refugees from Syria, and reduce the annual refugee admission cap to 50,000.

President Trump also signed an executive order vowing to build a wall along the USA-Mexico border. His order, which pledged to put in place 5,000 additional border patrol agents, carried the risk that more migrants – including many in need of international protection – would be unlawfully pushed back at the border or deported to places where their lives are at risk. The injustice of President Trump’s actions was emphasized by Central America’s ongoing refugee crisis, and by the appalling situation in Venezuela, which led to an increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum abroad. As conditions for refugees and migrants in the USA deteriorated, there was a significant increase in numbers of asylum-seekers irregularly crossing the border from the USA into Canada.

Refugee crisis

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, more than 57,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador sought asylum in other countries. Many were forced back home, where a lack of an effective system to protect them meant they faced the same dangers and conditions from which they had fled. Thousands of families and unaccompanied children from those countries migrated to the USA through Mexico and were apprehended at the US border.

Mexico received a record number of asylum applications, mostly from nationals of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Venezuela, but repeatedly failed to provide protection to those who needed it – instead pushing people back to highly dangerous and even life-threatening situations.

Argentina’s reception system for asylum-seekers remained slow and insufficient, and there was no integration plan in place to help asylum-seekers and refugees access basic rights such as education, work and health care.

Cubans continued to leave the country in large numbers, pushed by low wages and undue restrictions on freedom of expression.

Stateless and internally displaced people

The Dominican Republic’s statelessness crisis continued to affect tens of thousands of people of Haitian descent who were born in the country but were left stateless after being retroactively and arbitrarily deprived of their Dominican nationality in 2013. Those affected were denied a range of human rights and were prevented from accessing higher education, formal employment or adequate health care.

In Haiti, almost 38,000 people remained internally displaced because of the 2010 earthquake. There was a reported increase in deportation cases at the Dominican-Haitian border.

Indigenous peoples’ rights

Indigenous Peoples’ rights continued to be violated in countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru.

Violence against Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples continued to be criminalized and discriminated against in Argentina, where the authorities used legal proceedings to harass them; there were reports of police attacks, including beatings and intimidation. Rafael Nahuel of the Mapuche community was killed in November during an eviction conducted by security forces.

In Colombia, a wave of killings of Indigenous people from communities historically affected by the armed conflict highlighted shortcomings in the implementation of the peace agreement. The killing of Gerson Acosta – leader of the Kite Kiwe Indigenous council in Timbío, Cauca, who was shot repeatedly while leaving a community meeting – was a tragic example of the ineffectiveness of the authorities’ measures to safeguard the lives and safety of community leaders and other Indigenous people.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documented the different forms of discrimination faced by Indigenous women in the Americas and highlighted how their political, social and economic marginalization contributed to permanent structural discrimination, leaving them at increased risk of violence.

Land rights

In Peru, new laws weakened the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights related to land and territory and undermined their right to free, prior and informed consent. The government neglected the right to health of hundreds of Indigenous Peoples whose only water sources were contaminated with toxic metals, and who lacked access to adequate health care.

In Ecuador, the right to free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples continued to be violated, including after intrusions of the state into their territories for future oil extraction.

Indigenous Peoples in Paraguay also continued to be denied their rights to land and to free, prior and informed consent on projects affecting them. Despite rulings from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the government failed to provide the Yakye Axa community access to their lands, or to resolve a case regarding the ownership of land expropriated from the Sawhoyamaxa community.

Guatemala’s Supreme Court recognized the lack of prior consultation with the Xinca Indigenous People of Santa Rosa and Jalapa, who were negatively affected by mining activities.

In Brazil, conflicts over land, and invasion by illegal loggers and mine workers into Indigenous Peoples’ territory, resulted in violent attacks against Indigenous communities.

Human rights defenders and journalists

The extreme risks and dangers of defending human rights were apparent in numerous countries in the region, with human rights defenders facing threats, harassment and attacks including in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

Killings and harassment in Mexico

In Mexico, human rights defenders were threatened, attacked and killed, with digital attacks and surveillance especially common. During the year, at least 12 journalists were killed – the largest number recorded since 2000 – many in public places in daylight, with the authorities making no notable progress in investigating and prosecuting those responsible. Victims included prize-winning journalist Javier Valdez, who was killed in May near the office of the newspaper Ríodoce, which he founded. It became apparent that a network of people was using the internet to harass and threaten journalists throughout Mexico. Evidence also emerged of surveillance against journalists and human rights defenders, using software that the government was known to have purchased.

Human rights defenders at risk in Honduras

Honduras remained one of the region’s most dangerous countries for human rights defenders – especially those working to protect land, territory and the environment. They were targeted by both state and non-state actors, subjected to smear campaigns to discredit their work, and regularly faced intimidation, threats and attacks. Most attacks registered against human rights defenders went unpunished. There was little progress in the investigation into the March 2016 killing of Indigenous environmental defender Berta Cáceres. Since her murder, several other Honduran environmental and human rights activists have been harassed and threatened.

Increased attacks in Colombia

There was an increase in the number of attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia, especially community leaders, defenders of land, territory and the environment, and those campaigning in favour of the peace agreement. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, almost 100 human rights defenders were killed during the year. Many death threats against activists were attributed to paramilitary groups, but in most cases the authorities failed to identify who was responsible for the killings that resulted from the threats.

Arbitrary detentions, threats and harassment

In Cuba, large numbers of human rights defenders and political activists continued to be harassed, intimidated, dismissed from state employment and arbitrarily detained to silence criticism. Online and offline censorship undermined advances in education. Prisoners of conscience included the leader of the pro-democracy Christian Liberation Movement, Eduardo Cardet Concepción, who was jailed for three years for publicly criticizing former president Fidel Castro.

Human rights defenders in Guatemala, especially those working on land, territorial and environmental issues, faced ongoing threats and attacks, and were subjected to smear campaigns. The justice system was also frequently misused to target, harass and silence human rights defenders.

A ruling by Peru’s Supreme Court confirming the acquittal of human rights defender Máxima Acuña Atalaya after five years of unfounded criminal proceedings for land seizure was a landmark decision for environmental defenders.

Rights of women and girls

Women and girls across the region continued to be subjected to a wide range of violations and abuses, including gender-based violence and discrimination and violations of sexual and reproductive rights.

Violence against women and girls

Violence against women and girls remained prevalent. Impunity for crimes such as rape, killings and threats was widespread and entrenched, often underpinned by weak political will, limited resources to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, and an unchallenged patriarchal culture.

Ongoing gender-based violence in the Dominican Republic resulted in an increase in the number of killings of women and girls. Gender-based violence against women and girls was also a major concern in Mexico and worsened in Nicaragua.

In Jamaica, women’s movements and survivors of gender-based and sexual violence took to the streets to protest against impunity for such crimes.

There was an increase in the number of killings of women in leadership roles in Colombia, and no clear progress in ensuring access to justice for women survivors of sexual violence. However, women’s organizations ensured that the Peace Agreement established that people suspected of having committed crimes of sexual violence would be required to appear before transitional justice tribunals.

In Cuba, The Ladies in White – a group of female relatives of prisoners detained on politically motivated grounds – remained a key target of repression by the authorities.

Canada’s federal government released a strategy to combat gender-based violence, and committed to placing women’s rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights at the core of its foreign policy. A law to combat violence against women entered into force in Paraguay in December, although it remained unclear how it would be funded.

Sexual and reproductive rights

The USA’s “global gag rule”

In January, two days after massive worldwide demonstrations for equality and against discrimination, US President Trump put at risk the lives and health of millions of women and girls around the world by reinstating the so-called “global gag rule”. This blocked US financial assistance to any hospitals or organizations that provide abortion information about, or access to, safe and legal abortion care, or that advocate the decriminalization of abortion or the expansion of abortion services.

In Latin America alone – where experts estimate that 760,000 women are treated annually from complications of unsafe abortion – President Trump’s stance put many more lives at risk.

Criminalization of abortion

A ruling by Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal to support the decriminalization of abortion in certain cases left just seven countries worldwide persisting with a total ban on abortion, even when the life or health of the woman or girl is at risk. Six of those countries were in the Americas region: the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname.

In El Salvador, 19-year-old Evelyn Beatriz Hernández Cruz was jailed for 30 years on charges of aggravated homicide, after suffering obstetric complications resulting in a miscarriage. In December, a court confirmed the 30-year sentence of Teodora, a woman who suffered a stillbirth in 2007.

The Dominican Republic’s Senate voted against a proposal that would have decriminalized abortion in certain circumstances. In Honduras, Congress also maintained the ban on abortion in all circumstances in the new Criminal Code.

In Argentina, women and girls faced obstacles in accessing legal abortion when the pregnancy posed a risk to their health or resulted from rape; full decriminalization of abortion was pending in Parliament. In Uruguay, sexual and reproductive health services were difficult to access in rural areas, and objectors to providing abortion continued to obstruct access to legal abortions.

In October, the Ministry of Education and Science of Paraguay issued a resolution banning the inclusion in educational materials of basic information about human rights, sexual and reproductive health education and diversity, among other subjects.

In Bolivia – where unsafe abortions were one of the main causes of maternal mortality – the Criminal Code was amended to significantly expand access to legal abortion.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

LGBTI people faced persistent discrimination, harassment and violence in the region, including in Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica.

In Bolivia the Constitutional Court invalidated part of a law which granted civil marriage rights to transgender people who had changed their gender on their identity documents. The country’s Ombudsman proposed an amendment to the Criminal Code to make hate crimes against LGBTI people a criminal offence.

In the Dominican Republic the body of a transgender woman, Jessica Rubi Mori, was found dismembered in wasteland. By the end of the year, no one had been brought to justice for her killing.

In Uruguay there remained no comprehensive anti-discrimination policy protecting LGBTI people from violence in schools and public spaces, or ensuring their access to health services.

Armed conflict

Despite the opportunities presented by the Peace Agreement in Colombia, legislation remained unimplemented on most of its points, and there were serious concerns around impunity for crimes committed during the conflict.

Ongoing human rights violations and abuses also demonstrated that the internal conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the security forces was far from over, and in some areas it appeared to intensify. Civilian populations continued to be the main victims of the conflict – especially Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, and human rights defenders.

A spike in the number of human rights activists killed at the beginning of the year highlighted the dangers faced by those exposing ongoing abuses in Colombia.

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