Deepening human rights crisis spurs new era of activism in the Americas

People across the Americas faced a deepening human rights crisis fuelled by growing government intolerance of dissent and increasing demonization in political rhetoric that cemented its status as one of the most violent and unequal regions in the world, Amnesty International warned today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights.

Nevertheless, the organization found that a growing resistance movement of both first-time and seasoned activists provides real hope of reversing the slide towards oppression and fear.

Amnesty International´s annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, assesses the human rights situation in 159 countries in 2017 and delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in the world today.

From continuing paramilitary violence in Colombia to violent repression on the streets of Venezuela and many other grave rights violations in most countries, the Americas has witnessed a worrying regression of human rights in the past year
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

“From continuing paramilitary violence in Colombia to violent repression on the streets of Venezuela and many other grave rights violations in most countries, the Americas has witnessed a worrying regression of human rights in the past year,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“State failures to safeguard human rights have created the conditions for others to commit further abuses, putting the lives of millions of people at risk. Defending human rights has been criminalized across the region, with journalists, human rights defenders and marginalised communities often violently repressed for speaking truth to power.”

Leaders abandon human rights, igniting protest movements

The report highlights alarming trends for the state of human rights in the Americas, including:

  • High levels of violence that continued to ravage the region, with waves of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. In Mexico, more than 34,000 people remained missing, and extrajudicial executions were rife. A year on from Colombia’s historic peace agreement, violence was still a daily part of life, and an estimated 60,000 people were forcibly displaced due to armed conflict in 2017 alone, according to official numbers.
  • Venezuela continues to face a serious human rights crisis, fuelled by the escalation of government-sponsored violence to respond to the increasing social discontent created by rising inflation and a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people were arbitrarily detained and there were many reports of torture and other ill-treatment.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean remained as the most violent regions in the world for women and girls, despite strict laws aimed at addressing the crisis. The region has the world’s highest rate of non-intimate partner violence against women, and the second highest rate of intimate partner violence.
  • Ongoing intimidation and attacks against community leaders, journalists and activists who stood up for human rights. Environmental defenders were among the most at risk. Of the 188 environmental defenders killed in 2017, 110 took place in the Americas, according to the NGO Front Line Defenders.
  • Deepening discrimination and neglect of the rights of rural communities and Indigenous Peoples, including their rights to their ancestral territory and to free, prior and informed consent on projects affecting them. From Peru to Nicaragua, national and transnational corporations sought to take control of land away from Indigenous Peoples and peasant farmers, affecting their livelihoods and contaminating their basic resources.
  • A rapidly out of control yet largely invisible refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of people from some of the world’s most violent countries, including El Salvador and Honduras, were denied urgent asylum.

 Yet these injustices have also inspired many more people to join long-standing struggles, and the report details many important achievements that human rights activists helped to secure. These include lifting the total ban on abortion in Chile and the approval of a law to help victims of enforced disappearances in Mexico find their missing loved ones.

“Last year proved that however disenfranchised people were, they refused to resign themselves to a future without human rights. Emerging social discontent inspired people to take to the streets, stand up for their rights and demand an end to repression, marginalization and injustice,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.

Last year proved that however disenfranchised people were, they refused to resign themselves to a future without human rights. Emerging social discontent inspired people to take to the streets, stand up for their rights and demand an end to repression, marginalization and injustice
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

The Americas was at the hub of this new wave of activism. The “Ni Una Menos” (“Not one woman less”) movement denounced violence against women and girls across the region, while survivors of gender-based and sexual violence in Argentina, Mexico, Jamaica, Peru, and many other countries took to the streets to protest against impunity for such crimes.

Protesters and refugees bear the brunt of ‘normalized’ violence

 Hundreds of activists were killed last year as authorities sought to repress civil society and muzzle the media, the report says. Human rights defenders faced threats, harassment and attacks in most countries in the region, while states failed to protect them and acknowledge the importance of their work.

The injustice of President Trump’s cruel pledge to build a wall along the USA-Mexico border was emphasized by Central America’s ongoing refugee crisis. More than 50,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador sought asylum in other countries, thousands of whom were then apprehended at the US border. Mexico received a record number of asylum applications but repeatedly failed to provide protection to those who needed it – instead pushing people back to highly dangerous situations.

The numbers of people fleeing Venezuela rocketed as it faced one of the worst human rights crises in its recent history, fuelled by an escalation of government-sponsored violence. When the country’s crippling shortage of food and medical supplies sparked protests, the security forces’ heavy-handed response lead to more than 120 deaths.

Instead of trying to suppress people when they speak out, governments should address their concerns, said Amnesty International.

“We are witnessing history in the making as people rise up and demand justice in greater numbers. If leaders fail to discern what is driving their people to protest, then this ultimately will be their own undoing. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights: the onus now is on governments to show that they are listening,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. 

We are witnessing history in the making as people rise up and demand justice in greater numbers. If leaders fail to discern what is driving their people to protest, then this ultimately will be their own undoing. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights: the onus now is on governments to show that they are listening
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International