2019 was a deeply troubling year for human rights in the Americas, as Amnesty International demonstrates today in its regional annual report. Protesters in Venezuela, Honduras, Haiti and Chile suffered brutal state repression, while Latin America was once again the world’s most lethal region for human rights defenders. Gender-based violence remained widespread and environmental degradation continued to rise, with the White House formally seeking to withdraw from the Paris climate pact and Brazilian government failures exacerbating the destruction of the Amazon.
President Donald Trump has continually attacked human rights but few of his policies have had as devastating an impact on the region as his systematic dismantling of the US asylum system. As tens of thousands of men, women and children sought safety in the United States last year due to widespread violence in Central America and beyond, the Trump administration implemented increasingly draconian policies that eviscerated their access to asylum, including by pushing them into dangerous conditions and radically rewriting the asylum definition to exclude almost everyone from eligibility.
Though all countries have the prerogative to control their borders, they must do so in strict compliance with their international human rights obligations.
Having threatened Mexico with new trade tariffs, the United States forced its neighbor to host over 59,000 asylum seekers – including 16,000 children – under the disingenuously named Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain In Mexico”. Mexico’s notoriously dangerous border cities, where asylum seekers must wait months or even years for their claims to be processed in the United States, are home to gangs that prey on those seeking safety. These are not safe places to send people.
Despite previously vowing not to do another government’s “dirty work”, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador responded to US pressure by deploying troops from his new National Guard to stop Central Americans from reaching the US border. Mexico effectively became Trump’s wall as its migration authorities detained 186,750 migrants and deported 123,239 last year. The detainees included 52,000 children held in violation of national law.
The White House similarly strong-armed Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into signing ill-conceived “Safe Third Country” agreements, under which US authorities have already deported hundreds of asylum seekers to Guatemala, returning them to the very region they fled. It has also implemented new, rapid-deportation programs that dispense with the procedural protections required to ensure asylum processes are fair. These policies violate the right to seek asylum and put people at risk of potentially lethal violence in three of the region’s most violent countries.
The Trump administration has also undermined efforts to combat Central America’s rampant corruption and impunity – and cut millions of dollars in aid aimed at addressing such problems – thus exacerbating the conditions that drive people to seek safety in the United States. After intense lobbying by the Guatemalan government last summer, the White House stood by as outgoing president Jimmy Morales shut down Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity, a United Nations-backed body that was investigating him for allegedly receiving illegal campaign funds.
The US government again turned a blind eye in January as Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández administration failed to extend the mandate of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity, another vital institution that had met local resistance after uncovering misuse of public funds by Honduran lawmakers. The United States had previously supported these innovative initiatives that provided a much-needed model for tackling the political corruption that fuels regional instability. By tacitly approving their closure, the Trump administration has gravely damaged efforts to improve the administration of justice and the protection of human rights in the region.
No matter the challenges we face, we will keep standing up for human rights.
Despite these many setbacks, we still have reasons for optimism. I was greatly inspired last July by meeting brave human rights defenders who provide food, shelter and legal assistance at the Tijuana-San Diego border. This is not easy work. As Amnesty International documented, the US government, often with the support of Mexican authorities, has conducted an unlawful and discriminatory campaign of intimidation, threats, harassment and criminal investigations against activists, lawyers, journalists and humanitarian volunteers who defend the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
One of the most serious cases we documented was that of Dr. Scott Warren, a human rights defender and humanitarian volunteer with the organization No More Deaths, who faced up to 20 years in prison under frivolous charges of harboring and conspiracy to transport two migrants. His alleged crime was simply giving them water, food and medical assistance in the deadly desert surrounding his home in Arizona. Justice eventually prevailed as Dr. Warren was acquitted in November, following a mistrial in June.
Another victory for human rights came this month, when a federal judge reversed the conviction of four other No More Deaths volunteers on similar charges. Their courage and selflessness give us hope for what we can achieve in 2020 and beyond. It is a reminder never to abandon the values of kindness, empathy and humanity. No matter the challenges we face, we will keep standing up for human rights.