The OAS must condemn repressive measures taken to combat the pandemic

By Belissa Guerrero Rivas

The Organization of American States (OAS) was founded in 1948 to achieve an order of peace and justice, to promote solidarity, to strengthen collaboration and to defend states' sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. Traumatised by the horrors of the Second World War, the international community sought to consolidate human rights law as a check against state power.

Now we face a new global threat: a pandemic that does not respect borders, gender or social class and that disproportionately affects vulnerable groups. Governments can of course take exceptional measures to combat the biggest public health crisis of our time, but they must respect, guarantee and recognise the indivisibility of human rights. Moreover, in its resolution “The OAS Response to the COVID19 Pandemic”, the organization instructed member states to ensure full respect for human rights as they respond to the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings us face to face with our region’s longstanding problems. Most of our public health systems are underfunded. Weak labour protections, a high percentage of people working in the informal sector and poverty combine to intensify inequality and discrimination across the Americas. And as if this were not enough, governments have used the need to combat the pandemic as a pretext for introducing repressive measures.

In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, for example, the authorities have detained thousands of people as a first rather than a last resort when enforcing lockdowns. In the Caribbean country, the authorities have detained approximately 85,000 people, many of whom presumably left their homes to buy food or items they need for everyday life. Similarly, Amnesty International has verified that many of the thousands of people kept in “containment centres” in El Salvador were detained only because they left their homes to buy food or medicine.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings us face to face with our region’s longstanding problems. Most of our public health systems are underfunded. Weak labour protections, a high percentage of people working in the informal sector and poverty combine to intensify inequality and discrimination across the Americas

Certain aspects of government quarantine measures are deeply concerning. In El Salvador, Venezuela and Paraguay, people have been deprived of their freedom for long periods of time in centres that are unsuited for social distancing or do not have adequate provisions for shelter, water and sanitation. In some cases, detainees do not have rapid access to COVID-19 testing and run a high risk of contracting the virus while being deprived of their freedom.

The lack of safeguards for migrants returning to their countries is especially worrying. Amnesty International has verified that migrants returning to El Salvador were confined in an enclosure exposed to the weather while a storm battered the country. Although Paraguay and El Salvador have seen a significant reduction in the numbers being held in government quarantine centres, the authorities in Venezuela continue to detain thousands of refugees and migrants whose only option has been to return from countries like Peru and Colombia.

Ill-treatment is also among measures used under the pretext of combating COVID-19. We have verified videos in which the police in Venezuela, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic subjected people who broke lockdown to humiliating and degrading punishments.

We have also witnessed the illegitimate use of force. Venezuelan authorities have used excessive and unnecessary force to repress demonstrations calling for access to basic services and food. In El Salvador, the National Civil Police are reported to have beaten and shot at people who left their homes to buy food and workers responsible for maintaining essential services and who therefore had the right to free transit.

All these repressive responses to the pandemic have one thing in common: silence from the highest multilateral regional authority. Amnesty International is very concerned about the inaction of the OAS. In the past, we have witnessed robust discussions in this forum about grave human rights violations in Venezuela and Nicaragua, while also noting a dismal silence in the human rights violation of Bolivia, Chile, Haiti and Honduras, last year.

All these repressive responses to the pandemic have one thing in common: silence from the highest multilateral regional authority

The OAS must serve everyone who lives on this continent without discrimination. As COVID-19 spreads throughout this hemisphere, the OAS has no option but to play a leading role and activate its mechanisms to avoid a repeat of these repressive measures. Its Permanent Council can call a meeting to take action if requested by any of its Member States or its Secretary General. Standing up for human rights is a simple task.

All those working in the field of human rights hope these issues are not on the agenda at OAS’s fiftieth General Assembly in October. We hope that by then the OAS will have made a timely and emphatic response to these repressive measures so that they are no longer used in our continent.

Belissa Guerrero Rivas is Americas Advocacy Coordinator at Amnesty International