EL SALVADOR 2021
The erosion of human rights in El Salvador intensified. An upsurge of attacks and obstacles targeting the independent media was reported and human rights organizations were publicly stigmatized by high-ranking government officials, including the president. The rights of the victims of crimes under international law committed during the internal armed conflict (1980-1992) remained unfulfilled. A total ban on abortion remained in place.
The ruling party and its allies secured a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly in elections held in February.
An OAS Electoral Observation Mission reported the use of state institutions to publicly promote the government’s administration even during the period of electoral silence provided for in law. The Mission also received complaints about the use of public resources to influence voters.
In September, Bitcoin, one of the world’s most popular cryptocurrencies, was adopted as legal tender without any public consultation. The same month, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing the country’s presidents to stand for immediate re-election, giving the green light to the current president, Nayib Bukele, to stand for a possible second term.
There were mass demonstrations against a variety of state policies from September onwards. In response, in September, President Bukele sought to publicly discredit the demonstrations and threatened that tear gas could be used against demonstrators in future.
Freedom of expression
Journalists and media outlets reported further attacks on media freedom, including an upsurge in public unfounded accusations against them; obstacles in carrying out their work, including in accessing public information; and the refusal of high-ranking officials to answer questions.1
In February, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in favour of 34 staff members of the digital newspaper El Faro. The IACHR stated that the information received suggested that the harassment, threats and intimidation they reported experiencing were intended not only to intimidate them but also to prevent them from going about their work as journalists.
In June, the minister of justice and public security stated that some media publications were apologists for crime and said that the authorities were “following up on many journalists”. According to media reports, in October the vice-president stated publicly that some journalists should be prosecuted for slander.
During September, the Roundtable for the Protection of Journalists reported that employees of the Legislative Assembly, high-level public officials and even President Bukele had intensified their attacks, threats and smears against journalists. In addition, they reported that the main legal adviser to the President’s Office had threatened the media outlet GatoEncerrado to try to force it to reveal its sources for an investigation related to the adviser. Meanwhile, in November, it was reported that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware technology was used in El Salvador for the surveillance of journalists and civil society members.
Right to a fair trial
In May, the new Legislative Assembly removed the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Attorney General of the Republic, an act considered by various sectors to be an attack on the rights to access justice and to judicial independence.2
At the end of August, the Legislative Assembly approved a set of reforms that reduced the length of time judges can serve from 35 to 30 years and set the maximum age for magistrates at 60. The IACHR rejected the reforms and called on the authorities to respect judicial independence.
Right to truth, justice and reparation
Impunity for the El Mozote massacre, committed in 1981 during the armed conflict, persisted. In March, victims of the massacre reported to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the authorities had refused to provide information on the case, especially that contained in military archives, and that the Office of the Attorney General had not made significant progress in the investigation of any of the dozens of cases filed by victims.
In September, local organizations stated that major changes affecting the judiciary resulting from the legal reforms would also have an impact on the reopened cases of victims of the armed conflict.
Human rights defenders
High-ranking government officials publicly stigmatized and disparaged human rights defenders and their organizations, and accused them of being part of the political opposition.
Spaces for regular and effective dialogue between government bodies and human rights organizations to contribute to the design of public policies were closed or virtually non-existent.
In May, a Legislative Assembly commission shelved the draft Law on the Comprehensive Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Guarantee of the Right to Defend Human Rights, presented to the Assembly several years earlier. Human rights organizations warned that this could perpetuate the context of hostility faced by human rights defenders.
In September, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favour of Bertha Deleón, a human rights defender, observing that a situation of animosity and hostility had been generated that could translate into a situation of risk to her life and safety.
In November, the Ministry of the Interior and Territorial Development presented a draft Law on Foreign Agents before the Legislative Assembly. If passed, the law would affect the funding, operations and freedom of association of those working to defend human rights in the country.3
Sexual and reproductive rights
The total ban on abortion remained in place and by December at least 11 women remained in jail on charges related to obstetric emergencies.
In May, a proposal to reform the Criminal Code to decriminalize abortion on four grounds, presented several years earlier, was shelved by a Legislative Assembly commission. Additionally, the president publicly stated that he would not propose any constitutional reform that includes the decriminalization of abortion.
During October, the Legislative Assembly shelved a new proposal presented by women’s rights groups for the decriminalization of abortion in certain circumstances.