Americas Regional Overview

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AMERICAS 2021

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the Americas had the highest rates of income inequality of any region in the world. The continent’s uneven economic recovery during the year made little impact on the wide-ranging consequences of decades of structural inequality. Despite implementing various programmes to tackle the consequences of the pandemic, many governments failed to protect the social, economic and cultural rights of their most vulnerable populations – and often undermined them further with discriminatory policies and practices.

In 2021, 1.5 million people lost their lives due to Covid-19 in the Americas, which continued to have the world’s highest per capita death toll from Covid-19. Limited and unequal access to healthcare was a major cause, compounded by poorly funded health systems, inadequate social protection policies and measures for marginalized communities, and a lack of adequate access to vaccines. The impact of the pandemic on Indigenous peoples was made particularly acute by ongoing inadequate access to sanitation, health services and social benefits.

Many governments did not do enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health. Essential services were lacking and access to abortion services remained criminalized in most countries.

Violence against women and girls remained a major concern throughout the region. Investigations into cases of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, rape, homicide and femicide, were often inadequate.

The right to freedom of expression was under threat in several countries, with dozens of journalists and government critics threatened, censored, attacked and detained. Police and other security forces cracked down on peaceful protests in many countries with excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions and, in some cases, unlawful killings.

Impunity for these and other human rights violations and crimes under international law remained a serious concern in more than half the countries in the region. Attacks on judicial independence also increased.

Tens of thousands of people fled their countries due to human rights violations related to violence, poverty, inequality and climate change. However, many governments continued to prohibit the entry of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and violated international law by forcibly returning, without proper consideration of their claims, those who did make it across borders.

The landmark Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) finally came into force in April. However, acts of environmental destruction continued in many countries and the Americas remained one of the world’s most dangerous regions for those defending environmental and human rights.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Despite an upturn in economic growth during the year, these gains were insufficient to reverse the 2020 economic downturn, which saw record unemployment, falling incomes and increases in poverty and inequality.

In Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela the hardship was particularly severe. By June, 40.6% of the Argentine population was living in poverty. In Brazil, 56% of the population faced food insecurity. In Haiti, nearly half of the population was in need of food assistance. And in Venezuela, 94.5% of the population was living in income poverty and 76.6% in extreme poverty.

Inequality and discrimination remained prevalent region-wide. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the average unemployment rate for women in the region was 12.7% compared to 9.7% for men.

Many governments failed to protect the social, economic and cultural rights of those in the most vulnerable situations and some even further undermined them. For example, forced evictions increased in Paraguay – particularly among Indigenous and rural communities – without effective judicial remedies or the offer of resettlement alternatives. According to the Zero Eviction campaign, 23,500 Brazilian families were evicted from their homes between March 2020 and October 2021, during the pandemic. In the USA, the Supreme Court struck down efforts to extend a federal moratorium on evictions.

In Venezuela more than 3,000 protests took place in the first half of the year as the country’s food distribution system failed to meet nutritional needs and access to medical assistance, drinking water, food and fuel further deteriorated.

Right to health

The pandemic continued to have a devastating impact in many countries where access to healthcare and vaccines was limited and unequal.

With 2.3 million deaths from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, the region accounted for 45% of the global total of deaths, despite representing just 13% of the world’s population.

Widespread neglect and underfunding of public health services was a major reason for the scale of the crisis. In several countries, the number of doctors and nurses per capita was far below the threshold that the WHO considers necessary for delivering basic health services in the world’s poorest countries.

In Venezuela, there was a lack of protective equipment and local NGOs reported that more than 800 health professionals had died from Covid-19 since March 2020. A chronic lack of oxygen and insufficient hospital capacity contributed to Peru becoming the country with the highest number of deaths per capita in the world. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a mixture of denial, negligence, opportunism and contempt for human rights.

By late August, over half of the population of North America was fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – compared to just a quarter in Latin America and the Caribbean. A month later, data science company Airfinity estimated that developed countries were sitting on over 500 million surplus vaccine doses.

Some higher-income countries actively blocked the expanded production of vaccines. By the end of the year, Canada had still not granted a compulsory licence for the Canadian pharmaceutical company Biolyse to produce 20 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with the first 15 million going to Bolivia.

By the end of the year, overall vaccination coverage was similar in North and South America, with over half of the population fully vaccinated. However, there remained considerable disparity between countries in the region. While Canada, Chile and Uruguay had fully vaccinated three quarters or more of their population, Guatemala and Venezuela had only reached a fifth of their population, while Nicaragua and Haiti had only reached less than 6% and 1% respectively.

Government vaccination programmes frequently overlooked or actively excluded those at risk of Covid-19, including, in many cases, migrants and refugees. Many countries failed to create special protocols to ensure culturally appropriate vaccination programmes tailored for Indigenous peoples.

In some cases, health workers were excluded from vaccination programmes. For example, in Nicaragua, health workers only started being vaccinated in May – long after others; some media reports pointed to favouritism in vaccinating government supporters first, regardless of their risk profile for Covid-19.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Many governments did not do enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health. Essential services were lacking and safe abortion services remained criminalized in most countries. The Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua maintained total bans on abortion.

Despite Argentina’s landmark decriminalization and legalization of abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy at the end of 2020, other countries failed to follow suit. In Chile, a bill decriminalizing abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was rejected. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court failed to decide on a case of decriminalization of abortion filed by Causa Justa, a broad coalition of NGOs. In the Dominican Republic and El Salvador efforts to decriminalize abortion under much more limited circumstances failed to receive legislative approval.

In Honduras, in January, Congress passed a constitutional reform making it harder to remove the bans on abortion and same-sex marriage – although a challenge to the total ban on abortion was pending before the Supreme Court of Justice at the end of the year.

In the USA, state governments introduced more abortion restrictions in 2021 than in any other year. In Texas, a near-total abortion ban was enacted, criminalizing abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

A rare example of limited progress was the decision in April by Ecuador’s Constitutional Court to decriminalize abortion on the grounds of rape.

Indigenous peoples’ rights

Indigenous peoples in the Americas continued to face inadequate access to their rights to water, sanitation, health and social protection, as well as a lack of culturally appropriate mechanisms to protect their rights to health and livelihoods – all of which exacerbated the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The plight of Indigenous peoples in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela was particularly acute.

In Brazil, Indigenous peoples lacked protection from land invasions, deforestation and mining, as well as the spread of Covid-19. In August, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil submitted an unprecedented statement at the ICC, accusing the Bolsonaro government of genocide and ecocide.

In many countries – including Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela – governments continued to allow major extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects to proceed without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples affected, and sometimes despite judicial orders to suspend operations.

In Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru, Indigenous peoples were injured and killed in violent attacks and shootings by state security forces or armed civilians.

In Canada, the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children buried at former residential schools – established by the Canadian government and administered by churches – were located. Many Indigenous people, associations, organizations and band councils denounced this as genocide and called for justice. In September, Canada’s Federal Court ordered Ottawa to pay Can$40,000 (approximately US$32,000) to each of approximately 50,000 First Nations children forcibly separated from their families.

Freedom of expression and assembly

The rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly came under threat in several countries in the region.

Journalists and government critics were intimidated, harassed, threatened, censored, criminalized or denied access to public information in Brazil, Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

In February, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in favour of 34 staff members of El Salvador’s El Faro digital newspaper who had been subjected to harassment, threats and intimidation.

In Venezuela, several media broadcasts were banned and a leading newspaper was fined for defamation of a high-ranking government official. A local NGO reported more than 290 attacks on journalists.

In Colombia, the Foundation for Press Freedom reported 402 attacks on the press documenting the social protests.

Following Cuba’s largest demonstration in decades on 11 July, the IACHR received reports of violent attacks on the media by police and government supporters and the arrest of at least 10 journalists.

Restrictions, repression and bans on peaceful protest further undermined freedom of expression in Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, the USA and Venezuela.

The Colombian government issued measures restricting the movement of transport and people to prevent participation in protests scheduled in various cities on 20 July. In Cuba, hundreds of people were detained during the historic protests on 11 July and in October the government banned another march to call for their release. Meanwhile, US lawmakers in at least 36 states and at the federal level introduced more than 80 pieces of draft legislation limiting freedom of assembly, with nine states enacting 10 such bills into law.

Excessive use of force

Excessive use of force was employed to repress protests in many countries – including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

The OHCHR verified 46 deaths (44 civilian and two police officers) during Colombia’s National Strike demonstrations in April and May, as well as 49 reports of sexual violence. In Venezuela, the police, military and pro-government armed groups attacked at least 59 protests – resulting in the death of one protester and the injury of seven others.

In Mexico, the police used unnecessary and excessive force, arbitrary detentions and even sexual violence to silence women protesting against gender-based violence.

In Chile, updated figures from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Institute of Human Rights showed there had been more than 8,000 victims of state agents violence since protests began in October 2019.

Excessive use of force in police operations to tackle crime also resulted in significant loss of life. In Brazil, 6 May saw the most deadly operation ever by police in Rio de Janeiro which left 27 residents of the city’s Jacarezinho favela dead. In November, a further nine people died as the result of another police operation in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Salgueiro favela.

In November, police in Buenos Aires, Argentina, shot and killed 17-year-old footballer Lucas González in his car as he left a grocery store.

In the USA, at least 888 people were reported killed by police using firearms, with Black people disproportionately impacted. Six US states still had no use-of-force statutes and, of those that did, none complied with international law and standards regarding the use of lethal force. The US Senate also failed to introduce the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act – a bill providing a bipartisan set of proposals to reform certain aspects of policing in the USA.

Arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances

Cases of arbitrary detention were reported in many countries including Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay.

According to the Campaign Defending Freedom, 3,275 people were arbitrarily detained in the context of Colombia’s National Strike. The Working Group on Enforced Disappearances recorded that the whereabouts of 327 people disappeared, remained unknown at the end of the year.

The Cuban authorities arbitrarily imprisoned hundreds of people for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the context of the 11 July protests.

In Nicaragua, in the months leading up to the re-election of President Daniel Ortega in November, police arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared dozens of human rights defenders, journalists and government opponents, including seven potential presidential candidates.

According to the Venezuelan human rights organization Foro Penal, the country’s security forces arbitrarily detained 44 political activists, students and human rights defenders during the year. Some detainees died in custody, including three whose arbitrary detention was politically motivated.

Despite US President Biden’s stated intention to close the detention facility at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, 39 men remained arbitrarily and indefinitely detained in the facility; 10 could face the death penalty.

Human rights defenders

The Americas remained one of the world’s most dangerous regions in which to defend human rights.

Human rights defenders were killed in several countries including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

A report by the NGO Global Witness described Colombia as the country with the highest recorded number of attacks on environmental and human rights workers in the world.

Human rights defenders were also subjected to threats, violence, prosecutions, arbitrary detention and unlawful surveillance in Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and the USA.

Venezuela saw one of the sharpest deteriorations in the situation of human rights defenders. According to the Centre for Human Rights Defenders and Justice, in 2021 there were 743 attacks on activists – an increase of 145% compared to 2020.

Impunity and access to justice

Impunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law – as well as a lack of access to justice, truth or reparation – remained a serious concern in more than half of the countries in the region.

Judicial independence came under sustained attack in Brazil, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela.

For example, in El Salvador, the new Legislative Assembly adopted a series of measures limiting the independence of the judiciary – including the removal of members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Attorney General. In Guatemala members of the judiciary who play key roles in the fight against impunity for cases of serious human rights violations and corruption were removed or prevented from taking up their positions.

In the run-up to November’s elections, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega continued to use judicial and legislative bodies to implement repressive tactics, while thousands of victims of human rights violations awaited justice for crimes committed by state agents under his rule.

In Venezuela, the justice system played a significant role in state repression of government opponents, while victims of human rights violations and crimes were left unprotected. In November, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced the opening of an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela.

In Argentina, Peru and Uruguay some progress was made in bringing to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law committed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

In April, the US government rescinded sanctions against the ICC Office of the Prosecutor personnel that were imposed by the previous administration – though it continued to reject the ICC’s jurisdiction over alleged war crimes committed by US military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.

Violence against women and girls

Measures to protect women and girls were inadequate throughout the region and investigations into cases of gender-based violence were often flawed.

In Mexico, for example, violence against women continued to be widespread. There were 3,427 killings of women registered during the year, of which 887 were under investigation as femicides. Investigations by the State of Mexico Attorney General’s Office into cases of women who disappeared before being killed were seriously flawed. Mexican security forces also used excessive force, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence against women protesters.

In Colombia, where the Colombian Femicide Observatory reported 432 femicides in the first eight months of the year, security forces also regularly committed acts of sexual violence against women.

Both Paraguay and Puerto Rico declared states of emergency because of increased violence against women. There were also significant increases in violence against women in Peru and Uruguay. In Puerto Rico, 511 cases of domestic violence were filed by May – a sharp increase compared to the same period in 2020. In Peru, 146 women were victims of femicide in 2021, compared with 136 in 2020. Furthermore, 12,084 women disappeared between January and October and 25% of femicides in Peru are previously reported as disappearances.

In Venezuela, the Attorney General’s Office announced the existence of 72 prosecutorial offices specialized in criminal investigations into gender-based violence. However, local NGOs questioned their effectiveness and the Centre for Justice and Peace documented 125 femicides between January and June.

LGBTI people’s rights

The Americas saw some limited progress in the recognition of the rights of LGBTI people – but overall legislation was blocked and LGBTI people continued to be the targets of discrimination, violence and killings in several countries.

Argentina introduced new identity cards recognizing people who identify as non-binary, and in June Congress passed a law to promote the employment of trans people.

In the USA, the Biden administration took steps to repeal the previous administration’s discriminatory policies toward LGBTI people. Nonetheless, hundreds of state-level bills were also introduced that would curtail the rights of LGBTI people.

Elsewhere in the Americas, LGBTI people faced lethal violence. Brazil’s National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals reported that 80 transgender people were killed in Brazil in the first half of the year and Colombia’s Transgender Community Network reported that 30 trans people had been killed by November.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Tens of thousands of people – mostly from Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela – fled human rights violations related to violence, poverty, inequality and climate change during the year.

Governments – including those of Canada, Chile, Curaçao, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA – prohibited the entry of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and forcibly returned those that did make it across their borders without proper consideration of their refugee and asylum claims.

US border control officials carried out mass pushbacks of over a million refugees and migrants at the US-Mexico border using Covid-19 public health provisions as a pretext.

Canadian immigration detention practices also continued to violate international human rights law, including the rights of people with disabilities and children.

Mexico sent thousands of troops to shut down its southern border with Guatemala. Immigration authorities illegally turned back or deported thousands of people to Guatemala and launched major operations in Mexico to intercept and repatriate unaccompanied children, in violation of their rights.

Thousands of people – mostly from Venezuela – tried to enter Chile on foot, with at least 20 dying en route. In April, Chile imposed new restrictions on migrants’ ability to regularize their status and hundreds of people were deported in what may have amounted to mass expulsion without due process.

In Peru, around a million migrants, including half a million regularized asylum seekers, were not able to access rights such as healthcare.

Tens of thousands of Haitian refugees sought international protection, but governments across the region failed to shield them from a range of violations, including detention and unlawful pushbacks, extortion, racial discrimination and other abuses, including gender-based violence by armed groups.

Failure to tackle climate crisis

Despite some positive developments during the year, action on climate change remained limited, in turn undermining human rights across the continent.

The Escazú Agreement came into effect on 22 April, but by the end of the year, Cuba and Venezuela had yet to sign it and 12 countries had not ratified it.

In February, the new US administration rejoined the Paris Agreement and sought to reverse hundreds of laws and policies that had been passed during the previous administration to deregulate the environmental and energy sectors.

Nevertheless, elsewhere progress on tackling climate change was disappointing. By encouraging deforestation and extraction of natural resources in the Amazon, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro exacerbated the impact of the climate crisis on Indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, leaving a legacy of environmental destruction. According to the NGO Imazon, the Brazilian Amazon had the highest deforestation rate for the month of August in 10 years. Bolivia passed regulations that incentivized logging and the burning of forests. Canada continued to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. Despite re-engaging with the world on climate change, the new US administration continued to approve oil drilling projects on federal land. And Mexico, the world’s 11th largest greenhouse gas emitter, failed to present any new emission reduction targets at the UN conference on climate change.

Recommendations

Governments have a duty to guarantee the right to health without discrimination and should pay particular attention to marginalized groups and others at greater risk from Covid-19. They must guarantee access to economic, social and cultural rights, with special efforts to address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those facing multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization, including the violations resulting from the historic marginalization of and discrimination against Indigenous peoples. They must also ensure access to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to safe abortion services.

Governments must respect and facilitate the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, including ensuring that journalists are able to carry out their legitimate work free of harassment and violence. They must recognize the legitimate work of human rights defenders and create an environment conducive to enabling them to carry out their work in safety and stop responding to social protests or criticism with repression and by resorting to arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance to silence opponents.

Governments must ensure that law enforcement protocols and practices are consistent with international standards and that any breaches of such standards are properly investigated and those suspected of criminal responsibility are brought to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts. They must refrain from undermining the independence of the judiciary so that the right to access to justice, truth and reparation can be a meaningful reality for those under its jurisdiction. They must also address the impunity that surrounds violence based on gender or sexual orientation and identity. They must take urgent steps to address violence against women and girls and its root causes and to protect LGBTI people from all forms of violence and eliminate the discrimination that underpins the range of human rights violations they experience.

Governments must fulfil their obligation to protect people seeking international protection, respect and safeguard their rights and enable them to remain in their territory, in decent conditions, until a durable solution is found.