Americas Regional Overview

Back to Americas

Americas 2023

Civic space continued to shrink across the Americas, threatening the progress made in recent decades in relation to human rights. Human rights defenders, particularly climate justice activists and those fighting to protect their land and the environment, and journalists were targets of harassment, criminalization, attacks and killings, thus, the region continued to be one of the most dangerous places for these activities. Most countries across the Americas lacked robust protection systems for human rights defenders. Peaceful demonstrations were met with unlawful force by security forces. Authorities persisted in violating people’s rights to life, liberty, fair trial and physical integrity, and arbitrary detentions were widespread. Gender-based violence across the region remained entrenched and authorities failed to address impunity for these crimes and protect women, girls and other groups of people at risk of discrimination and violence. Progress in recent years to expand access to safe abortion experienced a marked setback across the region, even in countries where it had been decriminalized. LGBTI people continued to experience widespread persecution, as well as obstacles to legal recognition. Indigenous Peoples continued to be disproportionately affected by human rights violations and faced discrimination. In a number of countries, Indigenous Peoples were denied the right to free, prior and informed consent, particularly in relation to large-scale projects. Devastating economic, humanitarian and political crises across the Americas led to a dramatic increase in the number of people leaving their home countries in search of safety. Authorities in several countries failed to respect and protect the rights of refugees and migrants. Countries increasingly employed military force to manage their growing numbers. Impunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law remained pervasive, with many countries continuing to evade international scrutiny. Brazil, Canada and the USA were among the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. The expansion of fossil fuel extraction and fossil fuel production in the region threatened global climate goals. Governments failed to commit to rapidly and equitably phasing out the use and production of all fossil fuels and fossil fuel subsidies. But all is not lost. Despite the bleak outlook, human rights defenders and others speaking out to protect human rights across the Americas continued to fight in the face of increased adversity to ensure that structural changes are achieved with a view to creating a fairer and more equal region for all.

Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly

Civic space continued to shrink at an alarming rate across the Americas. In countries including El Salvador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the right to freedom of expression was already under threat, governments imposed further legal and institutional measures against civil society groups in an attempt to silence critics. Between August 2022 and September 2023, Nicaragua revoked the legal status of more than 2,000 NGOs, bringing the number of NGOs closed since 2018 to 3,394. In August, the Central American University in Nicaragua was closed, accused of being a “terrorism centre”, and properties belonging to entities including the Red Cross were confiscated. In Cuba, in May, a new law granted the government power to order telecommunications providers to stop servicing users who published information deemed harmful to public order or morality.

El Salvador saw an increase in protests in 2023, as the situation in the country continued to deteriorate under the state of emergency imposed in March 2022. The authorities’ obstructive response to these legitimate expressions of social discontent, which included stigmatization, threats, excessive surveillance of organizers and restrictions of movement, violated people’s rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

In countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, authorities responded to public protests with repression. In Bolivia, the Ombudsperson’s Office reported several instances of excessive use of force by police in response to a series of protests in January following the arrest of the governor of Santa Cruz.

In Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the USA, governments filed criminal charges against peaceful protesters. Laws diluting legal obligations on the use of force were passed in Chile. In the USA, 16 states introduced bills restricting the right to protest. The state of North Carolina heightened penalties for existing “riot” offences and for protests occurring near pipelines.

The Americas remains a dangerous place for journalists. Media workers were threatened, harassed, killed and put under unlawful surveillance in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela. In the Dominican Republic, evidence showed that Nuria Piera, a high-profile journalist who reports on corruption and impunity, was targeted in 2020 and 2021 with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, which enables unrestricted access to a device. The authorities denied involvement in the surveillance. In Mexico, at least five journalists were killed in connection with their work, according to the organization Article 19.

States must repeal laws and practices that hinder the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. They must take additional measures to effectively protect people’s rights to express their opinions and to safeguard the work of journalists.

Human rights defenders

The Americas continued to be one of the most dangerous regions in the world for human rights defenders. Defenders working to protect land and the environment faced increased risks in countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Black, Indigenous and women human rights defenders remained particularly at risk. Governments and non-state actors used a variety of tools such as harassment, stigmatization, criminalization and killings to stop human rights activists from doing their essential and legitimate work in countries including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. In Brazil, an average of three defenders had been murdered every month over the past four years, according to Justiça Global. Honduras had the highest number of human rights defenders killed per capita in the world, according to data from Global Witness. In July, a member of the Guapinol community in Honduras was shot dead in broad daylight six months after two of his family members were also killed. They had been campaigning against a mining company to protect the river on which their subsistence depends. At the end of the year, the killings remained unpunished.

Although most countries across the Americas lacked robust protection systems for human rights defenders, Colombia showed some signs of improvement. In Colombia, the Ministry of the Interior announced the strengthening of the collective protection programme for human rights defenders from grassroots organizations and communities, targeting those defending land and territory.

States must ensure human rights defenders are able to carry out their activities safely by developing effective protection programmes, or by improving existing ones, as well as ensuring that those suspected of attacking activists are brought to justice.

Arbitrary detention and unfair trials

Arbitrary detention remained widespread across the region. Authorities continued to violate people’s rights to liberty, a fair trial and physical integrity in countries including Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In the USA, many detentions had discriminatory undertones.

In El Salvador, more than 73,000 arbitrary detentions had been recorded since the start of the state of emergency in March 2022. Most detainees were accused of “illegal associations”, a crime linked to gang activity and membership. These detentions violated due process guarantees through the absence of judicial orders and the concealment of the identity of the judges processing detainees.

In countries including El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, detainees were often tortured or ill-treated, and in some cases forcibly disappeared. In Venezuela, there were around 15,700 arbitrary arrests between 2014 and 2023, and around 280 people remained in detention for political reasons, according to civil society organizations. Student activist and musician, John Álvarez, was detained on 30 August and was held incommunicado for over 24 hours. He was tortured and forced to incriminate a union leader and a journalist in a video recorded by police officers. He was released in December.

Fair trial rights were not respected in a number of countries including Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the USA and Venezuela. Thirty Muslim men remained arbitrarily and indefinitely detained in the detention facility at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in violation of international law. The men continued to be denied hearings despite the US Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that they have a right to habeas corpus.

Authorities must guarantee rights to a fair trial and refrain from misusing the justice system. States must fulfil the right to reparation of those who have suffered arbitrary detention.

Excessive and unnecessary use of force

Excessive and unnecessary use of force by law enforcement, including lethal force, permeated the region, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and the USA. In many cases, force was used disproportionately with a racist bias. In Brazil, at least 394 people were killed in police operations in the states of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo between July and September, as the government continued to disregard measures to reduce police violence, including the use of body cameras. In the USA, at least 1,153 people were killed by police in 2023, according to media sources. In Peru, the state responded to protests across the country by using lethal force and excessively using less-than-lethal force, with a racist bias particularly targeting Indigenous Peoples. The number of deaths during the protests amounted to 49 civilians and one police officer, and hundreds of people injured, in under two months. At least 20 of those cases could be considered extrajudicial executions.

Police reform advanced with mixed results in Chile and Colombia. Authorities in Colombia introduced regulatory initiatives to change the structure and operation of some aspects of the police force, including a new manual on the use of force during protests. Comprehensive police reform was still pending.

Militarization of security continued in a number of countries, including El Salvador and Honduras, both of which had states of emergency in place. Ecuador and Mexico widened their legal frameworks to allow for the use of armed forces in public security tasks.

Authorities must ensure law enforcement complies with international human rights law and standards, including on the use of force. They must ensure that those suspected of human rights violations are brought to justice.

Women’s and girls’ rights

Entrenched gender-based violence, including femicide, continued to be the norm across the region and authorities systematically failed to address impunity for these crimes. In Mexico, an average of nine women were murdered each day, according to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System and most cases were never effectively solved. In Canada, the UN reported an increase in the number of Indigenous women and girls who were missing or had been murdered, and high rates of sexual assault and exploitation among Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA+) people living near pipeline construction sites.

Access to sexual and reproductive rights remained extremely challenging throughout the region, even in countries such as Argentina where abortion was legalized in 2020 and Colombia where it was decriminalized in 2022. In El Salvador, a total ban on abortion remained in place and at least 21 women were facing charges related to obstetric emergencies. Chile made no progress in adopting a legal framework to fully decriminalize abortion and ensure equal and barrier-free access to safe abortion services. In Brazil, abortion remained a criminal offence; at least 19 people had died due to unsafe abortion by July, according to the Ministry of Health. In September, a lawsuit seeking the decriminalization of abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was put before the Federal Supreme Court, but voting was suspended.

In some countries, the rollback on access to abortion expanded. Following the 2022 US Supreme Court decision that ended federal protections to the right to abortion, 15 states implemented total bans on abortion or bans with extremely limited exceptions. The measures continued to disproportionately impact Black and other racialized people.

Nevertheless, some progress was made. In Honduras, abortion remained banned, but the government ended 14 years of prohibition on the use and sale of the emergency contraceptive pill. In Mexico, the Supreme Court declared the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional, as well as the suspension of medical personnel for performing or assisting with abortions.

Authorities must end impunity for violent crimes against women and girls. They must also guarantee access to safe abortion and other sexual and reproductive rights, including comprehensive sex education.

LGBTI people’s rights

LGBTI people continued to face widespread harassment, discrimination, threats, violent attacks and killings, as well as obstacles to legal recognition in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and the USA. Impunity was the norm in most cases.

In Guatemala, where same-sex marriage remained illegal, at least 34 people were killed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the National LGBTIQ+ Human Rights Observatory. More transgender people were killed in Brazil than anywhere else in the world for the 14th consecutive year. In Peru, despite several reports of violence against and killings of LGBTI people, there was still no official registry of hate crimes. In Paraguay, the judiciary rejected five lawsuits filed by transgender people demanding legal recognition of their names in accordance with their gender identity. In the USA, the passage of anti-LGBTI laws at state level increased dramatically. Only 54% of LGBTI adults in the USA lived in states with hate crime laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

In Argentina, in April, Sofía Inés Fernández, a 40-year-old trans woman, was found dead in a police station cell in the town of Derqui, Buenos Aires, where she had been detained for alleged robbery. The accused police officers claimed that she had died by suicide, but the preliminary autopsy revealed asphyxia as the cause of death.

Despite the bleak outlook, there was some progress. In Colombia, a person received a university degree matching their non-binary identity for the first time in April.

Authorities must strengthen protection for LGBTI people, including by effectively investigating reports of abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

Indigenous Peoples, historically subjected to racial discrimination and marginalization, continued to be disproportionately affected by human rights violations. In Colombia, 45% of all displacement victims in 2023 were Afro-descendants and 32% were Indigenous Peoples, according to the OCHA. In Brazil, Sônia Guajajara, an Indigenous woman, became the first minister of Indigenous Peoples. Brazil’s Ministry of Health declared a national public health emergency due to the lack of assistance available for the Yanomami People, who were suffering from malnutrition, contamination, and sexual violence, largely caused by the presence of illegal mining activities in their territory in the Amazon region.

In several countries including Argentina, Canada, Ecuador and Venezuela, the right to free, prior and informed consent, particularly in relation to large-scale economic projects, was denied. In Canada, the National Action Plan for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, released by the government in June, did not include accountability mechanisms, and free, prior-and-informed consent. Several Wet’suwet’en land defenders went on trial in May and October for protecting their territory against the construction of a pipeline. One was found not guilty in November; the others were awaiting decisions and could face prison sentences if found guilty.

Land tenure and entitlement problems continued in a number of countries. In Paraguay, the Tekoha Sauce Indigenous community of the Avá Guaraní Paranaense People were still waiting for the restitution of their ancestral territory, which had been seized by hydroelectric power company Itaipú Binacional. The company appealed a court decision that rejected an eviction order to remove the community from another area of their ancestral land.

States must ensure Indigenous Peoples have ownership and control over their lands and resources. They must implement policies to end violence against Indigenous Peoples and guarantee justice, truth and reparation for the human rights violations they have endured.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Devastating political, humanitarian and economic crises across the Americas contributed to a systematic increase in the number of people leaving their home countries in search of safety and facing human rights violations in the process. More than 7.72 million Venezuelans had left the country by the end of the year, according to figures from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Authorities in Panama reported that 520,000 people crossed the border between Colombia and Panama through the Darien Gap, more than double the total number in 2022. There was also a dramatic increase in the number of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Mexico with the aim of reaching the USA or Canada.

Authorities in a number of countries, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and the USA, failed to respect and protect the rights of migrants and refugees, including by denying them their right to seek asylum. In the USA, following the termination of immigration policy Title 42, the state implemented new migration measures that continued to drastically limit access to asylum at the US-Mexico border. These included presuming ineligibility in the majority of cases and mandatory use of a mobile phone app that offered limited appointments. This resulted in many asylum seekers being stranded at the border in inhumane conditions and exposed to violence and other abuses.

The US administration extended Temporary Protected Status for Haitian, Honduran, Nepalese, Nicaraguan, Somali, South Sudanese, Sudanese, Ukrainian, Venezuelan and Yemeni nationals, granting work authorization and protection from removal from the USA. A parole process was instituted for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, which provided travel authorization for up to 30,000 individuals from these countries to enter the USA each month with US-based sponsors.

US authorities continued to employ arbitrary mass immigration detention, using private prisons to detain people seeking safety. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick announced an end to their immigration detention arrangements with the Canada Border Services Agency, joining British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia in their commitment not to detain individuals solely on immigration grounds by July 2024. In Mexico, where detention conditions for migrants and asylum seekers were particularly dire, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in March declaring that the maximum period of detention in an immigration detention centre was 36 hours, after which authorities had the obligation to release migrants and asylum seekers.

The deployment of the military to manage the rising numbers of migrants and refugees arriving at their territories expanded across the region. In Chile, in February, the government deployed military troops along its borders with Bolivia and Peru to prevent the irregular entry of people seeking safety, mostly affecting Venezuelans.

Venezuelans in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru faced significant barriers to access an asylum procedure and other temporary or complementary protection programmes. As a result, many could not regularize their status and access essential services, including health services. Authorities continued to fail to protect Venezuelan women facing gender-based violence, who were at particular risk. Many did not report the violence out of fear, mistrust or misinformation, and could not access services due to lack of regular status.

In the Dominican Republic, discrimination against Haitians or people of Haitian descent and anti-Black racism persisted and put migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, women and girls and LGBTI people at particular risk. Immigration authorities and law enforcement officials raided hospitals to conduct discriminatory searches for Haitian women and girls to arbitrarily arrest and deport them.

Authorities must urgently cease unlawful deportations, respect the principle of non-refoulement and refrain from detaining refugees and migrants. States must also ensure everyone can apply for asylum and access a fair and effective asylum procedure, especially those fleeing mass human rights violations, and they must provide refugees the protection they are entitled to. They must combat racism and xenophobia against migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Right to truth, justice and reparation

Impunity for human rights violations, including crimes under international law, continued to be the norm in countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, with advances in some countries.

In Bolivia, in October, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Bolivia reported that there had been little progress in the investigations into human rights violations committed in the context of the 2019 political crisis, during which 37 people died and hundreds were injured by the security forces. Investigations into killings by the police in Brazil were also ineffective. The three police officers indicted for the murder of activist Pedro Henrique Cruz in 2018 in Tucano, Bahia, had still not been brought to trial and his mother, Ana Maria, continued to suffer threats and intimidation. In Chile, impunity continued for the majority of human rights violations committed during the 2019 social upheaval. According to the Attorney General’s Office in Chile, charges where only filed in 127 of the 10,142 complaints made by victims of violations committed at that time. These resulted in 38 convictions and 17 acquittals.

In Ecuador, human rights violations committed by security forces in the context of protests in 2019 and 2022 remained unpunished. In June, Executive Decree 755 stipulated that law enforcement officials suspected of having caused injury or harm to, or the death of, a person could only be apprehended or removed from office following conviction. In Colombia, as of June, little progress had been made in the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement.

Nevertheless, justice, truth and reparation processes did advance in some jurisdictions, including Argentina and Chile. In Argentina, trials before ordinary civilian courts continued for crimes against humanity committed under the 1976-1983 military regime. In Chile, the national search plan for people who had disappeared during the regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) was presented; its implementation remained pending. The government also announced a National Memory and Heritage Policy for the protection of memorial sites related to this period.

In June, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC authorized the Office of the Prosecutor to resume his investigation into crimes against humanity in Venezuela, and an Argentinian federal prosecutor launched an investigation into crimes against humanity in Venezuela based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.

States must commit to combat impunity and guarantee truth, justice and reparations.

Right to a healthy environment

States across the Americas region, particularly Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and the USA, have failed to take sufficient and effective measures to ensure people’s right to a healthy environment and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis on human rights. This was particularly evident in the context of large-scale extractive projects that disproportionately affected Indigenous Peoples, fence-line communities living in the vicinity of these projects and other marginalized groups who are exceptionally vulnerable to environmental degradation. Despite Bolivia’s commitment to maintain its forest cover, human rights defenders highlighted insufficient measures to prevent an intense forest fire season – worsened by climate change – towards the end of the year.

Many countries criminalized people, including Indigenous Peoples, who had actively protested extractive development projects that had a negative impact on the environment and vulnerable carbon sinks.

In 2023, global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions reached record highs. Although the contributions of countries in the Americas varied significantly, Brazil, Canada and the USA were among the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the region and globally. The expansion of fossil fuel extraction and projects that involve the burning of gas associated with the extraction of crude oil (gas flaring) in the region, as well as the maintenance of fossil fuel subsidies, threatened the global climate goals set in the Paris Agreement. Governments of the region failed to commit to rapidly and equitably phasing out the use and production of all fossil fuels and all types of fossil fuel subsidies.

Authorities must urgently address the effects of the climate crisis on human rights by developing region-wide climate action. Industrialized and other high-emitting countries in the region must take the lead in climate mitigation, including by stopping the expansion of fossil fuel production and subsidies. Governments must also ensure protection for Indigenous Peoples and human rights defenders campaigning for climate justice and environmental rights. Developed countries in the region must also urgently scale up climate finance to support lower-income, developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation strategies, and commit to providing additional dedicated funding for loss and damage.

Economic and social rights

Poverty and extreme poverty rates in the region, which increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, but countries continued to fail to take the necessary steps to meet the target to end poverty by 2030. Nearly 30% of the population in Latin America (183 million people) continued to live in poverty and 11.4% (72 million) in extreme poverty. Inequality remained the main challenge for countries to be able to promote inclusive growth and development, with 34% of total income in Latin America concentrated in the richest 10% of the population.

States must take robust measures – fiscal and budgetary – to tackle poverty and inequality and to ensure they meet their human rights obligations regarding the rights to health, education, housing and social security and access to essential services and goods.