Americas Regional Overview

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Americas 2022

Three years after the emergence of Covid-19, the Americas continued to experience the devastating effects of the pandemic. Authorities failed to guarantee millions of people’s access to basic rights to food, water and health and healthcare systems remained critically underfunded. Against the backdrop of an economic downturn, authorities in many countries intensified their use of repressive tactics to silence dissent and many forms of protest. Several governments declared states of emergency that led to a series of grave human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and unlawful killings. In other cases, repressive crackdowns included excessive use of force against people exercising their right to protest, unlawful surveillance and monitoring of activists and attacks against journalists. Indigenous peoples, Black people and other people facing racial discrimination continued to be disproportionately affected by human rights violations, including abuses by the police and torture and other ill-treatment in migrant detention centres. There were major setbacks regarding sexual and reproductive rights and authorities in various countries approved measures that undermined access to abortion and banned comprehensive sexuality education. Violence against women and girls remained widespread and LGBTI people continued to be at risk, with killings of transgender people reaching record levels in some countries. In several countries authorities took action to bring to justice some of those responsible for past crimes, but impunity for grave human rights violations generally remained entrenched. Governments failed to fulfil their commitments on climate change. Faced with historic levels of people seeking refuge or a better life abroad, authorities implemented retrogressive policies that undermined the rights of refugees and migrants and contravened international law.

Economic, social and cultural rights

The number of people living in poverty remained above pre-pandemic levels. Many governments across the region failed to address structural barriers that were responsible for the crisis unleashed by the pandemic: previous socio-economic inequalities, low levels of taxation and public expenditure on health and lack of access to other social determinants of health, namely food security, clean water and basic infrastructure.

Inflation compounded economic hardship. According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation was particularly marked in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Millions of people in the region did not enjoy basic rights to food, health and water. In Brazil, more than half the population lacked adequate and secure access to food, with Black people and marginalized communities disproportionately affected. In Venezuela, most of the population experienced food insecurity and, according to the World Bank, by August the country had the third highest inflation rate for food prices in the world. In Cuba, food shortages forced people to queue for hours for basic goods and in Haiti more that 40% of the population faced emergency hunger levels, amid a re-emergence of cholera. In Argentina, 36.5% of the population was living in poverty during the first half of the year.

Authorities in most countries failed to implement measures to strengthen protections to the right to health, despite evidence from the pandemic that health systems needed major reform. In Brazil, Congress approved the lowest ministry of health budget in a decade, threatening to affect access to adequate care and medicine supplies in the country. Countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay continued to allocate critically low levels of public spending to health and services were overwhelmed and unable to cover the basic needs of their populations. In Chile, in September, a large majority of citizens rejected a proposal for a new constitution that would have strengthened protections for economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, while proposed reforms regarding rights to health and sexual and reproductive rights remained pending at the end of the year.

Governments must take immediate action to ensure that maximum available resources are assigned to guarantee that their minimum core obligations on economic, social and cultural rights are met.

Arbitrary detentions, unlawful killings and torture and other ill-treatment

Authorities in many countries continued to violate people’s rights to life, liberty, fair trial and physical integrity. These violations mainly occurred during government crackdowns in response to political crises or states of emergency, or as part of more generalized failings of security forces and justice systems that resulted in unlawful, arbitrary and disproportionate responses.

Excessive use of force and unlawful killings by security forces were widespread throughout the region and often targeted low-income and racialized neighbourhoods in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the USA and Venezuela, among others. In Venezuela, security forces carried out 488 alleged extrajudicial executions in various parts of the country between January and September. In Brazil, police operations led to the killings of dozens of people.

Arbitrary detentions remained widespread in Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Those held were often tortured or otherwise ill-treated and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared. In March, authorities in El Salvador declared a state of emergency in response to a spike in homicides, allegedly committed by gangs. The measure resulted in massive human rights violations, more than 60,000 arrests and widespread unfair trials. In Ecuador, at least 146 people deprived of their liberty were killed amid a crisis in the prison system. In Ecuador and Mexico, administrative, judicial and legislative decisions were taken to expand the role of the armed forces in public security tasks.

Repression of dissent and freedom of expression

In several countries, social movements and activists took to the streets to demand basic economic and social rights, an end to gender-based violence, the release of those unjustly detained and to defend the environment. Authorities routinely responded with unnecessary and excessive force. In Ecuador, at least six people died after security forces used excessive force against protests by Indigenous peoples over socio-environmental issues. In Colombia, an Indigenous leader was shot dead in the context of an environmental protest and, in a separate protest in the capital Bogotá, a protester sustained eye trauma after being hit by a projectile. In Peru, at least three people died during protests following National Police interventions during the first half of the year and, during the last weeks of the year, at least 22 people were killed in protests during the political crisis that followed the ousting of former president Pedro Castillo in December.

In Bolivia, law enforcement officials violently repressed, and in some cases arbitrarily detained, coca leaf producers who were protesting against efforts to eradicate their crops. In the USA, more than 75 people were arrested in connection with protests following the death of Jayland Walker, a Black man who was fatally shot by police 46 times in Akron, Ohio, in June. In Mexico, the government continued to stigmatize feminists and human rights defenders who protested against government inaction on gender-based violence and, in some states, security forces violently beat and arbitrarily detained protesters. In Puerto Rico and Cuba, several reports emerged of excessive use of force by police against protests over electricity outages, and other social demands, following Hurricane Ian.

In Nicaragua, authorities revoked the legal status of more than 1,000 organizations during the year, closed at least 12 universities, jailed journalists and harassed political activists and opponents. In Venezuela, intelligence services and other security forces, with the acquiescence of the judicial system, continued to arbitrarily detain, torture and otherwise ill-treat those perceived to be opponents of the government.

Human rights defenders were killed for their work in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. In addition, they were threatened, harassed or subjected to criminal prosecution or arbitrary arrests in, among others, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. In Colombia, at least 189 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed during the year. In Venezuela, at least 396 human rights defenders were the targets of intimidation, stigmatization and threats. In Nicaragua, dozens of detained dissidents and critics were put on trial in proceedings which lacked basic due process guarantees. In Paraguay, activists continued to face trumped-up charges for participating in protests against state health policies. In Guatemala, judges, prosecutors, human rights defenders and protesters faced unfounded criminal proceedings. And in Bolivia, human rights defenders faced prosecution for criticizing the government.

Freedom of the press remained at risk across the region. Journalists were killed in Colombia, Haiti, Mexico and Venezuela. Mexico recorded its most deadly year for the press, with at least 13 journalists killed. In Nicaragua and Venezuela, media outlets were arbitrarily closed down. In Guatemala, journalists reporting on corruption and impunity often faced unfounded criminal complaints and smear campaigns, while in El Salvador attacks on dozens of journalists were recorded.

The use of Pegasus spyware for unlawful surveillance of activists and journalists was documented in El Salvador and Mexico.

Authorities also used vague and overly broad laws to silence critics. In El Salvador, the Penal Code was amended to provide for prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years for generating “anxiety” or “panic” by reporting on gangs. In Nicaragua, the General Law on Regulation and Control of Non-Profit Organizations was the latest in a series of laws passed since the 2018 crackdown that undermined civil society organizations. In Cuba, a new Penal Code came into force in December which risked entrenching long-standing limitations on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. In Argentina, the Jujuy provincial government introduced a bill to amend the provincial constitution to limit protests by prohibiting roadblocks and the “usurpation of public space”.

Governments must respect, protect and facilitate the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including ensuring that journalists, human rights defenders and those perceived as political opponents are able to carry out their work and exercise their rights in a safe and enabling environment free from harassment, violence and unlawful surveillance.

Governments must ensure that people are able exercise their right to peaceful protest and that any force deployed by the security services is necessary, proportionate and lawful.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Authorities in several countries in the region took actions that seriously jeopardized sexual and reproductive rights. In El Salvador, a total ban on abortion remained in force. At least two women remained imprisoned on charges related to obstetric emergencies, including one woman serving a maximum 50-year sentence. In the Dominican Republic, Congress again failed to table a revised criminal code that decriminalizes abortion.

In June, the US Supreme Court ended federal protections for abortion rights by overturning Roe v. Wade, reversing nearly 50 years of jurisprudence. The decision was followed by several US state legislatures passing laws to ban or curtail access to abortions. In contrast, people in various US states voted overwhelmingly to protect the right to abortion. In Puerto Rico, five bills seeking to restrict access to abortion were defeated. In Peru, a bill was submitted to Congress which, if approved, would jeopardize access to abortion. In Argentina, significant obstacles persisted in accessing abortion services, despite a 2020 law decriminalizing and legalizing abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Nonetheless, some advances were made on sexual and reproductive rights. A ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court in February decriminalized abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy. In Mexico, four more states decriminalized abortion, bringing the total to 11 out of 32 Mexican states. In Ecuador, the president signed into law a bill decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape, which nevertheless contained certain restrictive elements that limited reproductive rights.

Authorities in several countries failed to protect the right to comprehensive sexuality education. Authorities in Argentina (Chaco province), Paraguay, Peru and several US states continued to curb the use of education on sexuality and gender diversity in educational settings.

Governments must ensure access to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to safe abortion services.

Violence and discrimination against women, girls and LGBTI people

Authorities failed to protect women and girls from entrenched gender-based violence or to address impunity for these crimes. In Argentina, according to figures collected by NGOs, 233 gender-based killings (femicides) were recorded, 91% of them in domestic settings. In Mexico, there were 858 reported feminicides (gender-based killings facilitated by impunity and therefore where state and legal structures bear responsibility for the crime) between January and November. In Venezuela, local organizations reported a total of 199 femicides from January to September. A civil society observatory in Uruguay recorded an increase in femicides compared to the previous year and in Peru 124 femicides were recorded.

The US Congress passed, and President Biden signed into law, the previously lapsed Violence Against Women Act, the main funding mechanism for preventing and responding to violence against women in the USA.

LGBTI people continued to be at risk of killings, attacks, discrimination and threats and faced obstacles to legal recognition in various countries in the region. Transgender people were at particular risk of killings in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Data published in January showed that for the 13th consecutive year Brazil was the country with the highest number of killings of transgender people in the world. However, for the first time in the country’s history, two transgender women were elected to the federal congress.

Several legislative measures were adopted during the year concerning LGBTI people’s rights. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court recognized a non-binary gender marker for ID registration, establishing legal precedent for gender diversity. In September, following a referendum, Cuba approved a new Family Code which legalizes same-sex marriage and allows same-sex couples to adopt. In October, Tamaulipas State in Mexico legalized same-sex marriage, thus making it legal in the entire country. In the USA, the Respect for Marriage Act was enacted in December, providing some federal protection for same-sex marriages. Conversely, in May, Puerto Rico’s Commission on Human Rights and Labour Affairs dropped proposals for a bill of rights for LGBTI people.

Governments across the region must take urgent action to prevent femicides and feminicides and killings of LGBTI people, bring those responsible for these crimes to justice and ensure non-repetition guarantees are put in place.

Discrimination against Indigenous peoples and Black people

People historically subjected to racial discrimination continued to be disproportionately affected by human rights violations. Indigenous leaders were killed in the context of land-related conflicts in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. In Colombia, Indigenous leaders and defenders were attacked and killed and, in areas where armed opposition groups continued to operate, Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities were forcibly displaced and some faced humanitarian crises. In Paraguay authorities failed to adequately respond when Indigenous peoples were subjected to forced evictions from their lands. In Nicaragua, Indigenous peoples were forcibly displaced and subjected to violence by armed individuals.

In several countries – including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela – governments went ahead with extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples affected. In Argentina, Indigenous peoples continued to face serious difficulties in accessing collective land rights. In Ecuador, killings and threats targeting Indigenous leaders and defenders continued. Indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon affected by a large oil spill in January remained without reparation for that spill as well as an earlier one in 2020.

In the USA, Indigenous women continued to face disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence and lacked access to basic post-rape care; they also experienced high rates of disappearances and killings. In Canada, Indigenous women from several First Nations and Innuit communities in Québec reported forced sterilization and other obstetric violence.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau officially acknowledged the role of the Catholic Church and Canadian government in creating, maintaining and operating the residential school system, which in October the House of Commons unanimously recognized as genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Black people continued to be disproportionately affected by state violence in several countries in the region. In Brazil, several police operations resulted in multiple killings, such as the one in May in the Vila Cruzeiro neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in which 23 people were killed. Civil society data collection revealed that 84% of all people killed by police in Brazil were Black. Similarly, data on police killings in Puerto Rico showed that people in low-income racially mixed communities were more at risk of police killings than low-income white communities. Authorities in the USA subjected Black Haitian asylum seekers to arbitrary detention and discriminatory and humiliating treatment that amounted to race-based torture. Also in the USA, the limited public data available suggested that Black people were disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force. The US Senate failed to introduce the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The Act, which seeks to address a wide range of policies and issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability, was passed by the House of Representatives in 2021. In Canada, the Toronto Police Service reported disproportionate use of force and strip searches on racialized, particularly Black, communities.

Authorities must respect Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and ensure their free, prior and informed consent for any projects on their territory. Killings of Indigenous people must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated.

Authorities must take decisive action to dismantle the systemic racism present in policing operations and immigration systems and design systems for collecting data disaggregated by race with the full and effective participation of affected communities.

Impunity and lack of accountability

Authorities in several countries made important yet limited progress in relation to accountability for human rights violations, including crimes under international law, committed in previous decades. In contrast, governments generally failed to prosecute those suspected of responsibility for such crimes and other grave human rights violations committed more recently and entrenched impunity remained a common characteristic of justice systems across the region.

Authorities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala and Uruguay made progress in investigations or bringing charges for human rights violations committed under former military regimes or during internal armed conflicts. In Colombia, dozens of former army members had been charged by the end of the year under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

However, in El Salvador, authorities failed to make significant progress in prosecuting those accused of committing crimes and human rights violations during the armed conflict (1980-1992). In the USA, no one was brought to justice for the CIA-operated secret detention system (authorized from 2001 to 2009), which involved widespread human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment. In Guatemala, authorities failed to protect judges and prosecutors working on cases relating to the internal armed conflict (1960-1996) from continuous intimidation, harassment and unfounded criminal prosecutions.

Impunity persisted for the human rights violations committed by authorities in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela during protests that were met with repressive crackdowns by governments between 2017 and 2021. In Mexico, the total number of people missing or disappeared since the 1960s reached over 109,000, more than 90,000 of them since 2006.

Reports by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela highlighted the manipulation of the judicial system to shield police and military officers responsible for violations from justice and identified chain of command that linked suspected perpetrators to Nicolás Maduro’s government. The Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC opened an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela, the first such investigation in the region.

In Chile, people accused of alleged offences during the 2019 mass protests remained in detention, some on unfounded charges. Meanwhile, the government announced a new programme to provide reparations to the more than 400 people who sustained eye trauma during the protests. In Nicaragua, by the end of the year, 225 people remained detained in connection with the human rights crisis that began in 2018.

In Brazil, the Attorney General requested that the Supreme Court dismiss seven of the 10 investigations opened against President Bolsonaro following the report of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, which had recommended indicting him on charges of charlatanism, malfeasance and crimes against humanity. Impunity continued to prevail for unlawful killings by Brazilian security forces and police officers.

Prisons remained chronically overcrowded in Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Thirty-five Muslim men remained arbitrarily and indefinitely detained by the US military in the detention facility at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in violation of international law.

Authorities must address impunity by undertaking prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into all crimes under international law and other human rights violations, both past and present. Authorities must prosecute those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law and ensure justice, truth and reparation for victims and survivors.

Failure to tackle climate crisis and environmental degradation

Governments failed to implement sufficient measures to tackle the scale of the climate crisis and activists and Indigenous peoples protecting the environment were attacked for trying to address this crisis. Despite the rhetoric of many countries in the region in support of global emissions reductions, authorities failed to match these words with actions. In its 2022 report, Global Witness stated that three quarters of the killings in 2021 of land and environmental defenders occurred in Latin America. Such killings were recorded in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.

Latin America, along with Africa, remained one of the regions with the highest rate of net loss of natural forest cover, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In Brazil, between January and October, the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level since 2015. In Bolivia, despite the authorities’ commitment to maintain forest cover and combat illegal deforestation, over a million hectares of land were burned, mostly to expand agricultural activities.

Several governments adopted commitments and passed legislation on climate change, none of which matched the scale of the crisis ahead. During the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) in November, Canada and the USA failed to increase their emissions reduction targets for 2030.

Although the US Congress passed the first package of climate change legislation in US history, it also reinstated old auctions of oil and gas leases on federal land and the Gulf of Mexico, which the Biden administration had tried to cancel, and forced the administration to hold several new auctions, which began in September.

Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, announced that he would promote the protection of the country’s biomes with special emphasis on the Amazon, an area that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have declared highly vulnerable to drought and high temperatures. While Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced at COP27 an energy transition plan that focuses on non-conventional renewable energy sources, organizations such as Nación Wayuu and Indepaz denounced violations of the right to free, prior and informed consultation of Indigenous peoples about the development of several wind farms in the Guajira Department.

Authorities in the region failed to fulfil the commitments they had previously signed up to as parties to the Paris Agreement and, in some cases, actively supported fossil fuel projects. In Brazil, authorities submitted an NDC that was insufficient in relation to the county’s contribution to climate change. By the middle of the year, Canada’s Export Development agency had financed CAD 3.4 billion (USD 2.5 billion) to the oil and gas sector in Canada and abroad. At the same time, Canada launched a plan to phase out public financing for new fossil fuel projects.

Authorities must take urgent action to curb their carbon emissions, cease funding fossil fuel projects and ensure Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders are protected in state policies on the environment. Wealthier countries in the region must also urgently scale up climate finance to lower income countries and commit to providing additional dedicated funding for loss and damage.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Profound human rights and humanitarian crises throughout the region led to sharp increases in the numbers of people leaving their country in search of protection. In June, UNICEF declared that the number of children crossing the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama had reached more than 5,000 since the beginning of 2022, twice the number recorded for the same period in 2021. By the end of 2022, the Inter-agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela estimated that 7.13 million Venezuelans have left their country, 84% seeking protection in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The number of people leaving Cuba and Haiti also increased significantly compared to recent years, adding to the steady number of people fleeing from Venezuela and Central America. Lack of robust systems of international protection, continued to leave refugees and migrants unprotected in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA.

US federal courts upheld the Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42 of the US Code, resulting in irreparable harm to tens of thousands of asylum seekers who were expelled to danger in Mexico. Mexican authorities continued to collaborate with US authorities to enable these policies, which breach the principle of non-refoulement. In the USA, authorities continued a system of arbitrary, mass immigration detention, with funding to detain 34,000 people daily in 2022. Between September 2021 and May 2022, the USA expelled more than 25,000 Haitians without due process, in violation of national and international law. Mexican authorities detained at least 281,149 people in overcrowded immigration detention centres and deported at least 98,299 people, mostly from Central America, including thousands of unaccompanied children.

Trinidad and Tobago remained one of the few countries in the Americas lacking national legislation on asylum and the UN expressed alarm at authorities’ practices of pushbacks, inhumane detention and deportations of Venezuelan asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Venezuelan refugee women were subjected to gender-based violence and discrimination in at least Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago, where authorities failed to guarantee their rights to a life free from violence and discrimination. In Peru, the system to process asylum applications remained suspended.

In Chile, authorities restarted the immediate expulsion of foreign nationals without assessing whether they needed international protection or the risks upon return. In Argentina, authorities failed to pass regulations to allow asylum seekers and refugees greater access to basic rights such as education, work and healthcare.

Authorities must urgently cease unlawful deportations, refrain from detaining refugees and migrants and ensure their international protection needs are met.