The Americas began 2020 as the world’s most unequal region and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this inequality. Some of those most affected were from marginalized communities and, by the end of the year, poverty levels were set to soar. Government responses to the crisis had far reaching impacts on human rights, with frequently devastating consequences for vast numbers of people.
COVID-19 restrictions hit the region’s large informal economy hard, while government measures frequently undermined the social, economic and cultural rights of those in the most precarious situations. Confused health messages, lack of transparency and inadequate protective measures for marginalized communities compounded already weak and unequal access to health care, with devastating results. The region, home to just 13% of the world’s population, recorded 49% of all COVID-19 deaths globally. Lack of PPE, plus poor and precarious working conditions, exacted a terrible toll on health workers, who were often prohibited from speaking out and sanctioned if they did.
Across the region, COVID-19 confinement measures led to a marked increase in violence against women, including domestic violence and killings. Almost everywhere, measures to protect women and girls were inadequate. In some countries support programmes were cut; in others, state actors themselves perpetrated the violence. Several governments did not do enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health as essential services during the pandemic.
Freedom of expression was threatened by governments in at least a dozen countries. Rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly were also denied or unduly restricted by the police or military, with unlawful use of force recorded in more than a dozen countries. Impunity and a lack of access to justice remained a serious concern.
Arbitrary arrests were common and often linked to the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions. In some countries, people were forcibly quarantined in state-run centres that failed to meet sanitary and physical distancing standards. A denial of the right to health was also seen in the prison systems of about one third of the region’s countries.
Some governments detained refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in conditions that left them at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Others forcibly returned people without proper consideration of their asylum claims.
The unprecedent Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) was finally set to come into force, following its ratification by Mexico in November. However, the rights of Indigenous Peoples remained under threat and the Americas continued to be one of the world’s most dangerous regions for human rights defenders, especially those working on issues related to the land, territory and the environment.
Economic, social and cultural rights
In October, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean forecast that the region’s economies would contract by 9.1%, with 37.3% of the population living in poverty by the end of the year: the worst figure since 2006.
In some cases, the hardship was particularly severe. By June, 40.9% of the Argentine population was living in poverty. In July, 96% of Venezuelan households were in income poverty, with 79% in extreme income poverty and unable to purchase basic foods.
Many governments failed to mitigate the social and economic effects of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable. In Brazil, financial aid to those on a low income was insufficient and implementation of the federal assistance programme was flawed. In Guatemala, neighbourhoods and communities were left without access to water, preventing people from adopting appropriate hygiene practices during the pandemic.
Some government measures resulted in discriminatory practices that undermined social, economic and cultural rights. For example, the Colombian government stepped up its forced eradication of coca production, despite its effects on campesino communities that depend on coca for their livelihoods. In Venezuela, the government delayed providing full access to the World Food Programme while national food distribution systems continued to operate according to politically discriminatory criteria. The governments of Ecuador and Mexico implemented austerity measures at the height of the pandemic without sufficient protection of the basic social and economic needs of disadvantaged individuals and groups.
Governments must guarantee access to economic, social and cultural rights without discrimination. Plans for economic recovery should include all necessary measures to address the disproportionate effects that the pandemic and the crisis has had on certain people historically disadvantaged due to ethno-racial, gender, legal and socio-economic status. Before embarking on austerity measures, states must exhaustively examine all other options and conduct a human rights impact assessment, as well as prioritizing the most disadvantaged people when allocating resources.
Right to health
The pandemic had a devastating impact in many countries where access to health care was limited and unequal. During the year, more than 750,000 people died from COVID-19 in the Americas. In terms of recorded COVID-19 deaths per million inhabitants, the countries worst affected were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the USA.
Many governments broadly followed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines in their responses to the pandemic. However, the governments of Brazil, Nicaragua, the USA and Venezuela often issued confused health messages, failed to implement policies to protect those most at risk and showed a lack of transparency.
In Brazil, health messages from federal and state authorities were often contradictory, while measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 among Indigenous Peoples were ineffective. According to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, 158 Indigenous Peoples were affected by the pandemic and by 8 October more than 840 deaths had been registered.
In Nicaragua, the authorities promoted mass gatherings where physical distancing was not possible and official information about the response to COVID-19 lacked transparency.
In the USA, inadequate and uneven government responses to the pandemic had a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on many people based on their race, socio-economic status and other characteristics. The USA also initiated its withdrawal from the WHO.
In Venezuela, there was a lack of transparency from the authorities on testing, rates of infection and deaths due to COVID-19. There were also reports that pregnant women suspected of having COVID-19 were denied adequate care by public health services.
The pandemic had a devastating impact on health care workers in the region; at least 8,000 died with COVID-19. On 2 September, the Pan American Health Organization reported that some 570,000 health care workers had contracted COVID-19 in the Americas, “the highest number of health care workers infected in the world”.
Health professionals in almost every country complained about governments’ failure to provide sufficient PPE and safe working conditions, which many blamed for high levels of deaths and infections. El Salvador’s President vetoed Decree 620, which aimed to guarantee health insurance and biosafety equipment to health workers; the Constitutional Chamber subsequently declared the Decree constitutional. The Brazilian Association of Collective Health and the Brazilian Society of Family and Community Medicine criticized the lack of social protection for health workers’ families and precarious employment contracts. Health workers in Mexico faced irregular contracts and lack of sick pay and benefits.
Health workers who spoke out about inadequate health provision and working conditions faced sanctions. In several Honduran hospitals, health workers were asked to sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from speaking publicly about their concerns. In Nicaragua, at least 31 health workers were dismissed after expressing concerns about working conditions, lack of PPE and the state response to the pandemic. Venezuelan health workers who made critical public statements about the government’s response to the pandemic faced short-term detention and subsequent restrictions.
Poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding were features of many of the region’s prisons, including in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and the USA. Inadequate state measures denied prisoners their right to health and put them at risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19.
Thousands of prisoners, including those awaiting trial, were held in overcrowded and insanitary conditions in Uruguay, which had one of the highest incarceration rates in the region.
According to Brazil’s National Council of Justice, as of October, more than 39,000 cases and 199 deaths caused by COVID-19 had been registered in Brazilian prisons.
Between March and May, there were some 90 riots in different prisons in the region protesting the precarious conditions and increasing concern about COVID-19. In two of the worst incidents, 73 people died, 50 in Los Llanos in Venezuela and 23 in the Modelo prison in Bogotá, Colombia.
Governments have a duty to guarantee the right to health of people held in custody. This means ensuring that preventive care, goods and services are available to everybody. COVID-19 vaccine, treatment and testing plans should be accessible, inclusive and non-discriminatory. States should consider factors that may heighten an individual’s or a community’s risk to COVID-19 and pay attention to marginalized groups and those with intersecting identities.
Freedom of expression
The right to freedom of expression was under threat in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela, sometimes because of COVID-19 restrictions.
In Mexico, at least 19 journalists were killed during the year. A letter signed by 650 journalists and intellectuals accused the President of actions harmful to the right to freedom of expression. Information also emerged showing that the state news agency was involved in a social media smear campaign, allegedly financed with public funds, against several journalists.
In Brazil, between January 2019 and September 2020, members of the federal government attacked journalists and their work 449 times. In Venezuela, civil society organizations reported that between January and April 2020 there were more than 400 attacks on journalists and other media workers, including intimidation, arbitrary detentions and physical assaults. Health workers and journalists reporting on the pandemic were also harassed, threatened and charged with inciting hatred.
Between March and July, Nicaragua’s Observatory of Aggressions on the Independent Press reported 351 attacks including unjust prosecutions, arbitrary detentions and harassment of media workers and their families.
Governments should recognize the important role journalists play in society and ensure that they are able to carry out their work free of harassment and violence.
Excessive use of force
Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and the military was recorded in more than a dozen countries in the region. It was often used to deny people their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and marginalized communities were disproportionately targeted.
In Brazil, during the first six months of the year, at least 3,181 people were killed by the police, an increase of 7.1% compared to the same period in 2019. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, 79.1% of the people killed by the police were Black.
Unlawful use of force by the police, military and armed groups against demonstrators was widespread in Venezuela. The OHCHR reported that at least 1,324 people were killed in the country in the context of security operations between 1 January and 31 May.
In the USA, at least 1,000 people were killed in 2020 by police using firearms. Between 26 May and 5 June alone 125 separate incidents were documented, in 40 states and Washington DC, of unlawful use of force by the police against people protesting at unlawful killings of Black people.
In other countries, there were also examples of excessive or unnecessary use of force in the context of the enforcement of COVID-19 lockdowns. In Argentina, police were involved in physical attacks on members of an Indigenous community during operations related to supposed violations of COVID-19 restrictions. In Mexico, a 30-year-old bricklayer was beaten to death by police after being detained in Jalisco state, allegedly for not wearing a mask. In Chile, the government filed over 1,000 lawsuits against peaceful protesters using the State Security Law, which is not in line with international human rights law and can facilitate politically motivated charges.
All governments should ensure that protocols and practices are consistent with international standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
Cases of arbitrary detention were reported in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. In some countries, arbitrary detentions were linked to measures adopted to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Venezuelan human rights organization Penal Forum reported that arbitrary, politically motivated detention increased after the declaration of a state of emergency in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It recorded 413 arbitrary detentions as of October. Venezuelans returning to the country were placed in mandatory quarantine in state-run centres from at least April onwards. By August, 90,000 people were officially reported to have passed through the centres known as Comprehensive Social Service Points.
In Mexico, police officers arbitrarily detained at least 27 people during protests in the city of Guadalajara in June. Protesters were abducted in unmarked vehicles and their whereabouts were unknown for several hours.
In the Dominican Republic, police carried out an estimated 85,000 detentions between 20 March and 30 June, for alleged non-compliance with the evening curfew imposed in response to the pandemic. Among those detained were people on their way to buy food and other essentials. After Guatemala introduced a mandatory curfew in March, more than 40,000 people were detained, including people working in the informal economy.
In some countries the authorities placed tens of thousands of people in state-run quarantine centres. These often fell well short of minimum sanitary and physical distancing standards to protect people from COVID-19. In El Salvador, more than 2,000 people were detained in such centres for alleged violations of the mandatory quarantine imposed in March; some were held for up to 40 days. In Paraguay, some 8,000 people – mostly Paraguayans returning from neighbouring Brazil – were in mandatory quarantine as of late June.
Governments in the region must not use the pandemic as an excuse to justify excessive use of force or arbitrary detention. Repression is not protection.
Impunity and access to justice
Impunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law remained a serious concern in several countries – including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela – as did violations relating to the past US secret detention programme.
Those responsible for human rights violations during Bolivia’s post-election crisis that began in October 2019 were not brought to justice. At least 35 people were killed and 833 injured by the National Police and the armed forces who used excessive force to repress demonstrations. An International Group of Independent Experts to investigate these events, announced by the interim government in January, was finally established in November.
Chile’s National Human Rights Institute expressed concern at the slow pace of investigations into human rights violations committed during mass protests in October 2019; formal charges against some of the policemen involved were filed almost a year after the incidents took place. Administrative investigations and sanctions by the Chilean National Police were ineffective and often based on less serious administrative offences.
In September, the independent UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela called for those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity to be held accountable. The Mission investigated 53 extrajudicial executions and 5,094 killings by members of the security forces. The Mission concluded: “these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to State policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials.”
Governments must ensure redress and reparation for victims of human rights violations, carry out prompt and impartial investigations and bring those bearing criminal responsibility to justice in fair trials to break the cycle of violations fostered by impunity.
Violence against women and girls
Across the region, COVID-19 confinement measures led to a marked increase in violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, homicide and femicide.
One of the worst affected countries was Mexico: in 2020, 3,752 killings of women had been reported, 969 of which were investigated as femicides. Over the year, reports of incidents of violence against women in the country were set to exceed the 197,693 reported in 2019.
In Brazil, almost 120,000 cases of physical domestic violence were reported in the first six months of the year. The femicide rate increased in 14 out of 26 states between March and May, with increases of between 100% and 400% in some states.
In Colombia, according to the NGO No es Hora de Callar, 99 femicides were reported in the first six months of 2020, including cases in which women were impaled, set on fire, sexually abused, tortured and dismembered.
In Argentina, emergency calls about violence against women to helplines had increased by over 18% compared to 2019, and there were at least 298 femicides according to civil society monitoring groups.
In some countries, government leaders downplayed violence against women and cut support programmes. In others, state actors themselves perpetrated the violence. For example, in the Dominican Republic, which has one of the highest rates of gender-based killings of women in the world, the authorities failed to implement a national protocol for investigating torture. This was despite compelling evidence that the police routinely raped, beat and humiliated women engaged in sex work in actions that may amount to torture or other ill-treatment.
Measures to protect women and girls were inadequate throughout the region and cases of violence against women were not thoroughly investigated. For example, in its response to recommendations from the UN Committee against Torture, the Canadian government failed to commit to ensure justice for survivors of forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls.
In the USA, where gun shops were classified as essential businesses during the pandemic, an exponential rise in purchases of firearms increased the risks of gun violence against women and children from unsecured firearms in homes where people were forced to quarantine with their abusers.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored and intensified the global crisis of violence against women and girls. The voices of women and girls must be central to governments’ post-COVID-19 recovery plans, which should prioritize eliminating gender-based violence and addressing its root causes.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights
Many governments – including those of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela – did not do enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health as essential services during the pandemic. This was an indirect consequence of strained health care systems, disruption in care and redirected resources to the pandemic.
By August, Paraguay’s Ministry of Health had registered 339 births to girls aged between 10 and 14, and 9,382 births to adolescents aged 15 to 19. In June, Peru’s Ombudsperson’s Office highlighted cases where emergency kits for victims of sexual violence were not being provided to girls and women during the pandemic.
A bill to legalize abortion was approved by the Argentinian Congress in December.
Despite some signs of progress, abortion remained criminalized in most countries in the region, posing a serious obstacle to the right to health. In the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua there was a total ban on abortion, while in countries such as Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay it was only permitted to save a woman’s life. In El Salvador, 18 women remained in jail on charges related to obstetric emergencies.
Governments must ensure access to sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, and repeal laws that criminalize the procedure.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
LGBTI people were the targets of violence and killings in several countries in the region, including Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and the USA. At least 287 trans and gender-diverse people were killed in the continent. The most deaths in a single country happened in Brazil.
COVID-19 also had an impact on LGBTI people. As health systems focused on the pandemic, other key services for LGBTI people, such as mental health and sexual counselling, were harder to access. In many countries, HIV testing has been suspended.
Despite some positive judicial rulings in Bolivia and Chile, same-sex partnerships and marriage were not recognized in many countries.
Governments must ensure mechanisms to protect LGBTI people against all forms of violence and discrimination and include their specific needs in measures to reduce the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.
Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous Peoples in the Americas were heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic because of inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, health services and social benefits, as well as a lack of culturally appropriate mechanisms to protect their rights to health and livelihoods. This was particularly acute in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.
In many countries, governments failed to ensure the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples before allowing major extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects affecting them to proceed. In Argentina, concerns remained over projects for possible lithium extraction on Indigenous Peoples’ lands without the consent of affected communities. In several countries mining was declared an essential sector during the pandemic, exposing Indigenous Peoples to contagion.
In Brazil, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities continued to be threatened by illegal mining, wildfires and the seizure of land for illegal cattle farming and agrobusiness. The National Institute for Space Research registered a 9.5% increase in forest destruction in Brazil between August 2019 and July 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier.
In Canada, there was some progress in recognizing the land rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Indigenous groups challenging construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Governments must ensure the right of Indigenous Peoples to free, prior and informed consent on all projects affecting their rights substantially.
Rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants
Tens of thousands of people – mostly from Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela – continued to flee violence, poverty and inequality.
As part of COVID-19 border control measures, some governments, including Canada, Peru and the USA, prohibited the entry of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Many countries, including Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA, forcibly returned people without proper consideration of their refugee and asylum claims.
The US authorities halted all processing of asylum-seekers on the US-Mexico border and unlawfully detained and expelled nearly 330,000 migrants and asylum-seekers between March and September, including approximately 13,000 unaccompanied children. In Mexico, migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers continued to be subject to excessive use of force and arbitrary detention by the authorities, and abductions, assaults and killings by non-state actors. The Mexican authorities detained 87,260 migrants, including more than 11,000 children, and deported 53,891 people.
Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants detained in immigration centres in Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA were at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to poor sanitary conditions and the impossibility of physical distancing. For example, despite a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in civil immigration detention facilities, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement refused to release detainees, over 8,000 of whom contracted the virus in detention.
Governments should release all people held in detention solely for immigration purposes and ensure refugees and asylum-seekers are protected in accordance with international law.
Human rights defenders
The Americas remained one of the world’s most dangerous regions to defend human rights.
Human rights defenders were killed in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. A 2020 report by the NGO Global Witness described Colombia as the world’s most lethal country for environmental and human rights workers. By August, the OHCHR had documented 97 killings of human rights defenders and verified 45 homicides in the country.
Human rights defenders and journalists were also subjected to attacks, threats, prosecutions, arbitrary detention and unlawful surveillance in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the USA and Venezuela.
In Venezuela, the Centre for Defenders and Justice reported that, as of June, there had been more than 100 attacks against women human rights defenders, including criminalization, harassment, digital attacks and arbitrary detention.
Governments must create a safe environment for human rights defenders. They must ensure that protection measures are comprehensive, including aspects of individual and collective protection, taking into account the intersectional dimensions of violations and the particular needs of women human rights defenders.
A range of climate-related impacts continued to undermine human rights in the Americas. Central America experienced unprecedented back-to-back hurricanes in November, affecting at least 5.2 million people. Argentina, Brazil’s western border areas and Paraguay were hit by severe drought causing vast agricultural losses. The USA recorded the largest wildfires ever, as a result of widespread drought and extreme heat.
However, action on climate change remained limited. Although Chile was the first country in the region, and one of the first in the world, to submit a 2030 emission reduction target, major wealthy emitters failed to follow suit. The Canadian government tabled a bill to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but NGOs indicated that it failed to demonstrate it was taking all feasible steps to reach zero carbon emissions before this period.
Argentina submitted an improved but still insufficient emission reduction target for 2030 and in early 2020 the government tried to amend the Native Forest Protection Act, a potentially backward step. Brazil significantly weakened its climate ambition target and its international commitments to stop illegal deforestation and restore forests.
In an important sign of progress, the Escazú Agreement was finally due to enter into force. However, several governments, including those of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay, had yet to adopt policies and protocols to protect human rights defenders working on environmental issues.
Governments must urgently adopt and implement emission reduction targets and strategies that protect human rights from the climate crisis and ensure a just and human rights-consistent transition to a zero-carbon economy and resilient society. They should also ratify and implement the Escazú Agreement.