Human Rights by region

Martina Correia gazes towards the prison at the exact moment her brother, Troy Davis, was executed on 21 September in Georgia, USA, amid serious doubts about the reliability of his conviction.

© Scott Langley

“An affront to democracy [and] an affront to the rule of law.” Brazilian State Deputy Marcelo Freixo, himself a victim of numerous death threats for his work investigating and denouncing criminal gangs, speaking of the killing of Judge Patrícia Acioli

On 11 August 2011, Judge Patrícia Acioli was shot 21 times outside her home in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, by members of the Military Police. Her long track record of presiding over criminal cases implicating Brazilian police officers in human rights violations had made her a target of numerous death threats. In October, 11 police officers, including a commanding officer, were detained and charged with her killing. It was reported that, at the time of her death, Judge Acioli had been presiding over the investigation into allegations of extrajudicial executions and criminal activity by the policemen involved. Her death was a serious blow to the human rights movement in Brazil, but her tireless pursuit of justice remains an inspiration to countless others who, like Judge Acioli, refuse to let human rights violations go unchallenged.

The demand for human rights resounded throughout the region during 2011 in the national courts, the Inter-American system and on the streets. The calls for justice from individuals, human rights defenders, civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples continued to gain strength, frequently bringing people into direct confrontation with powerful economic and political interests. At the heart of many of these conflicts were economic development policies that left many, particularly those living in poverty and marginalized communities, at increased risk of abuse and exploitation. 

The demand for justice and an end to impunity

Many human rights cases made slow progress, obstructed by the absence of meaningful access to justice, a lack of independence in the judiciary, and a willingness among some sectors to resort to extreme measures to avoid accountability and to protect vested political, criminal and economic interests. Difficulty in pursuing respect for rights was often exacerbated by threats against and killings of human rights defenders, witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors and judges in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela. Journalists trying to expose abuses of power, human rights violations and corruption were also frequently targeted in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In some countries, however, despite obstacles and frequent setbacks, there were significant advances in the investigation and prosecution of past human rights violations and a number of former de facto military rulers and senior commanders were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.

In Argentina, Reynaldo Bignone, a former army general, and Luis Abelardo Patti, a politician and former police officer, were both sentenced in April to life imprisonment for murder, abduction and torture carried out in the town of Escobar during the 1970s. In October, former navy captain Alfredo Astiz and 15 others were sentenced to prison terms of between 18 years and life for their role in 86 crimes against humanity during the 1970s. Their victims had been abducted and held at a secret detention centre in a Buenos Aires naval school (the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA) where some died under torture while others were flung to their deaths from aeroplanes. Among those killed were French nuns Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon; human rights activists Azucena Villaflor, María Bianco and Esther Careaga, co-founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo; and writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh.

In Bolivia, the Supreme Court convicted seven former high-ranking military and civilian officials in August for their part in the events known as “Black October”, which left 67 people dead and more than 400 injured during protests in El Alto, near La Paz, in 2003. This was the first time that a trial of military officials accused of human rights violations had reached a conclusion in a Bolivian civilian court. Five former military officers received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years, while two former ministers were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, later suspended.

In Brazil, President Rousseff signed into law the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations committed between 1946 and 1988. And in Chile the number of cases of human rights violations under investigation by the courts rose to its highest level yet, after a court prosecutor submitted 726 new criminal complaints and more than 1,000 complaints filed over the years by relatives of people executed on political grounds during the military government of General Augusto Pinochet.

Former President Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile to find himself the subject of a criminal investigation on the basis of complaints of serious human rights violations brought by victims and their relatives. In Colombia, retired general Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales was sentenced in April to 35 years in prison for his role in the enforced disappearance of 11 people in November 1985 after military forces stormed the Palace of Justice where people were being held hostage by members of the M-19 guerrilla group. In September, Jorge Noguera, former head of the Colombian civilian intelligence service (the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS), was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the killing in 2004 of academic Alfredo Correa de Andreis and for his links to paramilitary groups.

Important though these cases were, they were the exception, and impunity for human rights violations remained the norm. For example, in Colombia another former DAS director, María del Pilar Hurtado, implicated in a scandal involving illegal wire-tapping and surveillance and threats targeting opponents of former President Alvaro Uribe, continued to evade justice. She had been granted asylum in Panama in 2010.

In Mexico, legal action against those responsible for grave human rights violations during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s remained stalled. However, the Supreme Court ruled that Inter-American Court judgements against Mexico, including the requirement that alleged human rights violations by military personnel be transferred to civilian jurisdiction, were binding.

In the sphere of international justice, progress was uneven. For example, in October, the Canadian government failed to arrest former US President George W. Bush when he travelled to British Columbia, despite clear evidence that he was responsible for crimes under international law, including torture. However, in December, France extradited former de facto head of state Manuel Noriega to Panama where he had been convicted in his absence of the murder of political opponents, among other crimes. 

The Inter-American human rights system

The Inter-American system, and in particular the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, came under sustained attack from several states during 2011. For example, Brazil recalled its Ambassador to the OAS in reprisal for the Commission’s ruling that work on the Belo Monte dam project should be suspended until Indigenous communities affected had been adequately consulted. Worryingly, the OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, openly supported Brazil’s position and publicly called on the Commission to review its decision in the Belo Monte case. Subsequently, the Inter-American Commission modified the precautionary measures issued in this case, no longer requiring Brazil to suspend the project pending consultation.

Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela also voiced criticisms of the Commission, accusing it of exceeding its mandate and interfering in their sovereign rights. Ecuador and Venezuela’s criticisms focused on the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression while Peru voiced serious criticism of the Commission’s decision to refer a case related to alleged extrajudicial executions committed during the rescue of 71 hostages in 1997 (the “Chavín de Huántar” operation) to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

During the second half of 2011, OAS member states continued the debate over possible reforms of the Inter-American human rights system. This debate concluded with the issuing of a report that the OAS Permanent Council was due to consider in early 2012. Although the recommendations contained in the report were described as an effort to strengthen the system, in reality some of the measures proposed could have the effect of undermining its independence and effectiveness, and have a particularly serious impact on the work of the Commission and its rapporteurs. 

Public security and human rights

Governments continued to exploit legitimate concerns regarding public security and high crime rates to justify or to ignore human rights violations committed by their security forces when responding to criminal activities or armed groups.

The Mexican government closed its eyes to widespread reports of torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful killings and excessive use of force by the army and, increasingly, by navy personnel, as it pursued its campaign against the drug cartels. More than 12,000 people were killed in violence attributed to criminal organizations and some 50,000 soldiers and navy marines continued to be deployed on law enforcement duties by President Felipe Calderón. There was evidence that members of the police and security forces colluded with criminal organizations in the abduction and killing of suspected members of other criminal organizations, among other crimes. The government continued to assert that abuses were exceptional and perpetrators were held to account, but in only one case were members of the military brought to justice during 2011.

On a lesser scale, a number of other countries in the region also used military personnel to carry out law enforcement duties. These included the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez ordered National Guard troops onto the streets to tackle widespread violent crime.

In the face of high levels of violent crime, law enforcement practices in Brazil continued to be characterized by discrimination, human rights abuses, corruption and military-style policing operations. While certain public security projects achieved limited success in reducing levels of violence, federal government public security reforms were undermined by severe budget cuts and a lack of political will. Socially excluded communities continued to be caught between violent criminal gangs and abusive policing that often resulted in residents being treated as criminal suspects. In Rio de Janeiro the power of the milícias (militias) continued to grow. These criminal gangs, made up of active and former law enforcement agents, increased their hold on many of the poorest communities of Rio de Janeiro through violence and extortion, sustained by illicit financial activity and the creation of political power bases. The attack on Judge Acioli underlined the reach and confidence of these criminal gangs.

In the Dominican Republic, serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment, unlawful killings and disappearances, were committed by the police implementing a so-called “hard line policy” in fighting crime. There was evidence that in a number of cases the police had adopted a shoot-to-kill policy, rather than trying to arrest suspects, many of whom were unarmed. 

Armed conflict

The long-running internal armed conflict in Colombia continued to inflict untold misery on civilian communities across the country. The human rights consequences of the fighting were particularly acute for rural Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, thousands of whom were forced to flee their homes. Guerrilla groups, as well as paramilitaries and the security forces sometimes acting in collusion, were all responsible for serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.

Some of the administration’s legislative measures, such as the Victims and Land Restitution Law, were important first steps in efforts to acknowledge the rights to reparation of some victims and to return some of the millions of hectares of land stolen during the course of the conflict. However, the Law excluded many victims and a surge in threats and killings targeting human rights defenders, especially those working on land restitution, raised doubts about the government’s ability to make good on its promise to return land to the rightful owners.

The Colombian administration’s commitment to human rights and the fight against impunity was called into question by efforts to broaden military jurisdiction, which could allow members of the security forces to evade justice for human rights violations. President Juan Manuel Santos and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces also criticized the conviction of several senior military officers for human rights violations. 

Counter-terror and security

At the end of 2011, nearly two years after US President Barack Obama’s missed deadline to close the Guantánamo detention facility, more than 150 men were still held there.

Hopes that the US administration would follow through on its decision, announced in 2009, to bring five detainees accused of involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001 to trial in ordinary federal courts were dashed when the Attorney General announced in April that the five would now be tried by military commission. The administration made clear its intention to seek death sentences against these five. In another military commission case, the death penalty came a step closer in September when the charges against Saudi Arabian national ‘Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were referred on for trial as capital offences.

Impunity continued for human rights violations committed under the previous administration as part of the CIA’s programme of secret detention. In June, the Attorney General announced that, with the exception of two cases involving deaths in custody, no further investigations into the detentions were warranted. This despite the fact that torture and enforced disappearance were an integral part of the secret programme and that victims included the detainees currently facing unfair trial by military commission who, if convicted, could be executed.

Indigenous Peoples

Human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples remained a serious concern despite some positive advances in the region.

In many cases, Indigenous Peoples were denied their right to meaningful consultation and free, prior and informed consent over large-scale development projects, including extractive industry projects, affecting them. Peru passed a landmark law in 2011 making it mandatory to hold consultations with Indigenous Peoples before development projects can go ahead on their ancestral lands. However, this remained the exception. Despite the fact that all states in the region had endorsed the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the rights it sets out were still far from being respected. 

The failure to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples had a negative impact not only on livelihoods, but also resulted in communities being threatened, harassed, forcibly evicted or displaced, attacked or killed as the drive to exploit resources intensified in the areas where they live. In Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, Indigenous Peoples were forced off their lands, often violently. Excessive use of force against those demonstrating for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and against development projects was reported in Peru and Bolivia. Spurious charges against Indigenous leaders were a concern in Ecuador and Mexico.

There were further signs that governments were not taking Indigenous Peoples’ rights seriously or showing the political will to roll back decades of entrenched discrimination. In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged Brazil to suspend the construction of the Belo Monte dam until Indigenous communities had been fully and effectively consulted – including by having access to a social and environmental impact assessment of the project in appropriate languages – and until measures had been put in place to protect the lives of communities in voluntary isolation. Brazil argued fiercely against these precautionary measures, which were subsequently weakened by the Commission.

In Bolivia, after several weeks of protests during which scores of people were injured when the security forces used tear gas and truncheons to break up a makeshift camp, the President decided to cancel the building of a road through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park. Indigenous protesters argued that the road had been planned in breach of constitutional guarantees on prior consultation and of environmental preservation laws. 

In August, a Canadian federal audit concluded that 39 per cent of water systems in First Nations communities had major deficiencies, with 73 per cent of drinking water systems and 65 per cent of waste water systems constituting medium or high risks to health. 

The rights of women and girls

States in the region failed to put the protection of women and girls from rape, threats and killings at the forefront of their political agendas. Implementation of legislation to combat gender-based violence remained a serious concern and the lack of resources available to investigate and prosecute these crimes raised questions about official willingness to address the issue. The failure to bring to justice those responsible for these crimes further entrenched impunity for gender-based violence in many countries and helped foster a climate where violence against women and girls was tolerated.

Violations of women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights remained rife, with appalling consequences for their lives and health. Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua continued to ban abortion in all circumstances, including for girls and women pregnant as a result of rape or who experience life-threatening complications in their pregnancies. Those seeking or providing an abortion risked lengthy imprisonment.

In other countries, access to safe abortion services was granted in law, but denied in practice by protracted judicial procedures that made access to safe abortion almost impossible, especially for those who could not afford to pay for private abortion services. Access to contraception and information on sexual and reproductive issues remained a concern, particularly for the most marginalized women and girls in the region. 

Migrants: visible victims, invisible rights

Hundreds of thousands of regular and irregular migrants in a number of countries were denied the protection of the law.

In Mexico, hundreds of bodies, some identified as kidnapped migrants, were discovered in clandestine graves. The families of Central American disappeared migrants, carried out nationwide marches to press for action to locate their relatives and highlight the fate of many migrants. Central American migrants travelling through Mexico in their tens of thousands were kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed by criminal gangs, often with the complicity of public officials. In the case of irregular migrants, fear of reprisals or deportation meant they were rarely able to report the serious abuses they experienced.

Migrants’ rights defenders came under unprecedented attack in Mexico, especially those working at the network of shelters providing humanitarian assistance to migrants.

In the USA, along its south-western border with Mexico, regular and irregular migrants suffered discrimination and profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials. They faced discrimination when attempting to access justice and protection and encountered barriers to education and health care. Such barriers included policies to single out migrants for extra scrutiny, and the threat of being reported to the immigration authorities. Proposals for new anti-immigrant laws forced some students to drop out of school for fear their parents might be arrested. Anti-immigrant legislation in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah faced legal challenges in federal courts. 

In the Dominican Republic, regular and irregular Haitian migrants were victims of human rights violations, including mass and violent illegal deportations in which Dominicans of Haitian descent continued to be denied their right to Dominican nationality. Beatings and the separation of children from their parents were reported during deportations. Several states, including the Bahamas, failed to heed the UN’s calls to stop deportations to Haiti on humanitarian grounds, given the continuing humanitarian crisis in Haiti triggered by the earthquake and cholera outbreak of 2010. 

Death penalty

Forty-three prisoners were executed in the USA during the year, all by lethal injection. This brought to 1,277 the total number of executions carried out since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. On a more positive note, however, in March, Illinois became the 16th abolitionist state in the USA and in November, the Governor of Oregon imposed a moratorium on executions in the state and called for a rethink on the death penalty.

Among those put to death in 2011 was Troy Davis. He was executed in Georgia in September, despite serious doubts about the reliability of his conviction. Martina Correia, his sister and a determined and fearless campaigner against the death penalty right up to her own death in December 2011, remains an inspiration to the many speaking out for human dignity and justice throughout the region and beyond: “The death penalty is an abomination. A denial of human dignity. It’s not just based on colour and race but on ability to fight the system. I try to be a voice for the voiceless. I don’t think I’m a special person, I just believe that my community doesn’t only mean the people who live on my street – it means my global community. And when someone is killed in China or Uganda or Nigeria or Georgia or Texas, it kills a little of us.” 

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