Washington D.C., April 20, 2021 – To commemorate three years of the grave sociopolitical and human rights crisis in Nicaragua, the International Institute of Race, Equality, and Human Rights (Race and Equality) interviewed the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Antonia Urrejola, on the role this body has played in the situation that has beset the country since April 2018 and what possible next steps might be taken to achieve truth, justice, reparations, and non-repetition for victims of the violence and repression.
Although to date nothing appears to have changed and the government has employed new strategies to violate and restrict the rights of the populace and persecute civil society, the opposition, human rights defenders, and journalists, Urrejola assesses as a positive the fact that – thanks to the efforts and commitment of various local, regional, and international sectors – the situation in Nicaragua has remained visible and as such, she believes that the impunity will be vanquished and the country will eventually return to a democratic context.
“The efforts in the area of international human rights law tend to not have immediate effects, though it’s also true that history shows that it’s about efforts ultimately producing results,” she affirms.
What role has the IACHR played in the crisis in Nicaragua, and how do you assess the response it has received from the State, the role of civil society, and the victims?
“I believe the role the Commission has played during the human rights crisis – which began with the repression of protests in April 2018 and continues today – has been fundamental.
“To arrive at this conclusion, all it takes is objectively observing the deployment of the IACHR in this context: since the beginning of the crisis, the Commission has issued four country reports, two thematic reports, [and] 102 press releases; hundreds of posts have been published on social media denouncing what is happening in the country; 92 precautionary measures have been granted to protect more than 300 people and their families; [and] more than 1,700 testimonials have been taken regarding the characteristics of the human rights violations that continue occurring in the country. I should additionally note that the Commission maintains at least three records related to the crisis up-to-date: one of persons have died; one of incarcerated persons; and one containing the testimonials received directly from the victims or their relatives.
“Thanks to these actions, I would hazard to say that an important part of the international narrative about the crisis – that is, of the international organizations themselves, civil society, States in the region, and much of the world about the crisis in Nicaragua – has been marked in a noteworthy manner by the work the IACHR has performed through its Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and at one point, by the report produced by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI).
“Now then, there’s no doubt that the work of civil society has been essential in the exercise of the Inter-American Commission’s conventional mandate in Nicaragua. You yourselves at Race and Equality, along with other international civil society organizations, for example, have been fundamental actors in denouncing and increasing the international visibility of the state of human rights in the country and utilizing protective mechanisms, such as precautionary measures, to aid persons whose rights are at grave and urgent risk in the country.
“I believe Nicaraguan civil society deserves special attention when we recognize important actors in this crisis. Due to reasons of security of the organizations themselves and their members, I don’t believe it would be wise to discuss in detail the true dimensions of the wonderful coordination of efforts that have been made by civil society, particularly by the victims and their relatives. However, I can mention some examples: the exhaustive recording and denunciation of persons who have been imprisoned during the crisis, which wouldn’t be possible without the coordination of civil society, the activism, and the victims and their relatives who have established the Mechanism for Recognizing Political Prisoners. The silent, courageous, and committed recording work performed by the Asociación de Madres de Abril [Association of the Mothers of April] (AMA), to cite another example, is specific proof of how essential local civil society has been in monitoring the human rights situation in Nicaragua. Nor would it have been possible to conceive of the prisoner releases that have occurred to date without the intervention of the Catholic Church and Verification and Security Commission. All of these are initiatives by civil society are immensely valuable in addressing the human rights crisis faced by the country.”
As the Rapporteur for Nicaragua, you have exhibited great interest in the country and repeatedly issued statements regarding the situation there. Now, as President of the Commission, how will you advocate for the return of the IACHR and MESENI to Nicaragua?
“There are always new developments in this area. The work performed by the IACHR has achieved the important objective of maintaining international attention on the human rights crisis in Nicaragua in the midst of a context with many developments in the Americas in the area of human rights, in the face of the attempts made by the State to establish a sense or normality, and in the midst of the pandemic.
“But we achieved this objective by adapting to the changing circumstances of the crisis. In this sense, we already have sufficient evidence that 2021 will be a different year in Nicaragua, and within that context we will keep Nicaragua as an unavoidable issue on the inter-American and worldwide agendas by adapting ourselves to the particular circumstances that are already characterizing this year.
“The efforts in the area of international human rights law tend to not have immediate effects; however, it’s also true that history shows that it’s about efforts ultimately producing results. Sometimes States, as is occurring with Nicaragua now, appear to be immune to international calls to action, though as I was saying, the experience on our continent shows us that the processes of democratization are produced and impunity is ultimately vanquished by memory and justice. The IACHR continues and will continue to work every day to fulfill its mandate and will be there, too, to collaborate with Nicaraguan society and the State itself when those processes are produced.”
The country is heading toward general elections without minimum guarantees, and does not give indications that it will enact electoral reforms between now and May of this year, as it was urged to do by the OAS. How do you believe this failure to enact such reforms in a timely manner will impact on the human rights crisis?
“The OAS General Assembly issued a resolution last year urging Nicaragua to hold ‘free and fair’ elections this year. This resolution calls on the State to, among other things, reform the regulations governing the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).
“In early 2018, the Inter-American Commission highlighted the lack of independence and neutrality of the CSE as one of the factors influencing the situation in Nicaragua, wherein one sees a disturbance of the constitutional order that gravely impacts its democratic order. That lack of neutrality and independence is manifested, as was pointed out by the Commission, in decisions that impact political forces in the opposition.
“The IACHR has not been oblivious to these issues and will be very attentive to this electoral year’s developments, because there are also human rights standards that must be respected vis-à-vis political rights. That continues to be an area in which the State of Nicaragua must carry out institutional modifications so as to ensure free and fair elections.”
In the midst of an unresolved socio-political and human rights crisis, the government approved laws and reforms, such as reforming Article 37 of the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure, which has merited serious questioning in the area of human rights. How can the Commission advocate on behalf of the government repealing these laws?
“The Commission and its competent Rapporteurs have already issued specific pronouncements regarding the so-called Law on Foreign Agents, the provisions of the Special Law on Cybercrime, and the Law on the Defense of the People’s Rights, expressing that they do not satisfy international human rights standards and calling for them to be invalidated. Similarly, it has expressed its concern regarding the possible repressive use that could be made of the reforms to the Constitution, by establishing life sentences, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, by extending incarceration without indictments. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued similar statements.
“As I noted earlier, these appeals and pronouncements aren’t a direct and immediate guarantee that those laws will be repealed, though they do influence the international agenda, which in turn influences the changes that should occur in Nicaragua. We will not rest, and I know that civil society itself will not rest in promoting these changes.”
What is your assessment of the difficulties encountered in the State of Nicaragua’s compliance with the precautionary measures, and what opportunities do you see that those measures will be implemented in the current context? In what stage is the definition of a protocol for its implementation?
“Under the current circumstances, given the complete lack of collaboration and information from the State, the adoption of a protocol for implementing precautionary measures doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, as it would of course require collaboration and willingness on the part of the State.
“Likewise, I can say that the State has not complied with the precautionary measures granted by the IACHR. Nonetheless, the precautionary measures granted have not been altogether scant in terms of protecting the persons who are their beneficiaries. To mention just one example, the 17 people who were the beneficiaries of precautionary measures, and for whom the Inter-American Court later issued precautionary measures, were released from prison. In the midst of the crisis and the suffering that it causes people, these small, though still insufficient, triumphs give us hope.”
What message do you wish to send to Nicaraguan civil society within the context of today’s escalating reprisals against organizations?
“That this will be a predictably difficult year following the laws that were enacted between the end of last year and the beginning of this one. Within that framework, I would like to communicate to them that we will be keeping our eyes closely on the situation every day and are fully prepared to publicly denounce human rights violations and take protective measures when appropriate.”
What message would you like to send to the victims and their families?
“That following their example, we will continue to tirelessly promote human rights in the country; that impunity and injustice will not perpetuate themselves. In addition, as we always stress in the Commission, I send them a message of deep appreciation, as their commitment, courage, and work also makes our work possible.”