Washington, D.C., April 21, 2021 – Since the societal eruptions began in April 2018, the government of Nicaragua has restricted the rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest in a manner that is unprecedented in the country’s recent history. Furthermore, it recently enacted the Law on the Regulation of Foreign Agents, which has a direct negative impact on the right to freedom of association and led to the closure of civil society organizations that decided not to submit to it.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Clément Voule, has repeatedly expressed his willingness to visit the country to learn first-hand about the situation regarding the freedoms of association, assembly, and peaceful protest. In addition, together with other United Nations Rapporteurs, he has issued statements regarding the enactment of laws that are contrary to Nicaragua’s international human rights obligations.
In this interview with the International Institute of Race, Equality, and Human Rights (Race and Equality) held against the backdrop of the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Nicaraguan sociopolitical and human rights crisis, Voule discusses why it is so important for him to visit the country following the end of the COVID-19 health emergency, and he declares he will continue to appeal to the government to suspend the application of laws such as the Law on the Regulation of Foreign Agents and Special Cybercrime Law.
You have repeatedly expressed your willingness to visit Nicaragua. How do you think that your visit would contribute to improving the State’s performance with regard to freedom of association and freedom of assembly?
Nicaragua is indeed one of the countries that I would like to visit in the near future, once the restrictions imposed by the current sanitary crisis are lifted.
Country visits are conducted in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue. The objective is for the Special Rapporteur to gain first-hand understanding of issues related to the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, including efforts made and challenges remaining.
During an official country visit, the Special Rapporteur will meet with national stakeholders involved in promoting and protecting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, including high ranking government officials, members of the legislative and judiciary, members of security and armed forces, police oversight mechanisms, representatives of the national human rights commission, civil society organizations, academics, along with other relevant parties. The purpose is to examine issues related to the realization of these two rights.
I will offer concrete recommendations to support the government’s efforts in strengthening the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
The Nicaraguan government has suppressed the right to peaceful assembly or demonstration. These prohibitions shape the context for the upcoming November elections and limit the possibility for free exercise of rights during these elections. What appeals would you make to the government in this situation?
According to the information that I received, the Nicaraguan Government since September 2018 has continued to ban public demonstrations organized by any group critical of the Government.
These restrictions are undermining the right of peaceful assembly, which is one of the fundamental rights on any meaningful and freely electoral process. I call on the Nicaraguan Government to fully guarantee the right to peaceful assembly in Nicaragua.
Since November 13, 2020, the Special Procedures, including your Rapporteurship, have made pronouncements regarding the Law on Foreign Agents and the Law on Cybercrimes. The Special Procedures have pointed out that both measures raise serious questions of compatibility with Nicaragua’s international human rights obligations. Has the State responded to these communications with any willingness to review the laws or collaborate with your technical assistance? How will the Special procedures continue to insist that these laws be brought into compliance with international human rights standards?
To date, we have not received any reply from the government to the communication OL NIC 3/20201 that was sent last November 2020 on the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents and the Special Law on Cyber-crimes. Together with other mandate holders, I detailed a number of concerns about such laws, which they deemed to be in violation of international human rights norms and standards.
One of the most serious concerns is that the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents prohibits those labelled as “foreign agent” from ‘intervening in internal political issues, activities or themes’ without defining those terms. This broad prohibition infringes not only the right to freedom of association, but on the rights to political participation, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and severely limits the ability of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and journalists to raise any policy-related issue or participate in activities deemed political.
The law also includes disproportionate sanctions for non-compliance, as it provides for organizations to be dissolved or their funds sequestered when they fail to comply with minor administrative requirements.
I urge the government of Nicaragua to immediately suspend the application of the law and work with civil society organizations to ensure reforms.
I will continue the engagement with the government on these laws and will continue following closely the situation with the collaboration of local organizations on the ground as well as with OHCHR presence in Panama, who remotely monitors the situation in Nicaragua.
Is it common for your Rapporteurship to face so many obstacles to carrying out an official country visit, as has happened in the case of Nicaragua?
As mentioned earlier, my intention is to visit Nicaragua as soon as the restrictions are lifted and a common agreement with the Government is reached. Allowing and facilitating such visit will also show the government willingness to protect these rights and civic space in the country.
What message would you give to Nicaraguan civil society in a context of escalating reprisals against their work?
I would like to express my admiration to the courage and perseverance of human rights defenders and organisations of civil society in Nicaragua who face countless obstacles in carrying out their work. Since April 2018 my mandate has followed closely the situation in Nicaragua. It is crucial to maintain international attention to the human rights situation in Nicaragua as we are observing serious restrictions of the civic and democratic space, including attacks, harassment and threats to human rights defenders, journalists and social leaders. This is even more relevant in view of guaranteeing free, equal and transparent elections in November 2021. Civil society in Nicaragua have my support and I will continue my engagement with them to address the current crisis. I will also continue to engage with the government to ensure concerns raised by my mandate are addressed and the current situation is reversed.