Jamaica reported 1,500 homicides last year. In such environments of high insecurity, citizens’ rights often take a back seat to in the demand for government action and security. Carolyn Gomes, the executive director and co-founder of Jamaicans for Justice, has emerged as an outspoken leader for defendant’s rights, dedicating specific attention to exposing and lowering the incidence of extrajudicial killings, which JFJ estimates to number around 1,250 between 2000 and 2007.
Last week, Dr. Gomes and six other activists were awarded the UN Human Rights Prize for demonstrating firm commitment to the advancement of human rights worldwide.
With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights.
Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”
This week’s likely top stories: Bolivia holds local elections; Cuba and the U.S. to discuss human rights; Caribbean Bitcoin exchange launches; UNASUR head urges closing of U.S. military bases in the region; Chile rejects Bolivian aid for flood victims.
Bolivia’s MAS Party Loses La Paz in Local Elections: Bolivian citizens elected local government leaders on Sunday, with President Evo Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) winning most governments, according to unofficial results. MAS won four out of nine provinces (Pando, Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba) outright, and led in two other provinces that will now advance to a second round of votes on May 3, due to a close race. However, MAS lost La Paz, as well as Santa Cruz and Tarija provinces. Félix Patzi, from the Solidaridad y Libertad party (Solidarity and Liberty) secured approximately 52 percent of the votes for the governorship of La Paz. Official results are expected later on Monday.
U.S. Confirms Human Rights Meeting with Cuba: On Friday, a U.S. government spokesperson confirmed that U.S. and Cuban officials will meet on Tuesday, March 31 in Washington, DC for a preliminary discussion on human rights. The undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, will lead the U.S. delegation. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said that the Cuban delegation will detail the country’s current and past successes in the area of human rights. This will be the fourth round of talks since the re-establishment of ties between the two countries. U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to re-open embassies before the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.
Caribbean Bitcoin Exchange Launched: The Caribbean Bitcoin exchange “Bitt,” which is based in Barbados, was launched on Monday. Bitt, powered by digital currency exchange software company AlphaPoint, will be operating after confirming $1.5 million in seed funding from venture capital group Avatar Capital. The exchange will allow customers to trade in 11 fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro. CEO Gabriel Abed praised the positive impact that Bitt will have. “By facilitating trade between traditional and digital currency markets, Bitt is creating the platform for very low-cost international commerce and remittance between the people who need it most—the millions of unbanked and underbanked citizens in the Caribbean,” he said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the independent human rights body of the Organization of American States (OAS), experienced a period of intense political turmoil from 2011 to 2013. Criticism of the Commission by members of the OAS—most notably Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela—was echoed by Colombia, Peru and others in their vocal disapproval of concrete IACHR decisions.
The increasingly antagonistic diplomatic environment came to a head in April 2011, when the IACHR requested that Brazil halt its construction of the $17 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded by withholding its dues payment, withdrawing Ruy Casaes, the Brazilian ambassador to the OAS, and temporarily withdrawing Paulo Vannuchi, Brazil’s candidate for a position on the Commission (although he was later elected to the Commission).
Two months after Rousseff’s sharp reaction to the Belo Monte matter, the OAS Permanent Council created a Working Group charged with preparing a set of recommendations on how to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS). On December 13, 2011, the Working Group approved a report containing 53 recommendations to the IACHR. The recommendations largely referred to operations, rules of procedure and institutional practices, but some attempted to limit the capacity of the Commission and weaken its mechanisms. In short, this process was a collective catharsis for critics of IACHR decisions, combined with a chance to air broader disdain for the OAS and any institution deemed to be spoiled by U.S. influence.
At approximately 4 a.m. this morning, several armed, masked men reportedly broke into Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López’ jail cell, destroying his belongings. López was then forcibly moved to a small isolation cell without access to running water or a toilet.
According to human rights activist Lilian Tintori, López’ wife—who reported the events on Twitter—the move is retaliatory in response to her February 12 meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the White House. During the meeting, which also included the family members of pro-government and anti-government protestors killed during last year’s demonstrations, Vice President Biden affirmed his support for human rights in Venezuela and advocated an end to impunity. He also called for the release of political prisoners in the country.
Earlier this week, Tintori met with OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, as well as Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.
Various world leaders and NGOs have called for the release of Leopoldo López—who is accused of attempting to destabilize the government of President Nicolás Maduro—and other Venezuelan political prisoners without success. In October 2014, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein advocated for Lopez’ release. The Venezuelan government rejected al-Hussein’s statement, claiming his assertions were “meddlesome, false and unfounded.”
Listen to AQ’s interview with Lilian Tintori, on her fight for human rights in Venezuela.
Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty on Monday of murder, crimes against humanity, and attempted murder—and sentenced to 90 years in prison for his involvement in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire in Guatemala City.
On January 31, 1980, 37 people lost their lives during the fire, set by Guatemalan police after Indigenous campesinos took refuge in the embassy after traveling to Guatemala City to protest against state repression in Quiché during the country’s civil war. Arredondo was head of Commando VI, the now defunct Special Investigations Unit (Sección de Investigaciones Especiales) of the national police. After security forces cut power and communication to the embassy, they stormed the residence, ignoring pleas from the Spanish government, ambassador and protesters. Soon after, a fire started in the ambassador’s office. Red Cross nurse Odette de Arzú heard on the police radio, “Get them out by any means!” Other witnesses testified to hearing, “Let there be no one left alive!”
In the aftermath of the massacre, one of the two known survivors of the fire, Gregorio Yuja Xuna, was kidnapped from a private hospital room. He was tortured and killed; his body was dumped outside of the rectory at Universidad de San Carlos (University of San Carlos—USAC). A note was found in one of his pockets saying, “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Then, on February 2, during preparations for the mass funeral of the fire’s victims, two students were killed in a shootout at USAC’s auditorium with police.
On Monday, Arredondo was convicted of crimes for his involvement in all three incidents. In her summary, Judge Sara Yoc said, “The defendant executed orders from superiors—the order to kill everyone in the embassy. He was responsible ordering the burning of the embassy.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday asked the U.S. Justice Department to designate a special prosecutor to examine the CIA’s use of torture as well as other illegal measures when questioning terrorism suspects.
Just two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report about the use of torture by the CIA when interrogating criminal suspects in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In light of these new findings, the ACLU and HRW wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, requesting further investigation and denouncing the “vast criminal conspiracy, under color of law, to commit torture and other serious crimes.”
However, officials reported that the U.S. Justice Department does not intend to reopen investigations into CIA interrogators, as investigations have already been carried out and the Justice Department did not find sufficient evidence for prosecutions.
Various human rights workers and politicians have called for further examination of officials that were involved in the CIA’s interrogations. On Sunday, a The New York Times called for an investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, former CIA Director George Tenet, CIA employee Jose Rodriguez Jr., and a number of other Bush administration employees.
After more than two years of research, Brazil’s Comissão Nacional de Verdade (National Truth Comission—CNV) delivered its official report yesterday on human rights violations committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988—with a focus on the country’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.
According to the report, “Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers.” The report increased to 434 the proven number of the dead or disappeared during the period of military rule, and calls for a revision of the country’s controversial 1979 amnesty law, which shields those accused of dictatorship-era human rights abuses from prosecution.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff—who was herself a victim of torture—broke into tears while delivering a statement on the report. “We who believe in the truth, hope that this report helps make it so the ghosts of a sad and painful past can no longer find shelter in the shadows of silence and omission,” she said.
In addition to documenting cases of human rights violations, the report names 377 perpetrators responsible for deaths and disappearances during the country’s dictatorship. According to the Spanish daily El País, 191 of these alleged perpetrators are still alive.
The CNV has no prosecutorial power, but the report’s non-binding recommendations posit that the amnesty law does not apply in cases of crimes against humanity. Despite President Rousseff’s pledge to “consider the commission’s recommendations” and take all necessary actions based on the proposals, it is not yet clear whether she will push for any change in the amnesty law.
The U.S. Senate approved a bill on Monday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials found responsible for violating demonstrators’ rights during anti-government protests that left more than 40 dead and 800 injured since February. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act authorizes sanctions that would freeze assets and ban visas of individuals that authorized, directed or otherwise assisted the government in infringing on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly” of protesters.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill, which was passed by a voice vote. “For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” said Menendez. The House passed a similar bill in May with a broader number of targets, but the Obama administration insisted sanctions would interfere with negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Earlier this month, White House officials signaled they would be willing to move forward with additional sanctions.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the “insolent imperialist sanctions” and accused the U.S. of meddling in his country’s affairs. The Maduro government has already faced international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations. In May, the United Nations condemned the violence and called for the government to adhere to its human rights obligations.
The new U.S. Senate bill comes as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continues to be held in prison, while Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was recently accused of plotting to overthrow the Maduro administration. The Senate’s version of the bill must now be passed in the House, and signed by President Obama for it to become law.
Human rights experts from the United Nations on Friday called for a review of U.S. laws permitting police to use lethal force, in light of the failure of grand juries to indict two police officers for killing unarmed black citizens in separate cases.
The failure of a grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, stirred mass protests on November 24. Just days later, on December 3, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that put Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, in a fatal chokehold in July 2014.
This second case set off another wave of protests across the country, with thousands of angry citizens demanding an end to impunity. On Thursday in New York City, the Holland Tunnel, Manhattan Bridge and the Westside Highway were temporarily closed, and police reported arresting over 200 protesters during a second night of demonstrations.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a civil rights investigation into the Michael Brown case, but human rights experts are still concerned over the decisions not to bring the officers to trial. UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsak said on Friday, "the decisions [of the grand juries] leave many with legitimate concerns relating to a pattern of impunity when the victims of excessive use of force come from African-American or other minority communities." UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary executions Christof Heyns criticized the lenient state laws governing the use of lethal force by law enforcement in the United States.
Experts not only urged a complete review of police procedures, but also demanded an end to racial profiling by U.S. police. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed the U.S. to do “anything possible to respond to demands of greater accountability.”