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.
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.”
In his Nobel Prize speech in December 1982, Gabriel García Márquez described the heterodox habits of colonial conquerors, generals and dictators as the roots of “the solitude of Latin America.” During the laureate ceremony at the Swedish Academy, he made no mention of the Dominican Republic. He also refrained from pointing out examples of judges’ heterodox conduct, probably because he was a writer, not a lawyer. But if García Márquez were alive in November 2014, he might consider TC-0256-14, the recent ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal, to be a perfect example of “the solitude of Latin America” in the mindset of judicial officials in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Adopted on November 4, TC-0256-14 concluded that the Dominican Republic’s acceptance of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (IACt-HR) jurisdiction in March 1999 by then-President Leonel Fernández marked a breach of Article 37, numeral 14 of the Constitution, which states that the National Congress is empowered to “approve or disapprove the treaties and international conventions signed by the Executive Branch.”
It is worth mentioning that although the Dominican Congress ratified the American Convention on Human Rights on January 21, 1978, the country did not formally accept the IACt-HR’s jurisdiction until February 19, 1999. Over the past 15 years, the IACt-HR issued four judgments on the merits of cases and granted three provisional measures in the Dominican Republic, whose government had never challenged the jurisdiction of the Court on the grounds of the alleged supremacy of its national constitutional provisions. Indeed, the current Dominican Constitution was enacted in July 2002, three years after the acceptance of the IACt-HR’s jurisdiction—raising serious questions about whether national norms that regulate the ratification of international treaties can be applied retroactively.
Up until now, the only other country to attempt to withdraw the instrument of acceptance of the IACt-HR’s jurisdiction was Peru in July 1999. Can the Dominican justices who handed down the recent ruling be proud of sharing the same sense of commitment to human rights as Alberto Fujimori? They should at least be credited with authoring the Western Hemisphere’s first-ever judicial attempt to reject the IACt-HR’s jurisdiction.
Venezuela Wins UN Security Council Seat
Venezuela secured a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in the first round of voting yesterday, earning 181 votes in support of its candidacy—52 over the 129 vote threshold it needed to clinch the seat. The win was trumpeted by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a sign that the broader international community holds the country—which is caught in dire economic straits and has been roundly criticized for its record on human rights—in high esteem. “We are a country beloved and admired by the whole world,” Maduro is reported to have said upon receiving news of the ballot results.
Venezuela’s last bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, in 2006, was strongly opposed by the U.S. and ultimately foundered. This year the country ran unopposed to fill the one available seat on the council from Latin America, and received unanimous support from a caucus of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations. Significantly, the Obama administration did not mount a diplomatic campaign against the country’s bid, despite calls by U.S. lawmakers for such an effort.
However, Venezuela’s win has provoked some criticism. After the vote, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said in a statement that “Venezuela’s conduct at the UN has run counter to the spirit of the UN Charter, and its violations of human rights at home are at odds with the Charter’s letter.” According to the UN Director of Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, “The security council’s new membership could prove more problematic on human rights issues, with several generally rights-friendly countries leaving and others coming on board with poor voting records.” Venezuela’s election to the Security Council comes just weeks after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions called on the country to release opposition political leader, Leopoldo López.
For the majority of Central American women and girls crossing Mexico en route to the U.S., rape is another step along the path to the American dream.
Exact statistics don't exist. Previously, nonprofits including Amnesty International estimated that, in 2010, roughly 60 percent of migrant women and girls were sexually assaulted in Mexico, based on interviews with migrant shelter directors and other experts.
Yet in late August, as I reported on migration along the western Mexico-Guatemala border, various sources said the number is likely higher—closer to 80 percent.
Central American women migrants share their stories in the video below.
“I think almost all of the women are abused on the way north,” lawyer Elvira Gordillo said. Gordillo works in private practice, and specializes in helping trafficked migrant women leave prostitution. “[These migrants] know the price to pay for getting to the United States. The price is being sexually violated.”
Sex crime statistics are nearly impossible to obtain due to various impediments in crime reporting. Most migrant women and girls don’t have permission to be in Mexico, meaning that reporting rape or assault to Mexican authorities carries a real risk of apprehension and deportation to their countries of origin.
Worse, authorities themselves can sometimes be the perpetrators.
The number of reported cases of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by Mexican security forces has skyrocketed by 600 percent in the last decade, according to a report published by Amnesty International on Thursday. Last year alone, Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Commission—CNDH) received nearly 4,000 complaints regarding human rights violations by federal institutions. Of these, 1,505 specifically reported instances of torture. However, the problem extends far beyond the country’s federal forces. “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment plays a central role in policing and public security operations by military and police forces across Mexico,” the report states.
Ordinary Mexicans seem to have taken note of the reported increase in state violence. Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas, notes that, according to a recent survey carried out by the organization, “64 percent of Mexicans report being fearful of being tortured in the event of being detained.” In the report’s view, however, the Mexican government seems far less alarmed. In a challenge to earlier statements by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government regarding his administration’s efforts on this issue, the report cites, “a lack of clear political leadership and real political will by successive governments” as a key factor in the increase in abuses.
The report is the latest in a string of critical assessments of Mexico’s human rights situation. In another report published earlier this year, Human Rights Watch found evidence of “widespread killings, enforced disappearances, and torture.” And after visiting the country in April, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, declared, “there is an epidemic of torture that needs to be corrected.”
This week’s likely top stories: Argentine negotiates with holdout creditors; Russia’s Vladimir Putin will visit Cuba, Argentina and Brazil; Italy investigates dictatorship-era murders; an earthquake hits Mexico and Guatemala; and Honduran authorities search for eight missing miners.
Argentina begins debt negotiations: Argentina will begin negotiating a settlement today with its holdout creditors, who are owed some $1.5 billion, according to a U.S. federal court decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Argentine Minister of the Economy Axel Kicillof leads an Argentine delegation to New York today, and will meet with Daniel A. Pollack, a mediator designated by U.S. judge Thomas Griesa to help reach an agreement. Argentina has until the end of July to make its first interest payment, or else face default for the second time in 13 years.
Putin tours Latin America: Russian President Vladimir Putin will begin a six-day tour of Latin America on July 11 with a visit to Cuba to meet with Fidel and Raúl Castro, followed by stops in Argentina to meet with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Brazil to meet with Dilma Rousseff. On Friday, Russia’s parliament voted to write off 90 percent of Cuba’s $35 million debt, and instead aim to use the money for investment projects in Cuba. Putin, along with heads of state from India, China, South Africa and Brazil, will then meet for a summit of the BRICS countries starting on July 13, just after the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. The same day, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected to pass responsibilities for the World Cup to Putin in an official handover ceremony, since Russia will be hosting the international tournament in 2018.
Italy investigates Plan Cóndor murders and disappearances: Italian judge Alessandro Arturi began the first stage of an investigation into the murder and disappearance of 23 Italian citizens during “Plan Cóndor,” an operation carried out by South American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s to repress and murder political opponents to the regimes. On Monday, Arturi accepted a list of the accused, which includes 33 former members of the military and security forces in Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Italian prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo is reportedly conducting a similar investigation of the military governments of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The preliminary hearings are expected to take place this fall, and Arturi will decide on October 6 if the evidence presented by human rights groups and families of the disappeared will allow the case to progress to a criminal trial in 2015.
Earthquake hits Mexico and Guatemala: At least 2 people in Guatemala have died in a 6.9-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Mexico and Guatemala on Monday morning. The quake set off landslides and caused widespread damage to homes and power lines. The quake’s epicenter was Puerto Madero, a Mexican city near the Guatemala border, but the two deaths were reported in San Marcos, Guatemala, where at least two residents were killed when the walls of their homes collapsed.
Search for trapped miners continues in Honduras: Eight miners remain trapped in an informal gold mine near El Corpus, a small town in the southern department of Cholutecas in Honduras. The mine is in an area where landslides and earthquakes are common, and El Corpus mayor Luis Andres Rueda said there were more than 50 informal mines in the area. The mine collapsed last Wednesday, and the authorities saved three miners two days after the collapse when the miners yelled for help. If the remaining miners are not found near the site where the other three miners were rescued, the search may be called off.
Guatemala’s Comisión de Postulación, a national selection committee, announced the six nominees for country’s next attorney general last week, with the name of current attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz conspicuously absent from the list. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will make his choice after interviewing the remaining candidates, and must announce a new attorney general by May 17.
Paz y Paz’s exclusion has generated outrage in Guatemala and abroad from human rights groups who say the snub was politically motivated. “We knew that the prosecutor [Paz y Paz] had many enemies, but we hoped the Commission would be independent,” said Helen Myrna Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation. “I think everybody was surprised and disappointed. It shows the system lacks credibility, it means that there’s no autonomy.”
Diego Álvarez, the spokesman for the Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) said, “We are surprised that Paz y Paz is not on the list of six candidates, despite her excellent performance during her term, along with her classification in the process.”
After an intensive interview before the Comisión de Postulación, Paz y Paz’s score (69 out of 100, later amended to 73) placed her first among the 26 competing candidates. The Commission reviewed each candidate’s work experience and credentials and asked the candidates generic questions, followed by a round of more personal, specific questioning. The candidates also completed a written law exam.
However, Paz y Paz’s true test was whether the 14 members of the Comisión de Postulación would cast their vote for her. Milton Argueta, the dean of the faculty of law at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, reported that he had received death threats prior to making his vote, and two text messages to his cell phone suggested that his wife would be murdered if he remained on the Commission, but he remained.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.