(New York) – Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean should address chronic human rights concerns, including poverty, inequality, corruption, insecurity, and environmental degradation while protecting democracy, Human Rights Watch said today, in its World Report 2023. Longstanding failure to address these concerns has been used by some politicians to justify policies that restrict or disregard rights and has driven millions of people in the Americas to flee their homes to seek safety and opportunity abroad. During 2022, new presidents were elected or took office in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Honduras. Some elections took place in a context of political violence and challenges to the independence of electoral institutions, including candidates who had proposed undermining human rights and democratic guarantees. Nine other countries in the region, including Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela, are scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2023 or 2024. “Politicians have often used past failure to address corruption, violence, and poverty as an excuse for easy-sounding but often abusive ‘fixes,’” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders should show that democracy can deliver by promoting health, education, safety, and other basic rights while upholding the rule of law.” In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights.
The world’s mobilization around Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realize their human rights obligations on a global scale.
The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights. In Latin America, about a third of the population live in poverty, more than a tenth in extreme poverty. More than half of the region’s total income goes to the wealthiest 20 percent. Structural racism is a serious problem. Poverty and inequality disproportionately affect women, children, and Indigenous people. Deforestation and fires are pushing the Amazon rainforest, a bulwark against climate change, toward a “tipping point” from which it would not recover, scientists warn. In Brazil, disastrous environmental policies by the Bolsonaro administration led to the highest deforestation rate in 15 years in 2021. In Venezuela, illegal mining is causing severe environmental damage and harming Indigenous communities. Rampant illegal deforestation is devastating the region’s biodiversity and forest peoples’ livelihoods, and, in conjunction with fossil fuel operations, remains a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, repressive governments commit egregious abuses against critics to silence dissent. Latin America’s democratically elected leaders can play an essential role in pressing for transitions to democracy, for example, by calling on the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela to negotiate acceptable electoral conditions; on the Daniel Ortega government in Nicaragua to release over 200 political prisoners; and on Cuba’s government to drop charges against those arbitrarily detained. High levels of violence remain a major concern. Latin America and the Caribbean has the highest regional annual homicide rate in the world: 21 per 100,000 people. In El Salvador, the government of President Nayib Bukele’s iron-fist security measures and swift dismantling of democratic institutions have led to widespread human rights violations by security forces. In Mexico, violent crime has reached historic heights under the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. López Obrador has doubled down on his predecessors’ failed militarized security strategies, replacing civilian police with soldiers and cutting support for civilian prosecutors. Crimes are rarely, if ever, investigated or tried. In Haiti, gangs are responsible for a wave of killings, kidnappings, and gender-based violence, amid a political and humanitarian crisis. Haiti’s justice system barely functions. A cholera outbreak in October had, by December 6, produced more than 13,000 suspected cases and killed 283 people. Ecuador has had a sharp increase in homicides and gang violence. Overcrowding and lack of state control in prisons has enabled detained gang members to recruit and to kill over 400 inmates since 2021. Latin American leaders should adopt sustainable and rights-respecting security policies, Human Rights Watch said. Important steps include focusing criminal investigations on gang leaders and preventing recruitment by improving access to education, work, and other opportunities. Many people are on the move in Latin America escaping violence, repression, and poverty, including more than 7.1 million Venezuelans who have fled their country since 2014, as well as hundreds of thousands who flee Central America, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and other countries every year. Many are denied the chance to seek protection or they encounter obstacles on their journey, including visa restrictions and border pushbacks.
The Biden administration’s continued outsourcing of abusive immigration policies to Latin American governments contributes to the crisis. A coordinated regional response to migration should implement commitments in the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, adopted in June, to expand access to legal status and integration, Human Rights Watch said. As the region gears toward elections, some in countries where democratic backsliding is evident, a critical task will be to strengthen the pillars of democracy. In Peru, then-President Pedro Castillo announced the temporary dissolution of Congress and the “reorganization” of the judiciary on December 7, hours before Congress was scheduled to vote on whether to remove him from the presidency based on serious corruption allegations. Democratic institutions quickly rejected what was effectively a coup by Castillo, and Congress approved his removal from office. In Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei and the Attorney General’s Office have impeded accountability for corruption and other crimes, and promoted spurious criminal proceedings against independent judges, prosecutors, and journalists. In Argentina, authorities’ hostile rhetoric against judges, delays in appointing judges and other high-level authorities, and corruption, including in the judiciary, have progressively undermined the rule of law. In Bolivia, one administration after another has taken advantage of a justice system vulnerable to outside interference to pursue politically motivated charges against political opponents. And the region’s new governments have much to do in 2023: In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads a country facing rising food insecurity, significant pandemic-related educational losses, and political polarization. He needs to reverse human rights setbacks inflicted by former President Jair Bolsonaro and restore trust in the democratic system. In Colombia, President Gustavo Petro took office in August, amid increasing violence by armed groups. Other serious human rights concerns include police abuse and high levels of poverty, especially among Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. In Honduras, President Xiomara Castro’s administration suspended some fundamental rights in certain areas of the country with the alleged goal of fighting crime, opening the door to possible abuses. Crucial pending steps to strengthen the rule of law include creating a merit-based system to select Supreme Court justices and establishing a UN-supported international anti-corruption commission. In Chile, President Gabriel Boric should advance police reform, protect migrants and refugees, and improve access to abortion. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Chile should promote its principled foreign policy and spearhead a regional response to abuses globally. .
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