Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement on Tuesday calling for the Nicaraguan government to “ensure its security forces allow space for people to assemble peacefully and express their views in accordance with their rights under international law” and that “further use of excessive force” be avoided. Her statement comes in the context of the one-year anniversary of the beginning of anti-government protests in Nicaragua, which has, over the past year, experienced major violent crackdowns on mass protests and seen human rights violations and abuses. Stating concern “‘that the protests planned for later in the week [marking the anniversary] may trigger another violent reaction,’” Bachelet also stressed the need for solutions addressing institutions and the rule of law and ensuring accountability and justice.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has echoed these concerns, stating that more than 60,000 Nicaraguans, including journalists, students, farmers, doctors, and families with young children, have fled the country to places such as Costa Rica and the U.S. since last April, in fear of “losing their lives, being attacked or kidnapped by paramilitary groups,” or “because their communities have been a target of violence,” said Elizabeth Throssell, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency. More generally, the crisis has reduced the standard of living of many Nicaraguan citizens—Julio Montenegro, a human rights lawyer representing protesters, stated in an Al Jazeera article that “the crisis has cut a swath of ‘extreme hardship’ through many residents.” However, “‘pressure from international governments’” may compel Nicaraguan President Ortega to consent to early elections, according to sociologist, member of the opposition, and former Sandinista revolutionary Marlen Chow.
The anti-government protests began in early April 2018. As detailed in a 2018 UNHCR report. Initially, environmental groups, students, and members of the rural peasant population led protests, condemning the government’s inadequate response to forest fires; later, protests erupted across Nicaragua in response to the government’s announcement of reduced pension payments and social security reform. The government responded with repression and the use of force against often-peaceful protesters by state security and paramilitary forces, suppressing free speech and criminalizing and persecuting protesters and other perceived opponents. In the midst of these protests, activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and others have been censored and arrested; many citizens have died or have been injured; and extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, illegal detention, enforced disappearances, intimidation, and other human rights violations and abuses have occurred. Between April and August 2018, “[t]he serious human rights crisis in Nicaragua…has been characterized by multiple forms of repression and other forms of violence,” according to the UNHCR report, with the repression and violence “products of the systematic erosion of human rights over the years, and highlight[ing] the overall fragility of institutions and the rule of law.” Meanwhile, in the face of pressure from economic crisis and international sanctions, including sanctions imposed by the U.S., President Ortega—whose centralization of power has been criticized as constituting moves toward authoritarianism—has recently promised to ease repression and release hundreds of political prisoners, though the implementation of these remains to be seen, with opposition groups remaining skeptical.
Bachelet’s warning to Nicaraguan authorities is a reminder of the ongoing instability in the country. The protests in April of last year were not an isolated incident. They arose due to systematic issues with the country’s institutions, with the rule of law and the government’s violent repression and use of force, which have constituted violations of international law. These issues have resulted in instability not only within Nicaragua, affecting the lives of its citizens, but also in the region, with displacement and refugees. The Nicaraguan government should heed the message and look to take important steps to ensure solutions and agreements with the opposition that are not only focused on curbing violence and human rights violations, including at the hands of pro-government paramilitary groups, but also based on strengthening institutions and putting in place response mechanisms that do not involve the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters, ensuring accountability and respect for its citizens, and building trust. As mentioned in Bachelet’s report and in line with a recent Human Rights Council resolution, the Nicaraguan government should resume cooperation with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other regional and international human rights bodies. The international community can continue to place pressure on the Nicaraguan government to take steps toward solutions and support Nicaraguan citizens and their human rights.