Monday, February 1, 2016

Human Rights Watch reports on the region (Feb. 1, 2016)

Last week Human Rights Watch released its 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, which reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries.
Worldwide, the politics of fear led governments around the globe to roll back human rights during 2015, reports HRW.

The main essays in the report don't focus on Latin America, though Ecuador and Venezuela are mentioned among countries that are denounced for enacting vague and overly broad laws to rein in activists and undermine independent groups' ability to operate

Chile, Colombia and Jamaica are also part of a broader trend toward drug decriminalization following the failure of punitive approaches toward drug use.
The report was presented simultaneously in São Paulo and Istambul, and criticizes lack of independence in Venezuela's judiciary, reports EFE.

Clarín emphasizes the criticisms towards Venezuela's judiciary, which has practically ceased to function independently of the executive power, according to the report. HRW also criticized the criminal cases against prominent opposition leaders in Venezuela, such as Leopoldo López, notes Infobae.

Cuba has long been one of the region's biggest human rights violators for half a century, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Director of Human Rights Watch Americas Division, told Voice of America. Despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. this year, not much has changed on that front. 

So far, the record of Cuba is exactly the same. What we need here is pressure coming from democratic governments in Latin America as well as Europe and other regions of the world now that nobody could argue that the Obama administration is implementing and promoting a policy of isolation," said Vivanco.

Though some political prisoners have been freed, the general situation with rights is unchanged in Cuba, according to HRW, reports Marti Noticias.

Vivanco also emphasized  the possibility of impunity for FARC members in the peace process with the Colombian government and abuses by the Venezuelan government.

Vivanco divides the region in two groups, the "dramatic" and the "progresses," reports Proceso. He led the first group with Mexico in a press conference, emphasizing the violations caused by the war on drugs. The group notes enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings by security forces and kidnapping an torture as the most frequent violations of individual rights.

In the case of Mexico the report calls the government account of the Ayotzinapa disappearances unreliable, and emphasizes that it's based on confessions obtained under pressure, with torture and other irregularities, reports Animal Político. Mexican media, such as Informex, picked up on the Mexico aspects of the report, including criticisms of extrajudicial killings, impunity and enforced disappearances.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle Vivanco says that Venezuela's government is unpredictable and and criticizes the executive branch's treatment of the opposition-led National Assembly. In the same interview he goes more in depth in criticisms over Colombia's potential peace deal with the FARC.
Not all is bad news. Vivanco praised advances in Brazil's judiciary as it investigates corruption at high levels of government and prominent businessmen, reports El Daily Post.

But Brazil must assure justice in cases of illegal executions and torture perpetrated by police, as well take more effective measures to mitigate inhumane conditions in jails, which are gravely overpopulated, notes HRW Brazil.

Some excerpts from the country reports:

Argentina: "Argentina enjoys robust public debate, but existing and proposed laws threaten free expression, and harassment of judges threatens judicial independence. Prison conditions are poor, police at times use excessive force against demonstrators, violence against women is endemic, access to reproductive services is imperiled, and indigenous peoples do not enjoy the rights afforded to them by law. Argentina continues to make significant progress regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and in prosecuting officials for abuses committed during the country’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983), although trials have been subject to delays."

Bolivia: "Impunity for violent crime and for human rights violations remains a serious problem in Bolivia. Extensive and arbitrary use of pretrial detention—and trial delays—undermine defendants’ rights and contribute to prison overcrowding, despite recent legal reforms. The administration of President Evo Morales has created a hostile environment for human rights defenders that undermines their ability to work independently. Threats to judicial independence, violence against women, and child labor are other major concerns."

Brazil: "Chronic human rights problems plague Brazil, including unlawful police killings, prison overcrowding, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Some recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system aim to address these problems, but others would exacerbate them. The judiciary in 2015 worked with state governments toward ensuring that detainees are promptly brought before judges after their arrest, as required by international law. But in August, the Chamber of Deputies approved a constitutional amendment that would allow 16- and 17-year-old children to be prosecuted as adults for serious crimes, in violation of international standards. At time of writing, enactment of the amendment still required two additional votes by the Senate. Internationally, Brazil continued to lead efforts to strengthen protections for the right to privacy in 2015, but its overall record at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) was mixed. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of refugees admitted in the country doubled, reaching a total of 8,400 people."

Chile: "Chile’s parliament in 2015 debated laws to strengthen human rights protection, as promised by President Michelle Bachelet, but none had been enacted at time of writing. These included measures to reform Chile’s counterterrorism law and to decriminalize abortion in limited circumstances. Other long-needed reforms, however, including an expected bill to end the jurisdiction of military courts over alleged human rights abuses by the Carabineros—the police responsible for public order and crime prevention—had not been introduced as of November. While courts continue to prosecute individuals for abuses committed during military rule, the Supreme Court has used its discretionary powers in many cases to reduce sentences against human rights violators, resulting in punishments incommensurate with the gravity of the crimes."

Colombia: "Civilians in Colombia continue to suffer serious abuses perpetrated by guerrillas, as well as by successor groups to paramilitaries that emerged after an official paramilitary demobilization process a decade ago. Violence associated with Colombia’s internal armed conflict has forcibly displaced more than 6.8 million Colombians, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) after Syria. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and other community activists face death threats and violence, but perpetrators are rarely held accountable. The Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have engaged in peace talks in Cuba since 2012, and at time of writing had reached an agreement on four of the six items on their negotiating agenda. In June, the government and FARC agreed to create a “Truth Commission” to carry out non-judicial investigations of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during the conflict. In September, the government and FARC announced an agreement that would create a new Peace Tribunal to try those responsible for gross human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. Under the agreement, those responsible for crimes against humanity and serious war crimes who cooperate with the new judicial system and confess their crimes would spend between five and eight years under “effective restraint of liberty” but face no prison time. Exploratory talks between the government and National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, continued at time of writing."

Cuba: "The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment. In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would ease restrictions on travel and commerce and normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. In exchange, the Cuban government released 53 political prisoners and committed to allow visits by international human rights monitors. The two governments restored diplomatic relations in July 2015."

Dominican Republic: "The Dominican Republic’s treatment of Haitian migrants and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent dominated human rights developments in 2015. Government authorities are still responding to a 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling that stripped citizenship from tens of thousands of Dominicans of migrant descent, mostly of Haitian origin, by dual policies of re-registering denationalized citizens and carrying out mass deportations. At the same time, the government began its first comprehensive effort to regularize the status of undocumented migrants, mostly Haitians. In November 2014, the Constitutional Tribunal also broadly jeopardized human rights protections when it declared the government’s 1999 accession to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACrtHR) unconstitutional. The decision created a legal limbo that remains unresolved."

Ecuador: "The administration of President Rafael Correa has expanded state control over media and civil society and abused its power to harass, intimidate, and punish critics. In 2015, thousands of people participated in public demonstrations against government policies. Security forces on multiple occasions responded with excessive force. Abuses against protesters, including arbitrary arrests, have not been adequately investigated. Other ongoing concerns include limited judicial independence, poor prison conditions, and women’s and girls’ limited access to reproductive health care due to fear of prosecution."

Guatemala: "President Otto Pérez Molina resigned in September after being implicated by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in a million-dollar tax-fraud scandal. The commission was established in 2007 to investigate organized crime and reinforce local efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala. In 2015, after the Guatemalan Congress voted to strip both President Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti of their immunity, prosecutors charged them and more than 35 other government officials with corruption. Guatemala’s efforts to promote accountability for human rights atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 civil war have had mixed results. While the Attorney General’s Office has successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases, the vast majority of victims have not seen any form of justice for the violations they endured."

Haiti: "The terms of the majority of lawmakers in Haiti ended in January 2015 without new elections to replace them, shutting down the parliament. While President Michel Martelly governed pursuant to constitutional provisions permitting government institutions to continue operations, the lack of a legislature and protracted political stalemates over elections hindered the Haitian government’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve longstanding human rights problems, or address continuing humanitarian crises. As of June, only 3 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake remained, according the International Organization for Migration. Authorities, however, failed to assist many of the remaining 60,000 IDPs to resettle or return to their places of origin, and many continued to face environmental risks and the threat of forced evictions. Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has claimed more than 9,500 lives and infected over 770,000 people in five years, surged in the first four months of 2015 following a significant decrease in 2014. There were more than 20,500 suspected cases and 175 deaths as of August 1. A controversial regularization plan for foreigners in neighboring Dominican Republic caused an influx of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent into Haiti; authorities were ill-prepared to meet their humanitarian needs."

Honduras: "Rampant crime and impunity for human rights abuses remain the norm in Honduras. Despite a downward trend in recent years, the murder rate is among the highest in the world. Efforts to reform the institutions responsible for providing public security have made little progress. Marred by corruption and abuse, the judiciary and police remain largely ineffective. Journalists, peasant activists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals are among those most vulnerable to violence. Government efforts to investigate and prosecute violence against members of these groups made little progress in 2015. The Council of the Judiciary has ignored due process guarantees in suspending and dismissing judges, thus increasing their vulnerability to political pressures. In December 2012, Congress arbitrarily dismissed and replaced four Supreme Court judges."

Mexico: "During the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexican security forces have been implicated in repeated, serious human rights violations—including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture—in the course of efforts to combat organized crime. The government has made little progress in prosecuting those responsible for recent abuses, let alone the large number of abuses committed by soldiers and police since former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) initiated Mexico’s “war on drugs.” In September 2015, an expert group established through an agreement between the Mexican government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) exposed serious flaws in the government’s investigation into the enforced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, refuted key conclusions made by the Attorney General’s Office, and called on authorities to pursue fresh lines of investigation. The government subsequently agreed to extend the group’s mandate to monitor the investigation for an additional six months. At time of writing, more than a year after the disappearances, the whereabouts of at least 41 of students remain unknown. Other continuing problems include restrictions on press freedom and limits on access to reproductive rights and health care."

Peru: "Security forces, responding at times to violent protests over mines and other large-scale development projects in Peru, continue to use live gunfire that kills and wounds civilians. Official investigations into the deaths and injuries remain inadequate. Judicial investigations into grave human rights abuses committed during the 20- year armed conflict that ended in 2000 remained slow and limited."

Venezuela: "Under the leadership of President Hugo Chávez and now President Nicolás Maduro, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled the government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute its critics, leading to increasing levels of self-censorship. Leading opposition politicians were arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and barred from running for office in legislative elections scheduled to be held in December 2015. The government prosecuted dozens of lesser-known opponents for criticizing the government. Police abuse, poor prison conditions, and impunity for abuses by security forces—including arbitrary arrests, beatings, and denial of basic due process rights for largely peaceful protesters in early 2014—remain serious problems. Other concerns include lack of access to basic medicines and supplies—the result of problematic government policies—and continuous harassment of human rights defenders by government officials."

News Briefs:

  • Zika panic corner: As the disease continues to spread in the region, doctors are concerned about the potential links with microcephaly, but also note that Brazil is the only country experiencing a surge in the birth defect. The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting today to to decide whether the Zika threat should be rated a global health crisis.
  • Brazilian scientists are close to producing a reliable test that could detect traces of the mosquito-born Zika virus even months after people have recovered. It could be a major breakthrough in the struggle to identify a connection between the virus and birth defects, reports the Washington Post.
  • Access to legal abortions in the region is fairly limited in most countries, and doctors are concerned about a spike in illegal abortions as a result of Zika. Botched illegal abortions are already a major cause of maternal death in Brazil, reports Voice of America.
  • Health officials in Ecuador have detected the Zika virus in nearly two dozen people, while neighboring Peru reported its first case on Friday, fueling regional concerns about the spread of the mosquito-borne virus, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Over 2,100 pregnant women in Colombia have been infected with Zika, reports Reuters. There are so far no reported cases of microcephaly or deaths from the virus in Colombia. In Colombia abortion is restricted to victims of rape, significant medical problems or fatally deformed fetuses -- authorities say that the Zika infection qualifies women for the procedure. Nonetheless, women living far away from cities -- which is where most of the infections have taken place -- can struggle to find a provider, and illegal abortions are widespread.
  • The slum neighborhoods of San Salvador, where rival gang territories can be so fiercely defended that health authorities can't gain access, show the difficulties of controlling Zika in El Salvador, reports the Washington Post. Residents -- who collect water to supplement unreliable taps -- have ignored warnings to destroy mosquito breeding grounds. And in a country where teen pregnancy rates are high, contraception is difficult and abortion is illegal, authorities recommendation to delay pregnancy by two years seems unlikely to be widely followed. That being said, so far there have been no cases of Zika-related microcephaly detected in the country.
  • Whether or not it's caused by Zika, there is no doubt that Brazil is experiencing a significant increase in microcephaly cases, particularly in the country's northeast. The New York Timesreports on the difficulties faced by the families of the afflicted babies. "Many of the mothers were already overwhelmed by poverty. Now they are grappling with an incurable condition that can involve seizures, impaired cognitive development, delayed motor functions, problems with speech and dwarfism."
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles the Brazilian van der Linden family of physicians, who identified a likely link between the virus and a spike in birth defects involving incomplete brain development. The outbreak comes at a difficult time in Brazil, where the economic recession has limited or delayed funding for medical research. There are fewer than 10 neuropediatricians in Recife, and perhaps a total of 15 in the entire state. Many of the state's public hospitals are underfunded, overcrowded and understaffed.
  • Options in light of the frightening disease highlight inequality in Brazil. The Associated Pressreports on more affluent women, who are opting to simply leave the country for the vulnerable first trimester, versus those who have no option other than to hope for the best as they weather their pregnancies in the midst of the Zika outbreak.
  • Despite government efforts to contain debt in Brazil, the country's budget deficit last year was equal to 10.34 percent of the gross domestic product, according to new Central Bank numbers released last week. The country's debt is also expanding quickly, which is problematic, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A special mission sent by the Organization of American States met Haiti's President Michel Martelly, reports Reuters. The mission is attempting to assist the country's politicians find a way out of an impasse, in which elections to select Martelly's successor have been postponed due to allegations of widespread fraud.
  • The extremely long and convoluted path of the investigation and search for justice for the 1994 suicide bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed, has taken on it's newest iteration under President Mauricio Macri's administration. The government is pledging to get to the bottom of the case and will likely seek to modify the national legislation to permit trials in absentia, in order to move ahead against Iranian suspects who have been accused of masterminding the attack, reports the New York Times. Critics say the move would merely be directed at claiming a victory in the case, but won't come closer to truly resolving what happened.
  • Cuba announced a broadband home internet pilot project in two Havana neighborhoods, which could allow Cubans to order service in one of the least connected countries in the world, reports the Associated Press.
  • Bond investors see Mexico as one of the few emerging-market countries to withstand some of the economic difficulties faced by other countries in the region, such as  China’s slowing growth, rising U.S. interest rates, and dwindling commodity prices, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Jamaica will hold general elections on Feb. 25, reports the Associated Press. The governing People's National Party will face off against the Jamaica Labor Party.
  • Former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, who was under house arrest on charges of embezzlement and illegal enrichment, died on Saturday after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, reports the Associated Press.

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