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15 October 2020

Guaranteeing the Defense of Human Rights in Mexico & Central America is More Urgent Now Than Ever

Mexico and Central America, 15 October 2020 - In addition to the strong impact that the health crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has had on access to rights and basic services, it has also resulted in a deepening of the democracy and human rights crisis in the Mesoamerican region. In response to the pandemic, some states in the region have implemented punitive actions such as curfews, states of exception and the militarisation of public security, among other measures that are contrary to the human rights of the population. In this context, human rights defenders are facing new obstacles while their work is becoming more urgent than ever.

Download Defending Rights in the COVID

These are some of the conclusions of the brief "Defending Rights in Times of COVID-19: Challenges for Mexico and Central America" published today by Espacio OSC Para la Protección de Personas Defensoras y Periodistas (Espacio OSC), Front Line Defenders, the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Mexico (RNDDHM), the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).

This report is the product of a series of virtual forums which, over a period of five weeks, brought together 26 human rights defenders from the region in order to evaluate how the pandemic has impacted their advocacy work. The series of conversations included: ‘Women defenders and the right to defend human rights’; ‘Freedom of expression and access to information in times of pandemic’; ‘The struggle for memory, truth and access to justice’; ‘The defence of the environment and territory in Mesoamerica’; and ‘Labour rights and trade unionism’.

As a result of these dialogues, the organizations concluded that the conditions for defending rights and defending freedom of expression in Mexico and Central America have worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. They also denounced an increase in attacks against defenders, in the form of defamation and stigmatization, administrative reprisals, intimidation, arbitrary detention and even criminalization. According to the organisations' records, at least 25 women defenders have been killed in the sub-region between January and August 2020.

The report recognises as a first barrier the restrictions on mobility imposed in response to the health contingency, which have significantly limited the defence of human rights and the exercise of journalism. Thus, it acknowledges that defenders and communicators do not have the ability to carry out tasks such as accompanying vulnerable groups, monitoring or observation, or carrying out journalistic investigations in a safe manner.

On the other hand, families and victims of human rights violations face both physical and technological barriers: making their ability to access justice and search for missing persons even more complex. All this without the judicial authorities in the region providing alternatives for the advancement of their processes.

For women human rights defenders (WHRDs), the risks are even more serious. In the region, WHRDs have had to continue their work in a context of increasing violence against women. At least in Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico, there has been an increase in cases of violence against women by non-state actors since the onset of the pandemic, including physical attacks and digital violence.

According to the report, attacks on the press have also increased significantly since the health crisis. Exclusion of the independent press and information blockades have been reported in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala; while in Panama, judicial harassment has increased. In Mexico and El Salvador, journalists have received threats and digital harassment as retaliation for their coverage.

The medical profession has also faced attacks related to their work on public health during COVID-19. In Nicaragua, at least thirty professionals have been dismissed and harassed in retaliation for their criticism of official health policy.

Additionally, Latin America remains the most dangerous region for defenders of land, territory and the environment and defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples, a situation that is not being alleviated by the pandemic. In Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala, territorial invasions, evictions of communities, armed attacks and lethal attacks against communities defending their territory have continued. At the same time, even with the high risk of contagion in prisons, in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, people defending their territory are subjected to criminalisation and imprisonment..

As far as the defence of labour rights is concerned, states have generally been unable to guarantee work in safe environments, with industries linked to global supply chains being those most affected by epidemic outbreaks. The report notes the retreat in labour guarantees, public stigmatisation, and the exclusion of working people from the formal and informal labour market in retaliation for trade union demands for safety and the struggle for access to labour rights.

In this context, the organisations call on the States of the region, among others, to

  • Promote the joint construction with civil society organizations and regional and international human rights bodies, the design and implementation of a collaborative effort that contemplates the strengthening of the protection mechanisms for human rights defenders foreseen at the internal level; and the construction of comprehensive public policies for protection with a gender perspective and an intersectional approach.   
  • Refrain from committing and condemning any act of verbal stigmatisation, legal intimidation, criminalisation or misuse of criminal law against human rights defenders and journalists. 
  • Carry out pronouncements and communication campaigns with national, state and community impacts in favour of human rights defenders and journalists, highlighting their important work in the protection of human rights and access to information, particularly in the context of COVID-19. 
  • Carry out complete, diligent and impartial investigations into crimes that threaten freedom of expression and the defence of human rights. 
  • Release defenders detained for their human rights work and any person illegally deprived of their liberty.