As oppression intensifies, campaigners tell Human Rights Council ‘keep Nicaragua on the agenda’

A woman holds a cross as hundreds of Nicaraguans march in San Jose, Costa Rica, 29 May 2022, honouring those who lost their lives in the Mother's Day march on 30 May 2018 in Nicaragua. (Keystone/EPA/Jeffrey Arguedas)

Four years after a wave of political crackdown swept over Nicaragua, campaigners tell the Human Rights Council not to forget about them.

Sitting tight on one of the brown-leathered chairs of the Serpentine lounge area in the Palais des Nations, Karla (name has been changed to protect the identity of the person) scanned the room nervously. The dim light of that winter afternoon on 15 December barely revealed her face – much to her relief.

The Human Rights Council was just about to meet to discuss the human rights crisis in Nicaragua, which the UN body has been monitoring for the past four years. Karla, a Nicaraguan refugee living in Costa Rica, said she was afraid of bumping into her country’s representatives in Geneva and being identified.

The mother of two took part in anti-government protests in 2018, which President Daniel Ortega’s government met with deadly force, leaving over 300 dead.

“My children were university students that got involved with the fight for freedom in Nicaragua. The authorities tried to put them in jail and they tried to kill me so we had to leave to save our lives,” she told Geneva Solutions.

At least 150,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica since 2018, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Karla is part of the Red de Mujeres Pinoleras, a refugee women-led network set up in Costa Rica shortly after the crisis erupted to help other refugee women develop their economic activities.

She’s accompanied by Peace Brigades International (PBI), an international NGO that uses the presence of volunteers to discourage attacks against human rights defenders. PBI’s Nicaragua branch, which is based in Costa Rica, brought the activist to Geneva to meet with experts and Swiss officials to ask them, as Karla put it, to “keep Nicaragua on the agenda”.

Four years of monitoring

Since 2018, the Human Rights Council has passed a number of resolutions requesting the UN human rights office to report on abuses committed in Nicaragua since the beginning of the crisis.

In the four year period, the office has consistently reported on a persistent clampdown on protesters, journalists, political opponents and human rights defenders, which has prompted many to flee. Its requests for access to the country have been consistently denied by the government, making it difficult for it to monitor the situation up close.

Last Thursday at the council’s meeting, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, told state members that “the climate of oppression has only intensified”, with 225 political prisoners being reportedly held, some in “inhumane” conditions, and over 3,000 NGOs as well as 26 media outlets being shut down by the government.

Speaking for Nicaragua, attorney-general Wendy Carolina Morales Urbina rejected Türk’s claims and accused his office of bias and using “arguments far from the truth” while remaining silent about the harm that sanctions were causing. She called its position “manipulating” and “despicable”.

No cooperation with the system

Despite pressure from many Western and Latin American countries for Nicaragua to release political prisoners and reestablish democratic rule, the government has increasingly isolated itself as Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo tighten their grip on power. This year, the government expelled ambassadors representing the Vatican and the EU, and rejected the US nominee for ambassador. Both the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on political figures with ties to the Ortega-Murillo family, which Nicaragua has denounced.

Nicaragua has also rebuffed the UN human rights system. “It's been years that we've documented how Nicaragua has turned down any offer of technical assistance by the OHCHR, has not responded to any communication by the special procedures and, the last most shocking example, is that over the past year, they've refused to cooperate with six different treaty bodies,” said Raphaël Viana, China and Latin America advocate at the Geneva-based NGO International Service of Human Rights (ISHR).

In an unprecedented move, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) and its subcommittee, which conducts confidential visits to state parties, published last month their confidential reports of a 2014 visit to Nicaragua after the state didn’t show up to an evaluation and cancelled the subcommittee’s visit for 2023.

“This is a picture of a social contract in tatters,” said Türk, referring to the violations and the lack of cooperation with the UN.

The ISHR along with around 30 organisations launched on Thursday a call for the Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the investigative body on Nicaragua, which is ending its one-year term in March. The campaigners are calling for the term of the expert group to be extended for two more years.

What else can the council do?

The group of human rights experts have been tasked with investigating allegations of rights abuses committed since 2018 and establishing the facts. Like most council bodies, they have not been allowed inside the country by the government. Nicaragua’s hostile attitude towards UN bodies raises questions over whether efforts in Geneva are in vain.

Viana argues that the expert body should be viewed as a long-term strategy towards accountability rather than a tool to apply immediate political pressure.

“The group of experts’ goal is really to gather evidence and investigate, to a degree following a legal standard that would allow that evidence to be used in judicial processes in the future,” he said.

Asked whether UN bodies in New York, the General Assembly and the Security Council, could be better placed to exert international pressure, Viana said that it could be helpful as long as it urges Nicaragua to cooperate with the Geneva-based mechanisms.

The issue of Nicaragua as a threat to security in the Central American region was raised at the Security Council back in 2018 by the US but quickly faded as Russia and its allies sided with Nicaragua.

But as Covid and the war in Ukraine fuel Nicaragua’s economic crisis, the numbers of people leaving the country of 6.7 million people for neighbouring Costa Rica and the US have soared, adding to many others who have left due to ongoing political repression this year. Staff from media outlets, including the leading newspaper La Prensa, and renowned NGOs are among those who have been forced to flee.

Between January and October 2022, Costa Rica received 70,000 new asylum requests from Nicaraguans and over 147,000 ended up at US borders, Türk told the council.

This has prompted the Costa Rican government to try to dissuade newcomers, namely by reducing time limits for requesting asylum and banning asylum seekers waiting for their request to be processed from leaving the country.

Juan Carlos Peña Martínez, coordinator at PBI’s Nicaragua branch, told Geneva Solutions that he was concerned about what he saw as Costa Rica trying to get rid of the problem instead of addressing it.

Costa Rica is part of the eight Latin American states that have tabled resolutions on Nicaragua at the Human Rights Council. Viana said ISHR and other organisations are “optimistic” that the state will rally behind their call along with the others at the next council session in March 2023.

For Karla, keeping discussions about Nicaragua going in Geneva is about getting her’s and other refugees’ versions heard:  “We know that there are other situations closer to here and that we are a small country but for us it’s important that what is really happening in Nicaragua is talked about because one of the government’s objectives is to seem as everything is normal.”