Nicaragua's elections on 7 November add yet another layer to the country’s increasingly complex crisis and a further dislocation of its democratic institutions. The Colectivo 46/2 – a coalition of 16 organisations, including the International Network of Human Rights (RIDH) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) – is urging the Human Rights Council to step up its response and appoint a body of experts to investigate rights abuses in the country.
When the RIDH first accompanied Nicaraguan human rights defenders back in June 2018 to warn the Human Rights Council about the bloody repression against mass mobilisations shaking the country since April, our message to the international community was simple : “Act now” to stop the human rights violations and prevent the emerging crisis from spiralling out of control.
Needless to say, some of our worst fears have materialised: The situation has turned into Nicaragua’s worst socio-political crisis in the past 30 years and one of the worst in the region.
According to the UN, at least 328 people were killed in the first four months of the crisis – many in extrajudicial executions by police and paramilitary groups, as proven by Amnesty International’s investigations. Over the years the government has also built a legal arsenal designed to criminalise dissent, stifle civil society and ensure impunity in complete disregard to international standards. Over 50 NGOs have been shut down. Almost 1,700 men and women have been arbitrarily detained, held incommunicado and tortured in some of Nicaragua’s infamous prisons from the era of late dictator Anastasio Somoza, of whom at least 159 are still in jail. By 2021, more than 110,000 have fled the country from persecution. And let’s not forget that, while seldom reported on, violence against women and girls as well as attacks against indigenous peoples have skyrocketed.
To make things worse, Nicaragua’s response to the Covid-19 emergency has been catastrophic. The authorities imposed a culture of secrecy around the magnitude of the crisis in the country: the Citizen Observatory on Covid-19 has reported a death toll more than 20 times the official numbers and twice as many cases. Organisations and medical professionals who have raised concerns over the lack of mitigation measures and the chaotic vaccination schemes have been sacked or threatened with criminal charges.
Now, Ortega and his clique have made sure to run unchecked and unopposed in Sunday’s general elections, dampening any hopes of a change of course. They have tipped the rules to assure control over the electoral process, dissolving opposition parties, detaining most aspiring candidates and barring international observers and press from entering the country. All seven candidates, along with more than 30 civil society figures including human rights defenders, lawyers, political activists, businessmen and journalists, have been detained and forcibly disappeared in the past months, accused of “conspiracy to commit treason” and other bogus charges in a bid to crush any form of public criticism and instil fear in the population.
There have been some decisive victories over the years. Less than a year from the first time Nicaragua was brought to its attention, the Human Rights Council adopted a first resolution, mandating the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to closely monitor the situation and report to the Council.
The resolution, renewed in 2020 and 2021, has allowed us to keep Nicaragua on the international community’s radar and maintain international pressure, which is no easy feat in an increasingly unstable yet overlooked region. Three years on, however, it is clearly not enough.
None of the recommendations formulated in the Council’s resolutions have been implemented or even acknowledged by the government, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet’s invitations to resume a meaningful dialogue with her office remain unanswered, just as the dozens of letters of concern addressed to the government by UN experts in the past three years. Worse, in October 2021, the state refused to dialogue with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights during its review – its first evaluation in over ten years, which should have been a step in the right direction – setting a dangerous precedent for other countries.
This has also come at a human cost. In the last ten Human Rights Council sessions, dozens of Nicaraguan human rights defenders have come to Geneva – the heart of the universal human rights system – to plead with the international community to hold Nicaragua accountable for the crimes perpetrated against its people and help find a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis.
So far, every single Nicaraguan my organisation has supported and I have personally worked with has faced reprisals simply for speaking up and defending human rights: all have been persecuted and harassed, some detained, including my colleague, human rights lawyer María Oviedo from the Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos, incarcerated since July. Many more were forced into exile or driven into hiding or self-censorship to protect themselves and their families.
Next month, Bachelet will hold an exceptional dialogue with the Council on the elections and its aftermath, a small gain we have managed to secure in this year’s resolution. No doubt she will reiterate her call for the UN body to consider all possible means to protect human rights in Nicaragua.
The Council cannot be idle any more and must rise to the seriousness of the situation by creating an accountability mechanism mandated to investigate, document and compile evidence of human rights violations committed since 2018 to put an end to the spiral of impunity and abuses, to ensure a path to justice and reparations for the victims – and for Nicaragua as a whole. For justice may not be in sight quite yet, but it will come.