By Sergio Gómez Maseri, EL TIEMPO, January 11, 2024,declarar%20un%20estado%20de%20conflicto

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

EL TIEMPO spoke with the regional director, Juanita Goebertus,  about the 2023 HRW report.

This Wednesday, the United States organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), presented its annual report on the human rights situation in the world throughout 2023. In an exclusive interview with EL TIEMPO, and the American Dailies Group (GDA), HRW Director for the region, the Colombian, Juanita Goebertus, expanded on the subjects that stood out in the past year, and those that are central in the coming year.

According to Goebertus, the attacks on the right to vote and on political participation, as well as the increase in insecurity and the flow of migrants were high on the agenda of regional concerns. 

The HRW Director for the Americas also warned that a return of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States could have “dramatic” consequences for Latin America if his administration were to lead to an increase in authoritarianism in that country, and also warned that Ecuador’s decision to declare a state of internal conflict is not the solution for its grave crisis of insecurity.

When we were talking in 2022 about delivering your annual report for that year, you expressed concern about the resurgence of violence and the deterioration of democracy and human rights in the region throughout the period. What’s your assessment for 2023?

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved. The year 2023 was marked by at least three worrisome phenomena in the region: attacks on the right to vote and on political participation in countries like Brazil and Guatemala; the increase in insecurity, as in Ecuador and Haiti; and the weakening of institutions that assure control over the exercise of power, as has happened in El Salvador, Perú, and México.

Although it’s still a current issue, doubtless the past year was marked by a flow of migrants from south to north that beat all previous records and that has had a high impact on a number of countries in the region. What’s the main reason for this exodus and what can we expect in 2024?

Behind this exodus are regimes like the one in Venezuela, responsible for crimes against humanity with arbitrary arrests and torture, and a humanitarian crisis set off by its poor economic management. There are governments like the Haitian, incapable of protecting its population from the gangs that control the capital, killing young people and raping women, as well as democratic governments like Ecuador, that haven’t been able to respond to the necessities of the population. The flow of migrants in the region has gone from 7 million to 15 million in the last 15 years. If we don’t solve the problems that are causing this, I’m afraid the flow of migrants will only keep on growing.

In a recent report published in November, you said the United States is partly responsible for the migration crisis, especially the one that’s happening in the Darién Gap, because of their restrictive immigration policies. Do you see any change in those dynamics?

The restrictive immigration policies of the United States have been a failure. Not only have they not been able to meet their objective of reducing the number of migrants that reach their country, but, worse still, they have forced people to use routes that are much more dangerous and much more likely to violate human rights as in the Darién, while negotiating visa imposition with countries like México and Guatemala. In practice, this has resulted in strengthening organized criminal groups like the Clan del Golfo that receive more than 57 million dollars a year thanks to this business. Besides that, it has contributed to putting at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Beyond the United States election debate, there has to be a consensus that what has been done up to now is not working. In 2024 it will be 40 years since the Declaration of Cartagena, and I believe this is an opportunity for the governments in the region and the United States to get serious and undertake a robust regional strategy on migration.

This week, Ecuador confronted an unexpected situation when an armed group interrupted a live transmission at a TV channel in a day of violence all over the country that led President Daniel Noboa to announce a “state of internal conflict”. What’s your opinion of that measure?

The situation that Ecuadorans are suffering at the hands of those criminal gangs is dramatic and requires effective responses to protect the population. Sadly, I don’t think the decision to recognize an armed conflict in the country will be the solution. Recognizing an armed conflict has to be a technical decision based on a rigorous analysis of the events and of international law. Instead, the decree that the President approved lacks legal solidity and opens the door to serious abuses committed with impunity. What Ecuador needs in order to confront organized crime are more and better prosecutors and judges who can investigate the gangs effectively and attack money laundering and the corruption that permits organized crime to operate in the country.

Let’s talk about Venezuela. How do you evaluate the situation after the agreement reached in Barbados between the opposition and the Nicolás Maduro government? Are we getting close to a transparent election process or is Nicolás Maduro just playing for time?

Looking for a transition to democracy in Venezuela is the right way to go to protect human rights in that country. And that the United States supported the negotiation process and uses sanctions as a mechanism to assure the introduction of electoral guarantees of transparency is very positive. But the proof of the pudding in the whole process will be if the regime allows María Corina Machado, who was democratically chosen by the opposition, to compete.

The United States and the governments in the region should use all their capacity for influence to make sure that she can take part, without considering their own ideological sympathies. To accomplish that, it’s crucial that the United States not be distracted by other interests, like obtaining the deportation of Venezuelans or augmenting oil production. In Venezuela, the principal objective is, has to be, its recovery of democracy.

What’s your evaluation of Colombia, the country that has a leftist President in office for the first time?

In the case of Colombia, we are deeply concerned about the increase in kidnapping, massacres, and the recruitment of children into the gangs. The search for peace is a laudable objective, but it doesn’t exempt the Colombian government from its duty to provide protection and guarantees for its citizens. The territorial disputes between the ELN, the dissidents of the now-defunct FARC, and the Clan del Golfo mean that Colombia continues to have one of the highest rates of homicide in the region, especially of social leaders and human rights defenders. Without an effective security policy and a thoroughgoing implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement, sadly, the policy of “total peace” will not be successful.

In addition to Colombia, there have been increased rates of criminality in a lot of countries in the region. How do you explain this phenomenon?

The dynamics of insecurity are different in every country. In Colombia, kidnapping and recruitment of children grow out of the territorial disputes between armed groups and organized crime groups. In Ecuador the disputes among networks of drug trafficking groups have tripled the rate of homicides in the last two years. In Brazil, the police are continuing to kill nearly 6,000 people every year and 80% of them are Afro-Brazilian, according to the most recent statistics.

Is there a common thread?

The common thread is that several of the democracies in the region are not carrying out their duty of protection and guarantees for their citizens. Although there are some differences, the reforms in the security sectors are still waiting to happen. Issues like securing civilian control of the Armed Forces and the Police, and strengthening the independence of the technical, legal, investigations of crimes are essential for the initiation of policies of effective security that protect human rights. If the governments in the region don’t start taking decisive steps to restrain the homicidal violence, others will try to duplicate the policies of Nayib Bukele.

In spite of the fact that you have criticized Bukele’s security policies in El Salvador on multiple occasions for being authoritarian, the President continues to be immensely popular in his country and he’s on the way to a re-election thought to be illegal. How do you explain that?

El Salvador historically has had one of the highest rates of homicides in Latin America. The democratic governments have alternated fruitlessly between under-the-table negotiations with the gangs and “tough on crime” policies. Bukele, at a dramatic cost for human rights and the Rule of Law, is responding to the Salvadorans’ clamor for fighting the gangs.

The problem is the false dilemma in which we have tried to operate: that it’s not possible to have security and still have respect for human rights. That’s false!  With more than 73,000 people arrested in nearly two years of the state of emergency, they haven’t achieved more than a handful of convictions. That shows that in practice, it wasn’t a sustainable dismantling of the networks of crime, but only a process of massive imprisonment, of innocent people in many cases.

How much do you worry that the “bukelista” model of “democratic authoritarianism” will end up propagandizing the rest of the region?

What worries me the most about the Bukele model is the weakening of the institutions that are supposed to control power. We mustn’t forget that it was his party the changed the makeup of the Supreme Court to re-interpret the Constitution to allow the immediate Presidential re-election, in spite of the fact that that is explicitly prohibited. And it’s not exclusive. Andrés Manuel López Obrador in México has tried to weaken election institutions and transparency in access to information; or in Perú the Congress has filed political lawsuits against the national council of justice, a key agency for guaranteeing the independence of the courts. But what’s happening in El Salvador in a dramatic manner is that the erosion of the system of weights and counterweights puts all of the citizens in the region at risk.

The experience of dictatorships like the ones in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela shows us that when the Rule of Law is destroyed, the citizens have no place to go to obtain justice and avoid abuses. And we are seeing that this process of erosion doesn’t just happen with authoritarian leaders like Bukele or Maduro, but also with coalitions between sectors of the legislative branch and the prosecutors or the agencies of control that are trying to dismantle the separation of powers to advance their own corrupt interests, as is happening in Guatemala and Perú.

And refusing to accept the results of elections, as happened in Brazil and more recently in Guatemala looked as if they were overturning a law . . .

This is one of the phenomena that worries us the most. The right to vote, in free and fair elections, and the political participation. In Brazil, the Bolsonaristas tried refusing to recognize the results. Fortunately, so far, the Brazilian judicial branch has been strong enough halt the attacks on the institutions.

In Guatemala, on the other hand, it was from the Inspector General that the principal attacks were coming from. During the election process the authorities disqualified three presidential candidates, and after Bernardo Arévalo’s victory, the Inspector General tried to take away the legal capacity of his party, the Semilla (Seed) movement, and he even insinuated, with his investigations, they would be able to annul his election as President. The indigenous communities in the streets and the efforts of international diplomacy, led by the United States, have been crucial in protecting democracy there, but the process is still hanging by a thread. It’s crucial to put a stop to this attempt at a coup d’etat and guarantee that Arévalo can be sworn in on Sunday, January 14, to exercise the powers of the position to which he was chosen.

In Argentina, it’s a month since the libertarian Javier Milei took over as President, being a political outsider. How do you read this triumph and what do you think of the austerity measures he is taking?

Argentina’s serious economic crisis sometimes makes us forget that Argentina also has a profound institutional crisis. All of the members of the Supreme Court are defendants in an abusive and unfounded political lawsuit, filed by the Alberto Fernández administration. And years have passed without the Congress appointing an Ombudsman or an Inspector General. That obviously weakens democratic institutions. It’s in that economic and institutional context that the citizens of Argentina elected an outsider like Milei.

During the election campaign, we were concerned because he minimized the crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship, expressed doubt about climate change, and that he attacked the decriminalization of abortion. As we did during the Kirchnerism and the administration of Mauricio Macri, we will be very attentive and ready to denounce any violation of human rights and any attack on the Rule of Law that takes place in Argentina.

What’s your analysis of the first month of the Milei administration?

The first signals from the Milei administration have been worrisome. We find ourselves analyzing the new regulation on demonstrations, which includes excessive restrictions on the right to peaceful protest. We are also worried that the President is trying to govern by decree, inaugurating his term with a Decree of necessity and massive urgency and a request to the Congress to be allowed to legislate and govern by decree for a period of four years. Those are practices that his predecessors also have used, but Milei is extending them to a notorious degree.

The regional experience, from Alberto Fujimori to Nicolás Maduro, shows that the excessive concentration power in the executive could be dangerous to democracy. People that voted for Milei, in many cases, understandably tired of the performance of Argentinian democracy, should keep in mind that if they support his governing by decree now, another later administration could try to decree the exact opposite in the same way.

This year all eyes will be on the United States, where there will be presidential and legislative elections, and the possibility that Donald Trump could return to the White House. What’s in play here, and what impact could his triumph have in the region?

We don’t get into election debates, but it’s undeniable that Donald Trump’s administration has had extremely serious effects in Latin America. There are authoritarian governors in the region who appear to be hoping for a Trump administration with the expectation, probably correct, that Trump would pay no attention to human rights violations if they cooperate in slowing or halting migration.

In addition, Trump’s efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election have had very clear repercussions in the region. Thanks to Trump, Latin American authoritarians think they have a blank check to transgress rules that previously were not in play. The increase of authoritarianism in the U.S. could have dramatic consequences for Latin America.

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