The cruelty exercised by Daniel Ortega’s government has no limits and demands a firm response from the Latin American governments. A recent report from the UN Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua documented solid evidence of crimes against humanity, including assassinations, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced banishment and persecution for political motives.
On February 9, the Ortega dictatorship expelled 222 political prisoners to the United States. Immediately afterwards, the banished prisoners were stripped of their nationality, along with another 95 critics of the government less than a week later, leaving most of them stateless. Many of them fear for the safety of their families, who are under surveillance in Nicaragua. A former political prisoner stated: “even death was better than being there,” in reference to the “El Chipote” prison, where guards tore off his fingernails, applied electric shocks and beat him brutally.
There are still 37 political prisoners in the country, including Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, who has been held completely incommunicado since February 9. On March 10, Pope Francis compared the country to other “gross dictatorships.” Two days later, the Nicaraguan government announced the suspension of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Some countries in the region, including Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Ecuador, have issued public statements resoundingly condemning Ortega’s abuses. Seventeen countries belonging to the Organization of American States criticized the regime’s action depriving people of their nationality. Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Panama and Brazil offered to grant the victims citizenship.
While these are certainly positive steps, the seriousness of the crisis demands more conclusive regional action.
The democratic governments of Latin America should establish a “Friends of Nicaragua group” made up of governments all across the political spectrum, in order to contribute to a democratic transition in Nicaragua. Through high-level meetings, this mechanism should design a strategy to exert concerted public and private pressure on the Ortega regime, in order to put the brakes on the abuses, facilitate paths for establishing accountability, and promote free and fair elections. As part of this effort, each government should lead specific initiatives.
Chile and Costa Rica, recently elected members of the UN’s Human Rights Council, should lead the efforts to approve a resolution on Nicaragua during the current Council session in Geneva.
Brazil, Costa Rica, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru have already presented a draft resolution to extend the mandate of the current UN Group of Experts on Nicaragua for another two years. The group is focused exclusively on investigating the situation in Nicaragua.
Other regional members of the Council, such as Mexico, Argentina, Honduras and Paraguay, should support this resolution and work to obtain the votes needed for its approval, in addition to guaranteeing adequate financing for the Group of Experts.
The members of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Panama should take it upon themselves to assure that the bank’s financing of Nicaragua isn’t contributing to the abuses in that country. The CABEI, a multilateral development bank, has 25 “active loans” to Nicaragua in its portfolio, with approved funds totaling over US $3.5 billion dollars. While it’s true the majority are earmarked for infrastructure projects, there been little transparency on the part of either the Bank or the Nicaraguan government regarding how these funds are being used.
The CABEI Board of Governors, the bank’s highest authority, should demand an independent external audit of all the funds granted to Nicaragua. This measure would guarantee that the funds are only being used for the exercise of Nicaraguans’ economic and social rights. It would also be an opportunity for Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Panama to demonstrate their commitment to the objectives of their Alliance for Development in Democracy.
In the face of serious international crimes, the governments should also promote criminal investigations, applying the principle of universal jurisdiction. This principle allows those responsible for certain grave crimes, including torture, to be tried independently of the place where they occurred and the nationality of the victims and the suspects. It’s key to obtaining accountability, given that Nicaragua is one of the few countries of the region that didn’t sign on to the Statue of Rome and the International Criminal Court. [The Statute of Rome is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. It specifies four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.]
Brazil recently expressed concern about the human rights violations committed by the Nicaraguan government. The government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which would like to position itself as a global leader, has a key role to carry out in demanding the liberation of the political prisoners and the reestablishment of democratic guarantees in Nicaragua.
The crisis in Nicaragua has generated a rare consensus among leaders of different political positions. It’s now crucial for them to establish a coordinated strategy. If the region doesn’t work concertedly to support the Nicaraguan people, it will be sending a dangerous message to other authoritarian governments: that they have an open road to commit grave and flagrant abuses.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner is acting director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch; Juan Pappier is the Americas Division acting deputy director at Human Rights Watch
*First published en La Nación of Argentina.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.