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The Search for Justice and Democratic Transition for Nicaragua

Former IACHR Commissioners Antonia Urrejola and Paulo Abrao highlight the victims’ demands. Obtaining justice will depend on the democratic transition

Paulo Abrao y Antonia Urrejola. Foto: Confidencial

31 de enero 2024

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 Five years after their visit to Nicaragua in May 2018 as part of the mission of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS, jurists and human rights defenders Paulo Abrao and Antonia Urrejola emphasized the worsening human rights crisis and weighed the hope of achieving justice as part of a democratic transition process.

“The imposition of a totalitarian regime that does not even allow documenting human rights violations has created an atmosphere of fear, silence, and impunity in which Nicaragua resembles a giant prison,” says Antonia Urrejola, former rapporteur for Nicaragua at the IACHR.


Brazilian jurist Paulo Abrao, former executive secretary of the IACHR, believes there is hope for justice. “Hope lies in the adoption of measures and actions within and outside the country by the opposition to achieve that historic moment of democratic transition that will expand the possibilities of justice,” emphasizes Abrao.

Urrejola highlighted the role that organizations of victims’ families are already playing in documenting murders committed by state repression. Still, she warned that in Nicaragua, it will be necessary to “reformulate the Judiciary, which is intervened by the Ortega Murillo regime.” The model and scope of political transition “will determine in the immediate future the level of justice” that can be achieved, Urrejola pointed out.

Abrao emphasized that there are already cases “being processed within the Inter-American Human Rights System, the cause of crimes against humanity justified by universal jurisdiction in Argentina, and the case of Brazilian Rayneia (Lima) in Brazil.” However, the possibilities of justice for Nicaragua in international courts is still being studied.

In an interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, the former IACHR commissioners highlighted the role of Truth Commissions in justice processes and warned that crimes against humanity offenses not subject to a statute of limitations and, therefore, cannot be amnestied. Urrejola argued that in political transitions, there is no “exchange” between justice and democratic stability, although there can be a “graduality.” “Experience shows that when these things start to be exchanged, sooner or later, they end up appearing anyway, and this vicious circle starts again. But we have seen in different countries that, according to conditions, what weak democracies do is go step by step. That is part of the transition processes, which does not mean sweeping everything under the rug,” said the former Chilean foreign minister.

Nicaragua: A Giant Prison

In May 2018, you led the first IACHR mission to Nicaragua, which documented the human rights crisis, and since then, not only have the recommendations not been implemented, but repression and persecution have worsened. How do you now see the human rights crisis in Nicaragua?

Antonia Urrejola: Unfortunately, contrary to the predictions we initially had, the situation is much more critical. While in the first months, what one saw were serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, that is not seen today. However, we have seen repression that has finally closed any possibility of citizen organization, influence through civil society organizations of any kind, independent press, and what we see is how it has unfortunately managed to silence people inside Nicaragua. Some people talk about it being a giant prison in the sense of not being able to speak, the fear of people going out because they don’t know if they will be able to come back.

Everything is much more serious because, in addition, the possibility of denouncing human rights violations is much more difficult with such a closed regime, and there is much information that perhaps one does not have either.

Victims’ Demands and International Justice

How do you see the victims’ demand for justice? Some are individually documented in victims’ associations, others have also been known by national and international human rights commissions. And what role could Justice play in a political transition in Nicaragua?

Antonia Urrejola: First, what victims’ organizations and human rights organizations have done within the country, beyond the frustration that I understand (because justice has not been done), is essential for any future justice in Nicaragua. The work being done today is indispensable and has been demonstrated by the experience in other countries in the region that have suffered authoritarian or dictatorial regimes—previous work and documentation, which is sometimes the most challenging.

In terms of justice, undoubtedly, thinking about tomorrow, I believe that a fundamental issue will be the reformulation of the Judiciary in Nicaragua. That will require work beforehand because the Judiciary is intervened by the Ortega Murillo regime. It is a judicial system that will also need to modernize, as has happened in other countries, not only to guarantee the independence and autonomy that is currently not there but also to see what Judiciary Nicaragua requires for a new democracy. That is, also waiting for democracy to come, to change the Judiciary, that is desired, but there are possibilities of justice with international support. There are experiences where the international community accompanies internal investigations, and I believe that is the first step in any transition: to begin, from now on, to file complaints in the courts.

Unfortunately, with the Judiciary that exists there, we’ll have to see how the changes are made. And these changes are pushed through filing legal actions in the different Nicaraguan courts with international support.

No Amnesty or “Exchange” Between Justice and Democracy

In some countries emerging from prolonged dictatorships or authoritarian crises, the dilemma of how to address this demand for truth and justice is sometimes debated. Nicaragua is also an example of that, discarding such discussions for fear of opening wounds, causing divisions. Is there perhaps an exchange between truth and justice, and democracy and stability?

Antonia Urrejola: There is no exchange. I believe that, beyond the human rights perspective but from political realism, it is not an exchange but rather a graduality. In a country like Nicaragua, in a scenario of incipient democracy, stability is needed to strengthen itself, stability is needed to be able to make the necessary reforms. But that does not imply sweeping human rights violations that occurred in the past under the rug.

Experience shows that when these things start to be exchanged, sooner or later, they end up appearing anyway, and this vicious circle starts again. But if we have seen in different countries that, according to conditions, what weak democracies do is go step by step. It is conflictive because victims want justice now and for everything. But that is part of transition processes, which does not mean sweeping everything under the rug.

Meanwhile, in these times when the word is criminalized in Nicaragua, freedom of expression, dissent, people’s right to demand the truth, what hope for justice can victims have? What can they do today?

Paulo Abrao: It seems to me that the big issue today is thinking about what conditions are needed to create an environment toward a democratic transition for the country. There is hope, that hope lies precisely in the adoption of measures and actions by the opposition, within and outside the country, to reach that historic moment that will expand the possibilities of justice. It depends a lot on the type of transition established in each country. In experiences of negotiated transitions, the possibilities of justice normally have a slightly longer time of implementation, sometimes in a rupture transition, the demoralization of the people who have been perpetrators of human rights violations immediately leads to trials.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.

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Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.

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