Twenty-four hours before leaving Nicaragua after being expelled by the government, as part of the UN’s team from the Office on the High Commission of Human Rights, head of mission Guillermo Fernandez Maldonado, expressed his concern for the abandonment of the victims of repression who have the right to “truth, justice and compensation”.
Fernandez leaves the country convinced that the devastating report on human rights violations prepared by his team, particularly in light of the Ortega regime’s abrupt termination of the mission, will now have greater resonance and will increase world attention on Nicaragua. He has stated categorically, “we do not find any sign of a coup d’état, but rather of a civic protest”, in Nicaragua and blames the increasing number of victims on “an escalation of the State and its forces”.
The government decreed that the mission of the UN High Commission in Nicaragua had come to an end, but all the human rights organizations interpret it as an expulsion, in retaliation for the commission’s report on human rights violations. Why this abrupt departure?
Guillermo Fernandez: We are here at the invitation of the government, to accompany the work of the Verification and Security Commission. That does not mean that our mandate comes from the Government, we had been monitoring the situation from our regional office in Panama, but it is always better if we are present inside the country. Our presence here has its origins in the dialogue that began in the midst of the crisis, and we were to accompany the Verification and Security Commission in its work.
There was never a deadline, we were not told “to accompany one, two months, or until such and such a date”, nor was it ever even clearly established what the accompaniment was to mean. What is clear is that it was never just a question of the barricades, but rather what was indicated was a “contribution to peace and security” – in those first moments, the barricades were the most urgent issue, but they were never the only objective, as the government is now arguing.
When the government was presented with the report a few days ago, was the team told, “Look your mission has ended because the barricades have already been lifted?”
No, that was not a matter of discussion. We did notify the Government that we were going to publish the report, which is our usual procedure. We delivered the report for their observations, we jointly published the report in which we included several of the suggestions that they had made, along with the full document of all the government’s suggestions; but what is evident, as many people have pointed out, is the impact of the report — with our departure two days later.
In the exchange that you had with the government about these findings, was the team aware of the allegations about the supposed coup d’état that the government says occurred in Nicaragua?
In fact, from the very first meeting, the Foreign Minister stated the government’s position that this was not a social protest but an attempt at a coup d’état. What we said is that we come to verify facts. If the government gives us access to information supporting that vision and allows us to circulate around the country to obtain testimony and verify what had happened and we find that version to be true, we will say so. But we were not given any information to that end and we were not allowed to travel outside of Managua.
This report will be discussed at the United Nations Security Council on this coming Wednesday. The Office of the High Commissioner will be present at this session. What international reactions can be expected?
The report is not made expressly for a possible discussion in the Security Council, but it will obviously be referred to. If one speaks of Nicaragua at this moment one of the central aspects is clearly the validity of human rights as such, this will also have an impact in the case of the UN Human Rights Council; although at this moment it is not clear how, because they would need the nine votes to bring the topic to the table. Of course, we are willing to make a presentation to the Security Council if the situation in Nicaragua is discussed.
You have said that the Office of the High Commissioner will continue to monitor the country’s human rights situation from Panama; can this be effective from a distance? People here had many expectations for your presence in Nicaragua, along with the IACHR. Despite all the official obstacles, people said, “well, at least there are international organizations that are present today in Nicaragua”.
Even when we were in Panama, we were already well aware of the situation in Nicaragua. It is not only this latest crisis that has sparked our interest, and we will continue to monitor what is happening. But we are absolutely aware, as the High Commissioner said, that the best way to collaborate, with governments and with society, is from within the country, and in crisis situations the mere presence of a group like ours is perceived as greater protection for those affected by the crisis.
Your report is distinct from that of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, but is in agreement with many of its findings and conclusions regarding state repression. As a patient might say, “Nicaragua wanted a second opinion”, and this second opinion has confirmed the diagnosis. Yet the government of Nicaragua continues to deny these findings, why?
Well, if it is a social protest, as we have found to be the case, it is much more evident that the international standard of appropriate handling of demonstrations was not applied. One does not use military weapons on a social protest, and even when there are situations of outbreaks of violence, there should be only a progressive use of force, with military weapons used as the last resort. Additionally, only trained and properly identified personnel should be utilized, and that has not happened here.
If one speaks of a coup d’état it creates the sensation that the state of law is being altered, that the State has to protect itself by any means necessary, as if what were at play was an attempt to take power by force. We have not found any signs of that, nor even that it was something orchestrated, or that there was a premeditated plan. Rather, we found that the State and its forces provoked the escalation.
The report talks of more than 300 deaths, of thousands of injured in a very short time, in a country where there is not a civil war, nor are there two armed bands. Can you establish who is responsible for this slaughter?
This is one of the obligations of the State; the second stage is individual responsibility. In this case, and as the report shows, what we see is the responsibility of the State in not complying with international standards, including with international laws regarding public protest. We have said that the excessive use of force, both by agents of the State as well as armed groups and pro-government people, has sometimes resulted in extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, cases of torture, and widespread arbitrary detentions – a whole set of human rights violations.
But we have also emphasized that it is the victims here who are at the center of our concern. They have the right to the truth, and here we have two completely different views of what has happened. The victims, from whatever side, need to know what happened and why it happened; they have the right to justice and that must be given according to interntional standards, with an independent judge, accusations backed by evidence, a right to defense and to public hearings, etc. There is also the issue of compensation and that is not a small thing, it is very important as is the concern about the situation being repeated — this should never happen again in Nicaragua.
Who would be responsible for investigating the responsibilities of the chain of command of the State? That is, who gives an order? Who executes an order at the different levels of power?
The idea is not to make a report, but to have information available and make use of our expertise and experiences so that there is attention to the rights of the victims and no impunity. But as we note in the report, it continues to happen. The information must be used to stop what is happening at this moment, that is absolutely fundamental, but it is ultimately the State’s responsibility, the State must have the capacity, and thus we see the enormous importance of the independence of powers. If we do not have independent powers, if we do not have a judicial power independent of the Government, then, neither those who planned this nor those who carried it out can be investigated – all orders from above are followed. So we see very key challenges in Nicaragua.
You arrived in Nicaragua in the third stage of the repression — which people are calling persecution or the criminalization of civic protest, of the trials that have already resulted in the first sentences. What did you conclude?
Unfortunately, rather than exceptions to the rule, we are seeing patterns – in other words, the overwhelming majority of the detentions have been without any legal warrant. Rather than being carried out by State officials who are charged with upholding the law, they are frequently carried out by hooded, armed agents of the State, and we still don’t know who they are.
There have been temporary forced disappearances, where someone is detained without an arrest warrant, and suddenly their fate is unknown for several days or more, far beyond what the law establishes. These are forced disappearances, as it is known that the victims are in the hands of the State, but it is not known where they are.
Then there is the issue of the trials. We wanted to enter the courtrooms to observe, which is the international standard – that these trials be public, with exceptions. In this case, they have all been private. It is not only us who were waiting to enter, it was the families of the detainees, but nobody has been allowed in. Thus, we have said that this is a systematic violation of the guarantees of due process, and we see that as a huge challenge here, in a situation where the victims, and everyone, want truth and justice, but an independent justice.
¿Are the allegations of torture and atrocities referred to in the report isolated or do they reflect a systematic pattern?
What we have seen as a more or less systematic pattern are: cases of the use of violence or mistreatment in detentions, for example; what is called “degrading treatment”, for example, to strip people, or keep them half-naked in detention centers; we also know of cases of torture, which the government has also denounced, against members of the police and Sandinista activists. We are not denying that this has happened, that it is part of the escalation, we say that this should never happen; and we return to the central theme of the victims. All cases of torture must be investigated, all victims must have access to independent justice. But have there been cases, of course there have been cases.
We are limited precisely because we have not had access to the detention centers. Neither us, or the Inter-American Commission, or the Human Rights NGOs, or the Truth Commission of the UN Assembly have been allowed to enter those centers. This does nothing for transparency, but rather increases suspicions about what is happening inside the detention centers and also fuels the accusations made by families that their loved ones are being tortured.
Anyone might conclude that the government is incriminating itself by refusing to allow any kind of independent investigation.
Well, their framework is breaching standards, not only internationally but also constitutionally. Our strongest base is the international perspectve, and that is aligned with the Constitution of Nicaragua.
Does this report give Nicaraguans any hope in the future of establishing what you have called “truth, justice, compensation”, in a current context where impunity prevails? Could the United Nations support Nicaragua in the future to dismantle the paramilitaries, to establish justice and truth? Because today it seems that you can not…
Well, that’s what the Inter-American System is for, with the United Nations, the Security Council, and the Human Rights Council. As the High Commission, we are working to collaborate to overcome the crisis, it is a collective reflection focused on wanted for Nicaragua in the future, because there are definitely many wounds to heal. This is not going to be a short-term solution, yet there must be some initial goodwill on which to build. Without a doubt, what there is at this moment is great interest on the part of the international community towards contributing to a solution, and that will be expressed in the Security Council and in the Human Rights Council. The OAS has already done so and that was what justified the presence of both the Inter-American Commission and ours. Though we will not be in the country, we will continue monitoring the situation very closely, and we will be with the victims and with the information to be shared.
And is there any hope for the victims? Do you think there will be justice, do you have any hope for a political change? What are the possibilities for the victims?
In the report, we note that there is a huge climate of fear, that there are campaigns – from the very highest levels of government – of accusation and intimidation as evidenced by the harsh language used against people. People are living in fear and they have also told us that our presence, even if we were unable to travel outside of Managua, gave them a feeling of protection and the sense that the eyes of the international community were keeping watch.
With the announcement that we would have to leave, there are two responses – we have felt enormous expressions of appreciation and of affection, but there is also a feeling of helplessness. For that reason, I have always tried to emphasize that we are going to continue our work, and though we will be working from Panama, there is no country in the region in which we have more interest at this moment than Nicaragua. So, the calls we have received have come from people in general, but also from the international community, and with great concern.
* The interview was aired Sunday on the program, “Esta Semana”, with Carlos F. Chamorro. You can see it on YouTube on the ConfidencialNica channel.