Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the deaths of at least 25 people in a context of repression of protests against plans to reform the social security system in Nicaragua.
Based on reports the Commission has had access to, these events left at least 25 people dead, scores of injured and wounded reporters. Moreover, four TV channels that were reporting on the protests were taken off the air following government orders. On April 21, journalist Miguel Ángel Gahona was murdered with a shot to the head as he broadcast live on social media the day’s protests in Bluefields, a town in the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Gahona reportedly worked for El Meridiano news program. Government-controlled media reported that an official investigation had been launched onto the repression of demonstrations and the deaths of at least 30 people, including a police officer. The government justified police actions as self-defense against groups that were stirring up violence.
The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression were told that at least four private TV channels were taken off the air as they reported on the protests. Based on the available reports, the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Institute (Telecor) is believed to have ordered subscription TV networks to take the signal for channels 15, 12, 23 and 100% Noticias off the air. The signal for two of those channels has since been restored. Miguel Mora, director of 100% Noticias, denounced that the government had asked him not to cover the protests and threatened to shut down the signal if he failed to comply, which is what eventually happened.
The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that States need to act based on the legality of any public protests or demonstrations and to assume they are not a threat to law and order. Directly repressing and arbitrarily arresting demonstrators is incompatible with the right of those people to peacefully express their views. The fact that some groups or individuals exercise violence during a demonstration does not per se make that whole protest violent, and it does not warrant actions by the security forces to disperse protesters using force or to carry out indiscriminate arrests.
Security operations need to be planned with clear protocols that guarantee adequate, gradual and proportionate use of non-lethal weapons and promote dialogue. Attacking journalists and destroying or seizing equipment from anyone covering such events violates freedom of expression, both individually and collectively. Similarly, an order from the authorities to take TV channels off the air would, if confirmed, be a form of censorship and an attack on society’s right to be informed about events that are highly relevant for public opinion.
The IACHR calls on the authorities to promptly and thoroughly investigate police actions during these protests and to impose any necessary penalties. Further, the Commission urges the State to ensure strict adherence to the general principles of legality, exceptionality, proportionality and absolute necessity in the use of force in the context of social protests. The IACHR also deems it important for the authorities to make a decisive contribution to building an environment marked by tolerance and respect, where all people can express their thoughts and views without fear of facing aggression, penalties or stigma as a result.
Following the protests, the government announced that it would withdraw its proposal for pension system reform. The IACHR welcomes that decision and highlights the importance of opening up spaces for inclusive, participatory dialogue with the population as a whole. Given the impact that reform of the social insurance system might have on enjoyment of various human rights, plans need to consider not only an economic or financial perspective but above all a human rights angle. The Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (ESCER) highlights that participation and access to information are—along with the principles of equality and non-discrimination—consubstantial with the right to social security, especially as regards potentially regressive decision-making.
The IACHR and the ESCER remind the Nicaraguan State that, according to the Protocol of San Salvador that Nicaragua ratified in 2010, the enjoyment and exercise of the rights established in that treaty may only be restricted or limited by means of laws promulgated for the purpose of preserving the general welfare in a democratic society, and only to the extent that such restrictions and limitations are not incompatible with the purpose and reason underlying those rights. A presidential decree is not an appropriate means to carry out reform when such reform entails a rollback on the progress that Nicaragua has already made in compliance with its obligations regarding economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
The IACHR will formally request the State’s consent to carry out a working visit to Nicaragua.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.