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Defence of human rights under fire in the Americas

Instead of addressing deep-seated socioeconomic inequalities to deliver a fair recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, states across the Americas waged a sustained assault on the defence of human rights in 2021, targeting peaceful demonstrators, journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations in a bid to silence or stamp out dissent, Amnesty International said today upon publishing its annual report. The region remains the world’s deadliest for human rights defenders and environmental activists, with at least 20 killings just in January 2022 and dozens more last year in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The State of the World’s Human Rights details how, two years into the pandemic, the Americas is still the region with the most deaths from Covid-19, largely due to limited and unequal access to healthcare, poorly funded public health systems, and inadequate social protection policies and measures for marginalized communities. Impunity for grave human rights violations and crimes under international law remains a serious concern in more than half the countries in the region, while attacks on judicial independence have also increased.

“It’s shameful and unconscionable that instead of addressing the injustices and deep-seated inequalities that have plagued the Americas for generations and exacerbated the impact of the pandemic, many governments have instead sought to silence and repress those who protest peacefully and speak out in demand of a safer, fairer and more compassionate world,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The Americas has achieved the world’s second-highest vaccination rates per capita, with Cuba and Chile leading the way in vaccinating over 90 percent of their populations, but unequal regional access has undermined protection in countries like Haiti, where less than two percent of the population had been vaccinated as of 10 March 2022. Meanwhile, wealthy nations such as the USA and Canada stockpiled more doses than needed and turned a blind eye as Big Pharma put profits ahead of people, refusing to share their technology to enable wider distribution of vaccines.

“Many states in the Americas have made encouraging progress in vaccinating their populations, but they must do much more to ensure equal and universal access to vaccines in every country and address the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected those who already face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization, such as women and Indigenous and Afro-descendent people,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Even before the pandemic, the Americas had the world’s highest rates of income inequality. The continent’s uneven economic recovery last year made little impact on the consequences of decades of structural inequality and proved insufficient to reverse the 2020 economic downturn, which brought record unemployment, falling incomes and increases in poverty. This has worsened preexisting humanitarian emergencies in countries like Haiti and Venezuela, where millions of people continue to lack access to sufficient food and health care.

Meanwhile, efforts to stifle independent and critical voices gathered steam in 2021 as states deployed a widening gamut of tools and tactics, including threats, harassment, politically motivated arbitrary arrests, unfounded prosecutions, unlawful surveillance, excessive use of force, enforced disappearance and unlawful killings, to crack down on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

At least 36 states in the USA introduced more than 80 pieces of draft legislation limiting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, while in Colombia authorities brutally repressed protesters during last year’s National Strike, resulting in 46 deaths, 3,275 arbitrary detentions, over 100 ocular injuries, and 49 reports of sexual violence.

Cuban authorities also arbitrarily detained hundreds of people during historic protests last July and banned another march to call for their release in October, as well as resorting to internet shutdowns to prevent people from sharing information about repression and organizing in response. Surreptitious digital technologies were further weaponized in El Salvador, where NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was deployed against journalists and activists on a massive scale.

Dozens of journalists and media workers were threatened, censored, attacked and detained across the region, with Mexico remaining the world’s most lethal country for journalists after recording nine killings in 2021 and at least six more in early 2022.

Excessive and unnecessary use of force in law enforcement operations also proved deadly in many countries, including Brazil, where the deadliest ever operation by police in Rio de Janeiro left 27 residents of the Jacarezinho favela dead last May. In the USA, police shot dead at least 888 people in 2021, with Black people disproportionately impacted.

Racism and discrimination remained prevalent across the Americas, with inadequate access to water, sanitation, health services and social benefits exacerbating the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous peoples in particular. Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela all continued to allow major extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects to proceed without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous peoples, and sometimes despite judicial orders to suspend operations.

Despite some progress, action on climate change remained limited. The Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty for environmental justice and the protection of environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean, finally came into force last April, although Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela have yet to sign it and 12 other countries have still not ratified it. The USA rejoined the Paris Agreement under President Biden and sought to reverse hundreds of laws and policies that the Trump administration passed to deregulate the environmental and energy sectors, but it continued to approve oil drilling projects on federal land.

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro continued to encourage deforestation and extraction of natural resources in the Amazon, exacerbating the impact of the climate crisis on Indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, and drawing accusations of genocide and ecocide before the International Criminal Court. Elsewhere, Canada continued to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, Bolivia passed regulations that incentivized logging and the burning of forests, and Mexico, the world’s 11th largest greenhouse gas emitter, failed to present new emission reduction targets at COP26.

Tens of thousands of people – mostly from Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela – fled human rights violations related to violence, poverty, inequality and climate change throughout the year. Yet the governments of Canada, Chile, Curaçao, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA continued to prohibit the entry of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and violated international law by deporting, without proper consideration of their claims, those who did make it across borders.

Tens of thousands of Haitian refugees sought international protection, but governments across the region failed to shield them from detention and unlawful pushbacks, extortion, racial discrimination and gender-based violence. US border control officials pushed back over a million refugees and migrants at the US-Mexico border, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, using Covid-19 public health provisions as a pretext.

Gender-based violence remains a major concern across the region, with measures to protect women and girls inadequate throughout the region, and investigations into domestic violence, rape and femicide often flawed. Mexico recorded 3,716 killings of women in 2021, of which 969 were investigated as femicides, while Mexican security forces used excessive force, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence against women protesters. Both Paraguay and Puerto Rico declared states of emergency because of increased violence against women and there were also significant increases in violence against women in Peru and Uruguay.

The Americas saw some limited progress in the recognition of the rights of LGBTI people last year with Argentina introducing identity cards recognizing people who identify as non-binary and passing a law to promote the employment of trans people. President Biden’s government took steps to repeal the previous administration’s discriminatory policies toward LGBTI people in the USA, but hundreds of state-level bills were also introduced that would curtail their rights.

Legislation that would better protect the rights of LGBTI people was blocked in many parts of the region, while individuals in several countries continued to be the targets of discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Americas accounted for 316 of 375 trans and gender-diverse people reported murdered worldwide from October 2020 to September 2021, with Brazil recording 125 killings – more than any other country on earth.

Many governments did not do enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health in 2021. Essential services were lacking, and safe abortion services remained criminalized in most countries, with the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua maintaining total bans on abortion. State governments in the USA introduced more abortion restrictions than in any other year, with Texas enacting a near-total ban that criminalizes abortion just six weeks into pregnancy.

Undeterred, Latin America’s vibrant feminist movement has continued to gain momentum since Argentina legalized abortion in late 2020, with Mexico’s Supreme Court declaring the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional in September 2021 and in Colombia’s Constituional Court decriminalizing abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in February 2022.

“From Argentina to Colombia, the green tide has built up unstoppable momentum and shown that change is possible even in seemingly hopeless situations. The feminist activists of the Americas are an inspiration for all the world to never stop standing up for human rights,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

Read more:

Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The State of the World’s Human Rights (Research, 29 March 2022)

Facts and Figures: Human Rights in the Americas in 2021-22 (News, 29 March 2022)