Nicaragua’s Response to Protests Raise Human Rights Concerns
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and United Nations experts have expressed concern over Nicaragua’s response to protests that began in opposition to President Ortega’s proposed social security reforms and led to violence, deaths, and the suppression of media attention. [NY Times: Protests; OHCHR Press Release; IACHR Press Release: Concern] The demonstrations started in Managua after President Ortega proposed changes that would require workers to pay higher contributions in to the social security system but would also lower benefits to pensioners. [NY Times: Protests] The protests’ geographic scope and protesters’ demands grew, sparking protests in other cities and covering a range of issues surrounding general discontent with the Ortega government. [NY Times: Protests; NPR] Universal and regional human rights bodies and experts have expressed concern with the use of force used by security forces and threats to protesters’ safety due to non-State actors’ responses, and called on Nicaragua to respect and protect human rights. [OHCHR Press Release; IACHR Press Release: Concern] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reminded the State that it must respect people’s right to peacefully express their views and that tactics of repression in the context of demonstrations do the opposite. The regional human rights body also called on the State to investigate the deaths that occurred during the protest and asked to make a working visit to the State. [IACHR Press Release: Coordination; IACHR Press Release: Concern] The UN experts further added their concern over the State’s stigmatization of protesters. [OHCHR Press Release] Nicaragua is obligated to ensure and protect the rights to freedom of assembly, to freedom of expression, and to life under the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Protests and Responses
The protests against proposed social security reforms began on April 18, 2018, with university students, historically a base of support for the Ortega government, acting as a main driver of the protests. [The Guardian: Journalist; NY Times: Protests] Though the protests originated with the changes to social security proposed on April 16, the protests quickly grew to represent concerns over the legitimacy of the 2016 election that brought Ortega into his third consecutive term as president and growing discontent with other aspects of the Ortega government, including growing repression; censorship of dissident groups; and the promotion of Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, to vice president. [NY Times: Protests] The demonstrations began in the capital, Managua, and later spread to at least 10 other cities, lasting for several days. [NY Times: Protests; NPR]
The protests were met with violence. State authorities and pro-government groups reportedly used force against protesters and journalists, and suppressed media coverage of the protests. [Human Rights Watch] Police action against protesters included the use of rubber bullets. [NY Times: Cancel] Four news channels reporting on the protests were shut down for either several hours or days, and other journalists and news entities were threatened, violently attacked, or subject to cyber-attacks. [Human Rights Watch] One reporter was shot and killed while broadcasting live. [NY Times: Protests] As of April 26, a non-governmental rights group reported that 63 people died during the protests, with over 160 wounded by gunfire and at least 15 persons missing. [NY Times: Rights]
The Roman Catholic Church intervened, agreeing to serve as a mediator and witness to talks between the protesters and the government. The Catholic Church also expressed its own concerns over the proposed changes to the social security program. [Washington Post; The Guardian: Cancel] On April 22, Ortega cancelled the changes to the social security system, consisting of reducing benefits and increasing taxes, which had been implemented on April 16. [The Guardian: Cancel] On April 28, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans marched for “Peace and Justice” following a call by the Catholic Church. [NY Times: March]
Universal and Regional Bodies’ Statements and Actions
On April 24, the IACHR issued a press release expressing its concern over the arbitrary arrest of and the use of force against protesters, noting that the repression and arbitrary arrest of demonstrators is incompatible with the right of people to peacefully express their views. [IACHR Press Release: Concern] The IACHR stressed that Nicaragua should assume demonstrations are not a threat to law and order, and that the use of violence by some groups or individuals does not make the entire protest violent per se or warrant the use of force by security forces. [IACHR Press Release: Concern] The IACHR stated that security operations should be planned with clear protocols with regards to the use of force, and that any force used must be proportionate. [IACHR Press Release: Concern] The IACHR called on the Nicaragua to investigate police actions during the protest, and since the IACHR’s initial call for investigations, Nicaragua has stated that it has launched an investigation into the deaths of students, police officers, and other individuals. [IACHR Press Release: Coordination; IACHR Press Release: Concern] Further, the Commission has noted reports that relatives of the deceased have been forced not to lodge complaints and that injured individuals were initially denied medical treatment. [IACHR Press Release: Coordination]
While the IACHR welcomed the decision of the government to withdraw its proposed reforms to the pension system, the IACHR noted that any further reforms of the social insurance system must consider human rights in addition to financial concerns. [IACHR Press Release: Concern] The Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights emphasized that the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and access to information, are related to the guarantee of the right to social security. [IACHR Press Release: Concern]
On May 3, the IACHR unveiled plans during its 168th Period of Sessions to set up a Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit to observe and follow the human rights situation in Nicaragua. [IACHR Press Release: Coordination] The IACHR has submitted an urgent request to visit Nicaragua, but Nicaragua asked the IACHR to await progress in national proceedings before visiting; Ortega convened a “National Dialogue,” and Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved the development of a “Commission for Truth, Justice and Peace.” [IACHR Press Release: Coordination] The IACHR expressed concern that Nicaraguan students have raised that the Commission for Truth is not independent and autonomous, but is instead established as part of the legislative branch. [IACHR Press Release: Coordination] The IACHR reiterated the need to visit the State to “[verify] what happened and any measures taken to protect and enforce human rights.” [IACHR Press Release: Coordination]
On April 27, four United Nations special procedure mandate holders released a statement saying that they are appalled by the violent response of Nicaraguan security forces to the protests. [OHCHR Press Release] The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression called on authorities to ensure that the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are respected in Nicaragua. [OHCHR Press Release] The experts considered that the excessive number of deaths of protesters, as well as the choice by security forces to fire live ammunition at protesters, is a clear sign that excessive force was used in a manner that did not meet the necessary and proportional standards required under international law. [OHCHR Press Release] Additionally, the experts expressed concern over the way State officials have stigmatized protesters, such as by calling them “vandals,” and they decried the attacks on journalists who covered the protests. [OHCHR Press Release]
Nicaragua’s Human Rights Obligations
Nicaragua has international human rights legal obligations as a State party to both regional and universal human rights treaties. See IJRC, Nicaragua Factsheet.
At the regional level, Nicaragua is a State party to the American Convention on Human Rights; Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“Protocol of San Salvador”); Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities; Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (“Convention of Belem do Pará”); and Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. See IJRC, Nicaragua Factsheet.
At the Universal level, Nicaragua has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Convention on the Rights of the Child; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. See IJRC, Nicaragua Factsheet.
Nicaragua is required to respect, protect, and ensure the rights to freedom of expression under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the ICCPR, and to freedom of assembly under Article 15 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 21 of the ICCPR. The State has an obligation to protect against non-State party interference with those rights. Nicaragua also is required to respect, protect, and ensure the right to life under Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 6 of the ICCPR, which obligates Nicaragua to prevent and punish extrajudicial killings.
For more information about Nicaragua; the Inter-American system; UN Special Procedures; civil and political rights; or economic, social, and cultural rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.