South America Newsletter July 2019

This month we report on the continued undermining of human rights and threats to the environment posed by the Brazilian government and updates on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. While aggressions and killings of human rights defenders in Colombia continue to mount, British MPs ask questions during President Duque’s visits the UK. There’s good news from Ecuador, where same-sex marriage is now legal. Plus we have news from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.


The Organisation of American States (OAS) held its General Assembly in Medellin, Colombia, on 26-28 June. The Venezuelan crisis dominated the discussions, complicated by the continuing dispute over who should be recognised as President. In 2017, Nicolás Maduro had announced Venezuela’s withdrawal from the OAS, but Juan Guaidó sent a representative.  Member States were divided by his presence and Uruguay withdrew from the Assembly in protest.  20 countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, the United States and Peru backed recognition of Guaidó’s representation until Venezuela holds its next elections. Eight countries voted against, including Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and several Caribbean nations, while six abstained.

In advance of the Assembly, Amnesty published an open letter calling on OAS members to move beyond stale political debate and strengthen their focus and commitment to human rights protection.  It highlighted in particular its concerns over the situation in Nicaragua and Venezuela, the situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, and its concern that some States were seeking to undermine the independence and autonomy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  The Final Declaration has not yet been published.

In a public statement on 20 June, Amnesty called on States in the Americas to protect those fleeing human rights violations in their own countries and to promote a coherent regional response.  It expressed concern that some States had taken steps back in their international obligations to welcome and protect Venezuelan refugees.  The statement also addressed those fleeing Nicaragua and those seeking safety and protection in the USA.


Resistance to Bolsonaro's anti-indigenous agenda

Resistance to Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous agenda

A statement by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) on 12 June said that the decision by the Brazilian Government to cripple its key national anti-torture body will have devastating effects on the situation of people deprived of liberty.

In a Presidential Decree published on 11 June 2019, the Brazilian President dismissed the eleven members of the National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture (MNCPT), an institution established in 2013 whose role is to inspect the prisons in Brazil and monitor the situation of persons deprived of liberty and the respect of their human rights. The Decree also establishes that the new MNCPT will now function on a voluntary and unpaid basis. Torture is endemic in prisons and police stations in Brazil.

The Guardian, Deforestation of Brazilian Amazon Surges to Record High, reports that environmentalists fear 2019 will be one of worst for deforestation in recent memory. Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon surged last month to the highest May level since the current monitoring method began, prompting concerns that President  Bolsonaro is giving a free pass to illegal logging, farming and mining. Aljazeera reports that the head of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency(FUNAI) was dismissed amid a push to develop the Amazon. He said he was fired after being pressured by Bolsonaro to open up reservation lands to commercial activity.

Front Line Defenders states that imminent mass evictions increase risks to human rights defenders in Pará.  Since 1985, 466 conflicts have been recorded by the Brazilian Catholic NGO CPT, which have resulted in 702 killings of rural workers and human rights defenders. The evictions’ hearings planned for June, July and August 2019 will increase the vulnerability of local leaders, social movements, human rights defenders and organizations that support land redistribution processes. These could leave more than 2000 families with no place to live and without land to work on. Front Line Defenders learned of at least 11 communities that face imminent eviction in the south and southeast of Pará.

David attended the London premiere of the new TV series Aruanas, which is supported by Amnesty International. It’s a fictional environmental thriller about three courageous women human rights defenders and climate activists in Brazil defending the environment and the Amazon and the risks they face by doing so. Although fictional, this series relates to the stark reality that in Brazil the great majority of the killings of human rights defenders have occurred in the context of conflicts over land and natural resources. Global Witness documented the killings of over 80 people in conflicts over land and natural resources in 2018. To find out more and to watch the trailer click here


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, visited Venezuela between 19 and 21 June. During her visit, she met victims of human rights violations and their relatives, civil society organisations and prominent politicians. At a press conference held at the end of her visit, she said she had made several agreements with the government of Nicolás Maduro, including the establishment in the country of a permanent two-person team from her office to provide technical assistance and advice and to continue to monitor the grave human rights situation.

Amnesty said that it considered these agreements to be a step forward. However, in the coming months there needed to be substantial changes if the living conditions of Venezuelans were to begin to improve, given the crisis of massive human rights violations and impunity that the country had experienced and the serious consequences for the population, including the forced migration of 4 million refugees in recent years.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present its report on the human rights situation in Venezuela on 5 July in Geneva. Amnesty has called for the report to recommend the creation of a commission of inquiry.

Gilber Caro, who was disappeared, arbitrarily detained and held incommunicado for almost two months, was released on 17 June, two days before Bachelet’s arrival. There is so far no official information on the reasons for his detention or the basis for his release.  He was the subject of an Urgent Action in May.  No further action is requested at this stage.


The NGO Somos Defensores reports that 25 human rights defenders were killed in the first quarter of 2019. While, rural community leaders continue to make up the majority of victims, reflecting the ongoing conflict for land and control of the drug trade in rural areas, they included trade unionists and an LGTBI leader. The killings were spread over 11 of Colombia’s 30 departments. 4 of them were women. While only two of the perpetrators have so far been identified, in a further analysis of 245 aggressions against HRDs in this period, of which 190 perpetrators have been identified, they were:

Perpetrator Number Percentage
Paramilitaries 146 77%
FARC dissidents    23 12%
ELN (National Liberation Army)    20 10.5%
State forces      1 0.5%

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reports that in 2018 of 53 cases worldwide, 34 murders of trade unionists were committed in Colombia, more than doubling the previous year’s number, when 15 were killed. ‘Most of these crimes remained unresolved, as the government still failed to allocate the necessary means for the timely investigation and prosecution of the cases. Without any adequate protection provided to them, trade unionists and their families remained under constant threat to their lives’, said the ITUC. Many of those killed were members of the field-workers union, FUENSUAGRO, whose leader, Huber Ballesteros, was adopted by Amnesty International as a case in 2016; he was finally released from prison in 2017.

After 10 months of prevarication, President Duque finally signed the statutory law for the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) court, following a congressional vote and further ratification by the Constitutional Court. This represents a step forward in the ongoing peace process signed with the FARC in 2016. It also provides legal security for the almost 12,000 former guerrillas, soldiers and others who have taken advantage of ‘transitional justice’ by participating in the truth and reconciliation process authorised under the Peace Accord.

During President Duque’s visit to the UK mid June, British MPs asked the Minister of State, who would meet him, to bring up the following issues: to strengthen and provide more resources to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP); to protect Women HRDs and women victims of sexual violence; to provide more resources and make available more land to claimants for land restitution; to focus more attention on rural areas, where most HRDs are killed, and to tackle impunity. The Minister said he would. The MPs cited Amnesty International on 3 occasions. AIUK had earlier sent briefings to the Foreign Affairs Committee and to other MPs.


In a submission to the United Nations on 13 June, in the context of Bolivia’s Universal Periodic Review, Amnesty has raised concerns about public accusations and threats against human rights defenders and organisations by high-level authorities, including President Evo Morales and his Interior Minister, Carlos Romero, which have created a hostile environment for human rights work and place restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly.


In a submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing on 14 June, Amnesty presented four cases which show how evictions of Indigenous peoples, carried out without consultation and free, prior and informed consent, with inadequate and culturally inappropriate compensation, constitute a failure to ensure the right to justice and to adequate housing.  One of the cases concerns the Yakye Axa community in Paraguay, while another concerns Indigenous people in three territories in northern Brazil.


Five of nine judges in Ecuador’s Constitutional Court have ruled in favour of two gay couples who sued after their request to be married was denied by the country’s civil registry. Decisions by the Constitutional Court are “binding and mandatory” and Ecuadorean authorities are obliged to abide by them. As a result, Ecuador has become the 27th country to allow same-sex marriage.

On 13 June, Graham called on the Ecuador Desk Officer at the FCO in the context of Amnesty’s current campaign in support of women human rights defenders in the Amazon.  He called on the UK Government to urge the Ecuadorian authorities to recognise the work of human rights defenders, investigate the attacks against the women and develop better mechanisms for bringing those responsible to justice.


In its Annual Report on Argentina, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights ‘Long-standing human rights problems in Argentina include police abuse, poor prison conditions, endemic violence against women, and obstacles keeping indigenous people from enjoying the rights that Argentine and international law afford them. Restrictions on abortion and difficulty accessing reproductive services remain serious concerns; an attempt in 2018 to decriminalize abortion did not pass the Senate.’ In last month’s newsletter, we reported on the mass movement to get parliament to vote again on abortion and we invited you to sign a petition. It seems unlikely that in an election year this will succeed.

On a positive note, HRW state ‘Argentina continues to make significant progress protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and prosecuting officials for abuses committed during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), although trials have been delayed.’

All the best,

South America Team – Richard Crosfield (Colombia, Argentina), David Palmer (Brazil) and Graham Minter (rest of South America).