Core civil society rights have been violated in at least 14
Latin American countries in 2015, says Civicus’ annual report on civil society.
Civicus, the non-profit organisation ‘dedicated to strengthening
citizen action and civil society around the world’, has released its annual Civil
Society Watch Report.
The report documents serious violations of the
freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly in 109 countries over
the course of 2015, 14 of which are in Latin America.
It presents a worrying trend. Despite calls to reverse the
widespread closing in on the civil society space, it observes ‘more and more
states are failing their commitments under international law and reneging on
their duty to protect and enable civil society’. This has led to an alarming
rise in the number of incidents of harassment, physical violence and targeted
assassinations directed at civil society activists across the world – by both
state and non-state actors.
The report also claims ‘an alarmingly high proportion of [Latin
American] countries exhibiting grave violations’.
The vast majority of these
violations concern failures to protect the freedom of association, with individuals
and groups associated with Civil Society Organisations (SCOs) frequently
subjected harassment, violence and, in several countries, killings. Latin
American countries were also guilty of serious violations relating to freedoms
of expression and peaceful assembly, with journalists and bloggers repeatedly
appearing as targets of attacks. In spite of some formal progress observed at
the legislation level, the reality is unsettling and a sense of regression is
being felt across the region. Human and civil rights watchers must persevere in
their scrutiny, efforts to protect activists from harassment and extreme
violence must be pursued, and governments should be held accountable for their
permanent violations on a permanent basis.
Below is a summary of the abuses reported in 2015 for Latin American
The police used violence to break up protests by miners who wanted
the government to address developmental problems in their region. Many CSOs
resorted to self-censorship as a coping mechanism in the face of harassment
against activists and organisations. NGOs were publicly named for being
“irregular” and not complying with the registration law.
There were numerous violations of the basic rights of journalists,
protestors and civil society activists. Several indigenous peoples’ rights
activists, bloggers and journalists were intimidated, violently attacked and
assassinated. Protection mechanisms for human rights defenders failed as
several activists were harassed through the courts and excluded from
professional life because of their activities.
In Southern Chile the police used disproportionate force against
peaceful indigenous protesters, a group that was especially targeted. For
instance, in September excessive force was used to disperse Mapuche community
activists peacefully occupying a government building in the city of Temuco.
Violent attacks and the murder of journalists, lawyers, community
and religious activists and indigenous peoples occurred frequently, making
Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a reporter or a
human rights defender. The structure of media owner – ship, and threats against
journalists ─ especially those covering corruption, crime, human rights abuses,
and elections ─ undermined the freedom of expression.
Restrictions on all freedoms remained in place despite the
reestablishment of diplomatic relationships with the United States. Security
forces continued to harass and intimidate individuals and groups organised for
political purposes outside of the Communist Party. All traditional media are
state-owned, with no editorial independence, and internet access, although increased,
still remains very limited. The use of short-term arbitrary arrests as an
intimidation tactic against human rights defenders, independent journalists,
political dissidents and protestors dramatically increased.
The government attempted to shut down the website of the only
remaining media freedom NGO in the country. It also increased its capacity to
intercept digital communications while responding to escalating social protests
with increased police pressure and by infiltrating demonstrations. Environmental
and land rights activists faced a range of threats and attacks.
The murder of a transgender activist highlighted the ongoing
violence against human rights defenders. Specific targeting of women human
rights defenders was also reported. The number of criminal violations against
the media rose substantially.
Protests against poor governance succeeded in removing the president
who was accused of corruption. Violence, killings and intimidation of human
rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists continued. Environmental and
indigenous rights defenders were the worst affected. There was continued
impunity for past crimes against human rights defenders as well as intimidation
of prosecutors, judges and lawyers.
There was an increase in crimes against journalists and civil
society activists, especially LGBTI defenders and women human rights defenders.
Although a law was enacted to protect human rights defenders, it was not
adequately implemented and civil society was not widely consulted. The
government was reported to have purchased spyware software. Civil society
continues to face burdensome administrative requirements.
Journalists active in denouncing human rights abuses and drug
trafficking were killed. The government was reported to have purchased
surveillance software threatening privacy rights. Eight human rights defenders
were assassinated, and many others, particularly advocates for indigenous
people’s land rights, suffered judicial harassment, physical attacks, threats
and intimidation. Women human rights defenders were reported to be at
Two human rights defenders were assassinated and media
self-censorship was rampant due to fear. A draft law was proposed to create a
state company to manage broadband services. The Sovereign Security Act, which
greatly expanded the definition of security threats, came into effect.
Government informed CSOs that they would not be able to directly receive
funding from international sources but only through government institutions.
Several protests, including some against the Interoceanic Canal megaproject,
Human rights defenders working on environmental, indigenous peoples’
and land rights issues faced physical attacks, threats, intimidation, and smear
campaigns. Women human rights defenders were specifically targeted. HRDs also
faced suspension from professional associations for their advocacy work.
Protests, particularly those by unionised workers and peasants, were repressed
Requirements for renewal of NGO registration were modified and
reporting duties and controls were increased. Socio-environmental protest
increased, and a state of emergency was declared in three provinces following
violent clashes with police. Human rights defenders, particularly those
opposing extractive industries, were targeted. Women’s rights advocating for
sexual and reproductive rights were also at risk.
Activists and journalists were harassed and criminalised, with
regular public allegations levelled by senior government officials that they
were working for foreign powers to destabilise the state. CSOs cooperating with
UN and Inter-American mechanisms were especially harassed and accused of
conspiracy. In reaction to protests in 2014, a decree allowed security forces
to use deadly force against demonstrators. There were numerous significant
violations of the freedom of expression.
The findings of this report align with growing concerns that structural
violence continues to engulf much of the region. While there are positive signs
that violent conflict can be tempered, most notably from those around the
negotiating table in Colombia, there are still major failings on the parts of
Latin American states to protect the people that are active in the civil
While the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua,
Brazil and Colombia display the most violent forms of repression on CSOs, major
restrictions and social pressures on the basic freedoms highlighted in this
report remain a challenge for the region as a whole.
The report covers 2015,
but in the first half of 2016 we have seen the situation deteriorate
significantly in Honduras, and we have witnessed disturbing developments in
Argentina, a country to watch closely this term. The responsibility therefore lies
on all states in the region to work towards reversing this trend towards a
shrinking civil society.
If they do not, we will witness the silencing of those
in society who so desperately need a voice.