Human Rights Watch: A Black Eye for Latin America


EspañolHuman Rights Watch (HRW) released their 2014 Annual Report on Tuesday, which draws on events from the end of 2012 through November of 2013. It addresses the most critical violations of human rights in 90 countries and territories worldwide, and it gives special attention to drug legalization and the need for protection of whistle blowers who denounce state corruption.

The study analyzes each country, according to human rights accomplishments and failures, and it leads to one unfortunate conclusion for Latin America: corruption, police abuse, poor prison conditions, torture, and failure to protect indigenous rights are run-of-the-mill. However, the most serious black eye these countries share is the lack of accountability for serious human rights violations.

Different Countries, Common Problems

On the continent, Canada holds a global reputation as a human rights defender, but it still faces serious challenges domestically. The rights of the indigenous people, those affected by Canada’s extractive industries abroad, as well as ethnic and religious minorities in Quebec are a few of the most serious human rights concerns. Neighboring United States presents a series of abuses regarding criminal justice enforcement, immigration, national security, and drug policy — where the most vulnerable are racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, and the poor.

Government intimidation, prosecution, and harassment of critics undermines Latin America’s freedom of expression, according to the report. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez’s administration, for example, has severely sanctioned those who publish inflation rates different from the official ones. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has undercut press freedom and has led arbitrary prosecutions and censorship. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro has also aggressively reduced the availability of critical media outlets.

HRW denounces Cuba’s long-term repressions and severe limitations on freedom of expression, as critical concerns that undermine any potential for democracy in Raul Castro’s reforms. However, the organization clearly rejects the US embargo, because it continues “indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and has done nothing to improve the country’s human rights.”

Authoritarian regimes receive the most attention from the organization. Venezuela’s accumulation of power in the executive branch, and the erosion of human rights guarantees are also denounced in this report. The organization even voices concerns over Venezuela’s recent withdrawal from the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, leaving its citizens without access to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

The lack of judicial independence seems to be another common problem among many Latin-American countries, amid a lack of transparency and rule of law. This fundamental problem has led to high levels of impunity, and it gives space for more crime to grow.

The region also faces high crime rates that poorly trained police officers aren’t able to control — as in Honduras, where the murder rate was the highest in the world in 2013. Mexico and Guatemala are both cases where communities have resorted to vigilantism, in response to rising crime and the absence of state security forces.

HRW Condemns National Security

The report contains a strong case against global surveillance, and the use of “national security” as an excuse to violate human rights. Even though the organization recognizes the US decision to join the Human Rights Council, it denounces the still-open Guantanamo Bay detention center, targeted killings by drone, and mass government surveillance. Barack Obama’s administration “has done little to alter his disappointing record on national security issues,” according to HRW.

The organization affirms the need to protect whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and further develop laws to protect privacy. The organization considers global mass surveillance a threat to human rights and democracy, and argues the report authors contend that privacy is a moral claim of personal self-determination.

“Some of us may not care about who sees our Facebook postings,” the authors write, “but the security and human dignity of many people all over the world depends on the ability to limit who knows about their political preferences, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and more.”

HRW Calls for Drug Reform

In 2013, HRW called upon all governments to decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs. The report builds its case based on the futility of drug penalization, and the consequent need to reform drug policies. According to HRW, widespread human rights abuses have resulted from this “war on drugs,” where the illicit drug trade has become the excuse for many governments to violate human rights, while it fuels criminal organizations, and creates more violence.

The use of force to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate people for personal possession and drug use, according to the report, is inconsistent with human rights, as a violation of privacy and personal autonomy. According to Donald MacPherson, director for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, “the War on Drugs undermines public health initiatives as well as human rights, affects the most vulnerable in society the most, creates a robust criminal market that ensures the wide distribution of drugs and the undermining of public institutions and doesn’t work to reduce drug consumption.”

The enforcement of criminal prohibitions on drug production and distribution has raised the profitability of illicit drug markets, while it feeds the operations of groups responsible for large scale violence. It also corrupts institutions and weakens the rule of law. HRW documents the consequences the war on drugs, especially in the Americas, and the authors identify disproportionate prison sentences and racial disparities in drug law enforcement. They also denounce the elevated homicide rate in Mexico, under the war-on-drugs era, where even security forces have been involved in tortures, extrajudicial killings, and other abuses.

Regarding the relation between drug penalization and violence, MacPherson states, “Human Rights Watch is calling for decriminalization of possession for personal use and exploring ways to take the control of drugs out of the hands of criminal organizations . . . The illegal drug business is the cause of a significant amount of violence in all countries in the hemisphere and taking drugs away from the control of organized criminals should be a key strategy to reduce violence.”

HRW hasn’t been the only one considering drug legalization as a way to decrease human rights violations. The latest consequences brought by drug criminalization has raised serious concerns in several international organizations. MacPherson expresses “the War on Drugs has failed to do this so we need to explore alternatives. This is actively being called for by many in the hemisphere and the recent OAS study of the drug problem in the hemisphere and scenarios for the future project is just the beginning of a long overdue dialogue on alternative approaches.”

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