Commissioners: Dinah Shelton, Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Rosa María Ortiz
Petitioners: Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH), Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL)
Representatives from human rights groups and the Nicaraguan government presented vastly different testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on March 26, during which Vilma Núñez de Escorcia of Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH) said, “I was wondering at one point, ‘Am I at the right hearing or what?’”
Hanging over the thematic hearing on the general human rights situation in Nicaragua were the divergent views on the scope of the hearing and the refusal of the state representatives—even after being asked to do so by a commissioner—to discuss the events surrounding Nicaragua’s 2011 presidential elections.
The bulk of the petitioners’ presentation related to the reelection of Daniel Ortega, whose victory was made possible after the Supreme Court, under his government, ruled that a ban on consecutive terms was unconstitutional. The petitioners alleged deterioration of civic and political rights during the election, presenting evidence of what the petitioners considered to be election fraud and intimidation of political opponents. Media reports at the time of the election quoted observers from the Organization of American States citing inaccessibility to polling locations. The United States in 2008 cancelled $62 million in aid to Nicaragua following widespread claims of fraud in municipal elections. Also alleged at the hearing were acts of violence or intimidation carried out by supporters of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNLF), including by police officers, in areas known for support of opposition. Mauro Ampié Vilchez of CENIDH said systematic impunity prevented justice for victims. Vilchez gave as one example, a situation where he said a shooting that should have been murder was only charged as a homicide and then those convicted were given a light sentence even for the lesser crime.
The state representatives, however, said that the elections issues had already been investigated and did not necessitate further discussion at the hearing. Representing the country, Ivan Lara cited the government’s own investigation, as well as one by the European Union, that he said concluded the elections were legitimate. Because of these findings, which he said Nicaragua already submitted to the commission, he declined to address the issue further. He also said he would not discuss criminal proceedings, citing deference to the judiciary. Moreover he faulted the petitioners for adding new issues to the agenda just days before the event. The government was prepared to discuss improvements in literacy, access to healthcare, and gender equality, especially as it pertains to political rights. A slideshow of statistics—many of which the petitioners said were not previously made available—presented dramatic improvements in access to education and literacy, particularly among women and people in rural areas. Such improvements come, however, in a country that is the second-poorest in Latin America with vast opportunity for growth. Although not acknowledged at the hearing, Nicaragua has benefitted from a closer relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez that has brought $400 million per year in long-term loans.
Petitioners raised other concerns as well, which, aside from the situation in prisons, the state did not directly address. The petitioners alleged sexual assaults and vast overcrowding in prisons that resulted in inhumane treatment. In response Lara acknowledged the overcrowding problem, but cited it as a region-wide issue and said that the government is planning investments to improve the system. But pertaining to more general claims of human rights violations, including around the elections and in indigenous regions, Lara said the petitioners’ testimony was out of context, presents a view of lawlessness in Nicaragua, and belies the progress the country has made. “To say there is a backslide in the field of human rights is far from reality,” he said.
The disjunction between the two presentations, as well as the repeated hearings before the commission, led Commissioner Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, the newly appointed rapporteur for Nicaragua, to suggest that her office make an on-site visit to gather more information and help prioritize further human rights inquiries. The petitioners welcomed the request and the state representatives said they would pass on the request to the government.