Posts Tagged ‘El Salvador’

Karla Avelar speaks out in Diversity in Adversity campaign

April 28, 2022

Episode 4: People who work to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) face multiple forms of risk. They can be targeted for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and for being human rights defenders as well.

Karla Avelar is trans woman human rights defender from El Salvador who has been working since the 1990s to defend the rights of LGBTI persons, people with HIV and other marginalised groups. After being subjected to two and a half years in prison, where she was tortured, sexual assaulted and denied access to medical treatment, she began to work more intensely for the rights of LGBTI persons. She began by calling for appropriate provision of HIV medications and greater access to justice within El Salvador. In 2008 she founded COMCAVIS trans, El Salvador’s first organisation for trans women with HIV. In 2013, she was the first trans woman to appear before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. After multiple threats to her own life and that of her mother, she applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2017, where she now lives and continues her work. She was a finalist of the MEA in 2017 [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/05/16/trans-defenders-karla-avelars-life-is-under-constant-threat/]

Diversity in Adversity is a joint campaign by Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. It will feature interviews with 10 SOGI rights defenders from all over the world; ordinary people engaged in extraordinary work. For more on this campaign, visit: https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-proc…

Foreign Agents Law now also threatens to come to El Salvador

February 9, 2022

Devon Kearney in NPQ of 8 February 2022, reports on a worrying legislative development in El Salvador….

It has been nearly a decade since the Russian government passed its “foreign agent law,” a measure that requires nonprofit groups that engage in political activity to register with the government if they receive money from overseas. Russia justified the bill by saying it was based on a U.S. law—a statute from the lead-up to World War II that many of us came to know only after Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of being an unregistered foreign agent. Putin’s message was that this was just an ordinary, even boring regulatory measure.

But it is more than that. Initial concerns focused on the stigma of being branded a foreign agent, but the law has sharper teeth, allowing the government to fine or even ban organizations that do not accept being branded as foreign agents. For example, on December 28, 2021, the government presented its case for disbanding the storied human rights organization Memorial for failing to include the disclaimer “produced by a foreign agent” on a few of its web pages. At the end of the hearing, the court ordered the Memorial to shut down. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/29/russias-supreme-court-orders-closure-emblematic-memorial/

The sinister brilliance of the foreign agent law is twofold. First, it targets human rights NGOs’ supply lines, as it were, making it difficult to accept the funds they need to survive. In much of the world, human rights defenders rely on support from global philanthropies like the Open Society Foundations for the funding they need to operate. By the standards of Russia’s law, most would be required to register as foreign agents. Groups that take foreign money would be subject to government meddling and harassment; those that opted to do without would struggle to keep their doors open.

Second, the law accomplishes this by co-opting legitimate regulatory functions of the state to crush dissent. Setting the rules for nonprofits—along with corporations, lobbyists, and a wide range of activities that impact the public good—is something governments are supposed to do. The great innovation of Putin and the autocrats that followed him was to turn regulatory schemes into instruments of their own political dominance. By obviating the need for violence against opponents, these methods may avoid the consequences of harsher exercises of state power. They are key to creating, in the words of Hungarian semi-dictator Viktor Orbán, an “illiberal democracy,” a state where elections continue but the rights and liberties of the people are curtailed.

The world took notice when the Russian foreign agent law passed and, today, more than fifty countries have adopted laws based on the Russian example. One of the latest, introduced in November 2021 and still under debate, has an ominous twist. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/17/nicaragua-things-getting-worse-and-worse-for-human-rights-defenders-covid-19-and-foreign-agents/ as well as https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/06/17/un-rapporteurs-urge-india-to-repeal-law-restricting-human-rights-defenders-access-to-foreign-funding/

Under 38-year-old President Nayib Bukele, a charismatic young politician, El Salvador has taken a sharp turn toward authoritarianism. Bukele made headlines in February 2020 when he brought armed soldiers into Congress to stand behind him as he demanded funding for the military. He has since fired prosecutors and judges in order to pack the legal system with loyalists. Bukele is the latest in a growing number of modernized dictators who adopt the tactics but not the swagger of their forebears. But his style is distinctive. In the Journal of Democracy, Salvadoran political scholar Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez writes: “Bukele relies on millennial authoritarianism, a distinctive political strategy that combines traditional populist appeals, classic authoritarian behavior, and a youthful and modern personal brand built primarily via social media.”

Bukele’s authoritarian moves have raised alarms among Salvadoran civil society and around the world. The US has expressed its concern by hitting the government in the pocketbook: in May 2021, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would pull funding from the Salvadoran police and other national agencies, instead directing the funds to civil society groups carrying out local development projects. More recently, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said the agency would commit $300 million for direct civil society funding in Central America, and promised to increase the amount of funding bypassing national governments to 50 percent within 10 years.

All of this is in keeping with Power’s stated intention to provide aid to developing nations with a local, “bottom up” approach that prioritizes small businesses over big international contractors, and local civil society groups over national governments—“[t]o engage authentically with local partners and to move toward a more locally led development approach,” as she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2021.

But in a region where US interference has long rankled rulers and their people, the move may be seen as ham-fisted—taking aid money to support opponents of a duly-elected government brings to mind the ways in which our country funded proxy wars that killed hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and left a bloody trail in Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well. More recently, in 2019 the Trump Administration slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the region in the hopes that by increasing financial pain it could pressure countries to take harsher measures to prevent their people from fleeing to the U.S.

With this history as a pretext, and perhaps stinging at this new reduction in aid funding, Bukele’s government struck back. On November 9, 2021, the government introduced a bill to require domestic nonprofits or social enterprises (solely commercial enterprises are exempted) to register as foreign agents if they “respond to the interests of, or are directly or indirectly funded by, a foreigner.”

That the Legislative Assembly is even considering such a restrictive bill sends a chilling message to human rights groups and organizations fighting against impunity and corruption,” says Ricardo González Bernal, the Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Director for Latin America. The Fund supports grassroots human rights defenders and independent journalism in El Salvador, across Central America, and throughout the world.

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/salvadoran-foreign-agent-law-threatens-human-rights-movements/

Sex workers fighting for human rights among world’s most at risk activists

August 20, 2021

On 12 August 2021 Front Line Defenders came out with an unique report saying rights defenders working in sex industry face ‘targeted attacks’ around the world. The same day Sarah Johnson devoted a piece to it in the Guardian:

Sex worker rights defenders from Yosoa in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Yosoa conduct health outreach and provide support after police, client or family violence.

Sex worker rights defenders from Yosoa in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Yosoa do health outreach work and provide support after police, client or family violence. Photograph: Erin Kilbride/Front Line DefendersRights and freedom is supported by

Humanity United

Sex worker activists are among the most at risk defenders of human rights in the world, facing multiple threats and violent attacks, an extensive investigation has found.

The research, published today by human rights organisation Front Line Defenders, found that their visibility as sex workers who are advocates for their communities’ rights makes them more vulnerable to the violations routinely suffered by sex workers. In addition, they face unique, targeted abuse for their human rights work.

Drawing on the experience of 300 individuals in Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador and Myanmar, the report focuses oncases of sexual assault, threats from managers and clients, raids on homes and offices, physical attacks and police surveillance endured by sex workers undertaking human rights work.

The services the activists provide to fellow sex workers include: negotiating access to brothels, conducting gender rights training, offering legal and health counselling, reporting experiences of violence, and campaigning for freedom of movement and free choice of employment for those seeking to leave sex work.

Erin Kilbride, research and visibility coordinator at Front Line Defenders and lead author of the report, said: “Sex worker rights defenders take extreme personal risks to protect their communities’ rights to access justice, healthcare, housing and food, while responding to the immediate threats of police and domestic violence, discrimination, criminalisation and structural poverty.”

Often these activists were the only people able and willing to provide health education in locations in which sex was sold, the report found. They ensured treatment for sex workers who would otherwise be left with crippling injuries and life-threatening illnesses.

Activists’ role in creating community networks and defending sex workers’ right to assemble were also highlighted in the repot. “Coming together, even in private, is a radical, resistant, and dangerous act for defenders whose very identities are criminalised,” it said.

Defenders interviewed said they had been subjected to violations above and beyond what are typical for sex workers in their area. These included torture in prison, threats by name on the street, targeted abuse on social media and demands for sex in exchange for an advocacy meeting with a police commissioner. They also faced attacks from clients….

In Tanzania, sexual assaults in detention by the police have become a common occurrence for sex workers. They are often forced to perform sex acts in exchange for release. But human rights defenders have also been forced to perform sexual acts in order to secure other sex workers’ release. If they refuse, they are often tortured. One woman was given electric shocks after she refused to perform sex acts during a one-week detention related to her human rights work.

In El Salvador and other countries, physical attacks by clients and managers began after they learned about a sex worker’s activism, said the report.

In Myanmar, police followed activists to brothels to conduct raids duringhuman rights trainings. Some activists had been forced to change where they sell sex because police surveillance increased after they became known for their human rights work.Advertisement

Activists were often belittled at police stations in front of the sex workers they had tried to help. Htut, an outreach worker for Aye Myanmar Association, a network of sex workers, said: “[The police] let us in to the stations but then use rude words, take money from us, insult us, embarrass us, and made me feel bad about myself. It feels like they want to prove to the other sex workers that being an advocate is a humiliating thing.”

In Kyrgyzstan, sex workers have been paid or threatened by the police to help entrap rights defenders when they go to an area to distribute health supplies.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that sex worker activists have been under threat for their human rights work, much of it is dismissed by people ranging from the police to their own families, who assume such attacks are a result of being a sex worker.

Kilbride said: “Human rights defenders who are sex workers themselves are the best, and sometimes the only, activists and communities workers qualified and capable of accessing the most dangerous locations in which people sell sex.

The targeted attacks they experience – ranging from sexual assault in detention to raids on their homes and offices – are indicators of how powerful their human rights work is.”

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/aug/12/sex-workers-fighting-for-human-rights-among-worlds-most-at-risk-activists

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/first-global-report-sex-worker-rights-defenders-risk

Book review of “The Water Defenders” tells the story of environmental defenders in El Salvador

June 1, 2021

In Toward Freedom of 31 May 2021 Charlotte Dennett reviews the book “The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed“. It is a very uplifting story that teaches a lot about how to continue a sometimes hopeless-looking case

The Water Defenders

At a time when all caring people are seeking a new way forward out of a year of unimaginable death, destruction and rampant inequality, along comes a book that gives us hope that a better world may be possible. The book, recently published, is based on a struggle in a small section of a small country—El Salvador—beginning in 2002, when a group of “white men in suits” entered the province of Cabañas and tried to convince poor farmers that gold mining would be good for them. Their resistance, done at great peril and resulting in the assassinations of some of their leaders, ended up years later in a landmark case against corporate greed, garnering support from around the world. The basis of their success lies in the most fundamental of human needs: Water, for which left-right antagonisms fall apart once the deadly consequences of mining’s misuse of it—including causing cyanide poisoning—become patently clear.

Authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have brought us this amazing David versus Goliath story in their new book, The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed. Their first-hand accounts of working with front-line communities, both in El Salvador and in the United States. provide lessons along the way about how to fight an immensely powerful entity and win, whether the enemy be Big Gold, Big Oil or Big Pharma (to name a few). As they write in their introduction, “You may find yourselves surprised to find the relevance of the strategies of the water defenders in El Salvador, whether your focus is on a Walmart in Washington DC; a fracking company trying to expand in Texas or Pennsylvania, or petrochemical companies outside New Orleans.” By the end of the book, they added relevant struggles in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, as well as in South Africa, South Korea, and India.

In an interview with John Cavanagh, I asked if he and Robin had an inkling of the huge ramifications of their story right from the beginning, and his answer was decidedly no. In fact, when they first got involved, back in 2009, they never expected to win. They knew what they were up against and had no illusions. As they wrote about the ensuing years of twist-and-turn battles lost and won, the authors described a combination of events that made the water defenders’ decades-long struggle unusual… Yet now, with lessons learned, replicable.

Their involvement with the water defenders began in October 2009. That month, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive organization “dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society,” invited a group of Salvadorian water defenders to accept IPS’s annual Letelier Human Rights Award for their struggle against Pacific Rim (PacRim), a huge Canadian gold-mining company that sought permits in El Salvador. [See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/06351cb8-8cc0-4bdd-ac3a-2f7ee5a0b553]That year’s award was particularly poignant because one of the awardees, Marcelo Rivera, had been assassinated the month before. Five people still came to Washington, with Marcelo’s brother, Miguel, traveling in his place. Leading the delegation was a small-statured, seemingly nervous Vidalina Morales. But when she stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club and began her acceptance speech, her voice filled the room with a sense of urgency. She described the dangers of gold mining—for drinking water, for fishing and for agriculture. By the time she got to explaining the use of toxic cyanide in separating the gold from the rock, she had the audience—including the authors—mesmerized.

Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador
Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador / credit: John Cavanagh

Another factor made this occasion different. Cavanagh, who is the director of IPS, explained that usually the awardees arrive in Washington to accept their awards and return home. But on this occasion, “They asked for our help. El Salvador had just been sued by PacRim in an international tribunal that argued that El Salvador had to allow it to mine gold or pay over $300 million in costs and ‘foregone profits.’ They also asked if we could help them with research on companies involved in gold mining.”

John had previously engaged with IPS in fighting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and had become familiar with the tribunal and the rules set by the World Bank involved in regulating a global economy. Robin Broad, for her part, had written her doctoral dissertation and first book on the World Bank, and she had worked on the bank at her job with the U.S. Treasury Department in the mid-1980s. But she was less familiar with the workings of the tribunal the World Bank had set up in 1964, “The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).” Its mission was to hear cases brought by foreign investors demanding compensation for lost profits from countries that tried to limit or regulate their activities. The couple figured they could be helpful.

“That’s how we were drawn in,” John explained, while emphasizing the extraordinary role local Salvadorans played in educating local communities about the dangers of landfills and then the dangers of gold mining. It was their groundbreaking work, often under dangerous conditions, that had earned them the Letelier award.

What happened next is a remarkable story of a growing North-South alliance that eventually went global, succeeding in two monumental victories: 1) a decision by ICSID in October 2016 that rejected PacRim’s claims for damages, while ordering the corporation to pay El Salvador $8 million in costs, and 2) the world’s first-ever comprehensive metals mining ban, brought by the El Salvador legislature in March 2019.

The Challenge

Up until 2016, Cavanagh explained, “we never thought we would win.” But that did not stop the momentum of coalition building, which had begun as early as 2005 by local village defenders, human rights advocates, farmers, lawyers, Catholic organizations and Oxfam America. They united to call themselves the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, or La Mesa Frente a la Mineria Metálica—La Mesa for short. Their ultimate goal, beyond building resistance at the local level, “seemed like a pipe dream,” the authors wrote. That goal? “Getting the Salvadoran Congress to pass a new national law banning metal mining.”

Over the years, spurred on by their quest to find out who was responsible for Marcelo’s murder, the water defenders and their international allies yielded a treasure trove of insights on how to fight the Men in Suits, regardless of the outcome. Here are just a few lessons learned from their struggles described in the book:

  • Listen to the horror stories coming from refugees, in this case, those fleeing Honduras. Marcelo; his brother, Miguel; and Vidalina made several trips to Honduras to learn more about the gold mines there. (Honduras had become a haven for Big Gold after the 2009 coup). They returned with “shocking stories of rivers poisoned by cyanide, of dying fish and skin disease, of displaced communities, denuded forests, and corruption and conflict catalyzed by mining company payoffs.” Those trips, the authors write, made a huge impression on the water defenders and “crystallized their thinking… They were vigilant researchers, thirsty to know more.”
  • Seek out unexpected allies. One was Luis Parada, a Salvadoran government lawyer with a military background. As it turned out, he was a disciple of Sun Tsu, a Chinese military strategist from 2,500 years ago, who had written The Art of War. Among the lessons Parada (and Sun Tsu) imparted: “Know thy adversaries”—be one step ahead of them, and also know your possible allies. “Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” Luis also offered valuable practical advice, including the fact that the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, with its bar and pool, “offered some of the best intelligence in El Salvador.” Another unexpected ally was the ultra-conservative Archbishop Saenz Lacalle, a member of the right wing Opus Dei. “All it had taken was the word cyanide,” the authors explain, to cause him to oppose mining. His replacement in 2008, Archbishop Escobar, followed suit. He was “hardly an activist cleric,” but he “had long-held unexpected and firm views on mining,” and in his inaugural messages called on the government to reject mining operations in El Salvador. Getting the Catholic Church behind the water defenders was crucial. The martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “whose photo is omnipresent throughout the country,” was no doubt a factor for widespread community support behind the water defenders, as was the encyclical put out by Pope Francis urging priests to take to the streets to defend the environment. Yet another surprise endorsement came from a member of one of El Salvador’s richest families and a leader of the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated the legislature. It turned out that John Wright Sol had a passion for the environment. Also noteworthy: His family’s vast sugar plantations consumed a lot of water. As he studied the impact of mining on water, he reached out to fellow members of ARENA. “I didn’t want to turn this into mining companies are the devil,” he advised. Instead, he chose to emphasize that “every citizen in the country must have access to clear water.”
  • Be wary of corporate PR campaigns. PacRim put out a report emphasizing that a whopping 36,000 jobs would be created from its mining operations, a vastly inflated claim. In radio interviews, PacRim aimed separate messages to the ARENA party and to the left-wing FMLN party, in which it claimed revenues would fund social agendas. Trips abroad arranged by PacRim often resulted in swaying politicians, whether on the left or right, to support their corporate agenda.
  • No matter how big, corporations can make mistakes. OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian mining company which took over PacRim in 2014, had put on a brave face after the ICSID ruled against PacRim, acting as though it had won, and refusing to cough up the $8 million the company owed El Salvador. Yet it made a fatal error by choosing its mining operations in The Philippines as an example of its environmentally pristine practices. Robin Broad knew otherwise, and along with other international allies had cultivated a professional relationship with the governor of the Philippine province where OceanaGold had its mine. Governor Carlos Padilla arrived in El Salvador on the eve of the crucial legislative vote on the mining bill and presented a “before and after” slideshow to the Environmental Committee. He pictured a lush landscape before the mining, contrasted with images of waste-filled “tailings ponds,” dead trees, dried-up springs and rivers, dead fish on river banks, and, as he explained, “No access to water for drinking or for irrigation.” He ended with an appeal to future generations. “Grandpa,” he imagined them asking. “Why did you allow mining?” 

His presentation was “sort of a clincher,” Cavanagh told me. “It raised the level of indignation.” The legislative vote followed soon afterwards, on March 29, 2019. The results were stunning, with 69 votes tallied against OceanaGold, zero nays and zero abstentions. Shouts of Sí, Se Puede!—“Yes we can!”—erupted from the floor, as members of La Mesa waved banners that read, “No a la Minería, Sí a la Vida”—No to Mining. Yes to Life!

Children performing on the 10th anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s assassination
Children performing on the 10th anniversary of El Salvadorean water defender Marcelo Rivera’s assassination / credit: John Cavanagh

Today, the water defenders remain cautiously optimistic, though constantly on guard. In the past, mining corporations have been able to convince even leftist governments that mining is good for the economy. Cavanagh speculates mayors of small towns, pressured to provide jobs, may have been behind the assassination of Marcelo Rivera and other water defenders.

But to date, Marcelo’s killers have never been identified. On an equally sobering note, he and Board remind us in the book that “over 1,700 environmental defenders had been killed across 50 countries between 2002 and 2018.”

I asked John for an update since finishing his book in mid-2020. Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s “new Trump-like president,” he wrote, “hasn’t raised mining, and it doesn’t look like he is personally interested. He knows the public opinion polls that showed that the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans are opposed to mining.”

However, he added, “We remain worried. El Salvador, like all developing countries, is suffering economically after the pandemic, and other countries have increased mining to get more revenues. So, La Mesa remains vigilant against any actions that could indicate that the government wants to mine.”

We can only hope that water defenders around the world will strengthen their alliances. Fortunately, they now have a handbook that will help them in their journey of resistance.

Charlotte Dennett is the co-author with Gerard Colby of Thy Will be Done. The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. Her new book is The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, A Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.

The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Boston: Beacon Press; 2nd edition. March 23, 2021.

For a bit more critical review see: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/el-salvador-s-water-defenders-and-fight-against-toxic-mining

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet calls for restraint in governments’ COVID emergency powers

April 29, 2020

UN rights chief calls for restraint in governments’ COVID-19 emergency powers

photo credit: UN

During the ongoing pandemic, the exercise of emergency powers has been used as an excuse for unlawful detention, restriction of movement and suppression of press freedoms, according to Bachelet. The International Press Institute (IPI), a press freedoms watchdog, reports that many nations have silenced journalists under the pretext of stifling “fake news.” The IPI maintains a list of international media freedom violations occurring as a result of emergency powers abuses.

In Cambodia the application of emergency powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the unlawful detention of those who disobey the emergency measures for up to 10 years in a move Amnesty International called “a naked power grab which seeks to manipulate the COVID-19 crisis in order to severely undercut human rights.” Further human rights abuses are reported from El Salvador, where grocery shoppers were unlawfully detained when President Nayib Bukele defied a Supreme Court order in their defense. In Central Asia, Amnesty International reports massive expansion of police powers through emergency powers granted during the pandemic.

To guide responsible enacting of emergency powers, the UN has released a new set of policy guidelines that advise states to follow principles such as legality, proportionality and non-discrimination during “humane application of emergency powers,” pursuant to the International Covenant on Human Rights. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/14/un-guidelines-for-use-of-emergency-powers-in-time-of-covid-19-pandemic/.

Given the exceptional nature of the crisis, it is clear States need additional powers to cope,” Bachelet’s statement concluded. “However, if the rule of law is not upheld, then the public health emergency risks becoming a human rights disaster, with negative effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself.”

 

After 30 years Salvadoran military involved in killing of Jesuit priests banned from USA

January 30, 2020

The crime is one of the most emblematic of the Central American country’s civil war that pitted then-leftist guerrillas the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army. The FMLN is now a political party. The case had a lot in common with the killings of the Dutch IKON TV crew a few years earlier [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/09/25/murder-of-dutch-ikon-journalists-in-1982-in-el-salvador-revisted/]

In a statement, the U.S. Secretary of State said it had “credible information” that the current or former officials were directly or indirectly involved in “a gross violation of human rights or significant corruption.” It was not clear what had prompted the United States to issue the designation at this point in time.

[In El Salvador, the Supreme Court of Justice declared a 1993 amnesty law unconstitutional in 2016 and ordered lawmakers to create a new law that would guarantee justice and reparation for victims. However, the process has been delayed.]

https://wtvbam.com/news/articles/2020/jan/30/us-bans-13-salvadorans-over-1989-jesuit-priest-killings/979853/?refer-section=world

Nansen Refugee Award Regional Winners for 2019 are…

September 18, 2019

On 18 September UNHCR announced the five 2019 Nansen Refugee Award Regional Winners. For more on the Nansen Award and 8 more awards in the refugee area, see: http://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/unhcr-nansen-refugee-award.

These are the every-day heroes going to extraordinary lengths to help forcibly displaced people in great need, who have been chosen as the regional winners of the UNHCR 2019 Nansen Refugee Award. The regional winners for Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East were short-listed from more than 450 nominees.

They are:

  • Africa: Evariste Mfaume, the founder of NGO Solidarité des Volontaires pour l’Humanité in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who champions the rights of Congolese people displaced by conflict and also refugees and their host communities.
  • Americas: Bianka Rodriguez from El Salvador, a young trans woman and executive director of NGO COMCAVIS TRANS, who advocates for the rights of forcibly displaced LGBTI people in the country.
  • Asia: Alberto Cairo, a physiotherapist in Afghanistan and head of the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopaedic programme, who has dedicated almost 30 years of his life to providing prosthetic limbs and helping find jobs for injured Afghans.
  • Europe: Humanitarian Corridors, a ground-breaking cross-border initiative established with the Italian Government in 2015 to enable particularly vulnerable refugees to start a new life in safety in Italy.
  • Middle East: Abeer Khreisha, a community volunteer in Jordan, known as ‘the mother of Syrians’ for her work helping refugees.

The overall winner of the Nansen Refugee Award – who is not among those honoured today – will be revealed on 2 October in Geneva. For last year’s winner see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/10/02/south-sudanese-doctor-wins-2018-nansen-medal/

https://www.unhcr.org/nansen-refugee-award.html

Murder of Dutch IKON journalists in 1982 in El Salvador revisited

September 25, 2018

In the Dutch media a lot of attention is being paid at the moment to the 35-year old story of the IKON journalists who were killed in El Salvador in 1982. Some years ago I started to write up ‘human rights stories’ that I had been closely involved in, with the idea that some day they would be of interest. This seems a good moment to ‘publish’ for the first time the chapter on my involvment with the case of the IKON journalists:

1982 IKON journalists killing and El Salvador

…On 17 March 1982, three months before I took up my post as thea first director of the new Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM), the world – and especially the Netherlands – were shocked by the kiliing of a team of television journalists of the TV channel IKON in El Salvador. The very uncivil conflict there had already costs thousands of people their lives including the internationally known cases of the 4 American nuns and the progressive bishop Oscar Romero 1980. The USA under Reagan had clearly changed course and was openly supporting the Duarte regime against the left-wing rebels. The Dutch government – especially its ‘atlanticist’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans van de Broek[1]– was caught between its desire to appease the US government and to respond to the public outcry back home. The compromise reached was that the Dutch Ambassador from a neighbouring country (Jan Willem Bertens) was exceptionally allowed to undertake an investigation on Salvadoran territory, but – if no evidence of government involvement was found – that would be the end of the affair. The fact-finding mission by the Dutch Ambassador did not find any strong evidence; the report was left with the Salvador government and submitted to the Dutch parliament.

One of the first visitors to SIM was Yata Matsuzaki who was the partner of one of the journalists killed and on behalf of the families – who were not convinced by the inconclusive Bertens report. She asked me to take on the case and see whatever else could to done to keep the matter alive. There was even some money set aside for this by the families which was very useful as later – when the Dutch Minister Van der Stoel queried whether this kind of activity (i.e. second-guessing him) was within SIM’s mandate – I was able to refer to the fact that SIM was supposed to find externally funded projects and this had been one of them.

In fact, I had to scratch the bottom of the barrel to find ways to keep the case alive but fortunately the UN had just establish a “Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions”and I submitted the case there. With the help of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in NY I also tried to obtain copies of relevant telexes from the US State Department but most was blacked out.

This involvement with El Salvador led SIM to start a project on how to count human rights violations in general (with initial focus on Central America) and we tried to solve difficult issues such as killings by non-state actors and defining indirect victims. One of the persons helping in El Salvador was Marianella Garcia Villas who had come to SIM in early 1983. I offered to help her with obtaining political asylum in the Netherlands, but she insisted on going back as she was most needed there.  I felt not just sad and shocked but also ‘guilty’ when soon after her return she was murdered.

Then in May 1984 three Dutch parliamentarians (one from each main party) accepted to go on a mission to Central America (and the USA see picture) and I was asked to join as an independent ‘expert’. It became a memorable trip, including a shooting incident on the road in Nicaragua, but what crowned it was that in El Salvador I got a chance to meet with the Prosecutor’s office that was in charge of the IKON investigation. They kindly showed me the file and I was shocked to see that it contained almost nothing and especially that the report by the Dutch Ambassador – 2 years later! – had not been translated into Spanish.

Upon arrival in Schiphol airport, there was a well-attended press conference and when there were questions about the IKON investigation the parliamentarians agreed that I should answer as an independent expert. The journalists had clearly not forgotten their colleagues and fielded many questions. When asked what the Dutch government should do now, I replied that it is was time to re-open the investigation and that my colleagues on the mission representing a majority in parliament were well placed to formally ask for it, which they promptly said they would. When soon afterwards a majorly in parliament adopted a motion requesting this, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was not pleased and initially refused to carry out the motion. However, as this was not worth a government crisis the Prime Minster Lubbers engineered a compromise under which the Dutch government would follow up and at least translate the text.

In 1993 a Report of the Truth Commission of the United Nations on El Salvador concluded that the journalists had been killed in a planned ambush, that Reyes Mena was responsible and that El Salvador so far had failed to do research in order to sentence and punish those responsible. That same year an amnesty law was passed in El Salvador,…

and now (September 2018) I can add a final chapter:

A team of the Dutch television programme Zembla has traced the former colonel of the Salvadoran army, Mario Reyes Mena, who ordered the killings. The now 79-year-old Reyes Mena has been living in the United States for four years. Zembla found him through his three adult children, who are active on social media.

When confronted he claimed that the amnesty pronounced by the government of El Salvador covers his actions. However this amnesty law was cancelled in 2016. In August 2017, the investigation into the murders was already reopened administratively. Two Salvadoran human rights organizations, ‘Fundación Comunicándonos’ and ‘Associacíon de Derechos Humanos’, urged the Salvadoran judiciary to carry out the investigation and the ensuing prosecution.Gert Kuiper, de brother of one of the killed journalists has also started a procedure against the colonel and the Dutch Ambassador in El Salvador supports the move.

It is not known where we stand with this investigation but interesting is to note that in November 2017 another former Salvadoran army colonel, Inocente [SIC] Orlando Montano, was extradited from the USA to Spain to face charges relating to the 1989 killings of the 6 Jesuits priests.

Killings cannot have happy endings but justice is the next best thing.

[1]He succeeded in May 1982 the socialist Van der Stoel whose initial reaction to the killing had been more forceful.

Sources:

https://nltimes.nl/2018/09/25/investigation-ongoing-dutch-journalists-murders-el-salvador-1982

https://nos.nl/artikel/2251835-brein-achter-moord-op-ikon-journalisten-opgespoord.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/29/former-el-salvador-colonel-extradited-to-spain-over-1989-of-jesuits

Interview with Karla Avelar, human rights defender from El Salvador

November 10, 2017

A former ISHR trainee, Karla Avelar defends the rights of LGBTI people. She is a finalist of this year’s Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. In an exclusive interview with ISHR, on 6 November, she talked about her award nomination and what it means to be a trans woman and human rights defender in El Salvador. See also the THF film on her work:

 

see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/05/16/trans-defenders-karla-avelars-life-is-under-constant-threat/

Trans defender’s Karla Avelar’s life is under constant threat

May 16, 2017

Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, wrote the following piece “Karla Avelar’s Life Of Constant Threats” in the Huffington Post of 13 May 2017 (in full below). Karla (El Salvador) is one of the three finalists of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/04/26/breaking-news-three-human-rights-defenders-selected-as-finalists-for-the-2017-martin-ennals-award/].  An rise in deadly violence against transgender women in El Salvador prompted the United Nations on Friday to call for an investigation into crimes against sexual minorities in the conservative Central American country. So far this year, seven transgender women have been killed in El Salvador, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights [http://www.reuters.com/article/us-elsalvador-violence-lgbt-idUSKBN189018]

CARLOS CRUZ, COMCAVIS TRANS
Karla Avelar, advocating despite the danger.

Six times in two years. Human rights activist Karla Avelar has been forced to move home six times in the last two years after being physically threatened by individuals she believes are gang members and for her work as a human rights defender in El Salvador.

She’s a leading advocate for the human rights of LGBT people, founder and head of COMCAVIS TRANS, an organization known for its work for transgender people for nearly a decade. It’s dangerous, unpopular work, and Avelar is regularly targeted and threatened.

A couple of weeks ago she was forced to move home when people tried to extort from her possible prize money for the Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award, for which she is a finalist. The award’s winner will be decided and announced in October, but news of her nomination has prompted these latest threats.

It hasn’t been an easy life. She was shot in two separate incidents, spent five traumatic years in jail and has been a constant target of abuse for being a transgender woman. Avelar told my colleague Mariel Perez-Santiago at her office in San Salvador last year how she had been raped by more than a hundred men on her first day in prison, and that the attacks continued with the complicity of prison staff.

She became a formidable advocate for the rights of trans people in and out of prison, helping to win important reforms in the prison where she used to be an inmate. Thanks to her campaigning, transgender women are now separated from men in different wards, and human rights organizations are allowed access to the prisoners to educate them about their rights. She also represented El Salvador’s LGBT civil society at the country’s 2014 Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations in Geneva.

Her advocacy has led to international recognition including becoming a finalist for this year’s Martin Ennals Award. “Transgender persons, and the wider LGBT community, face widespread hostility and social rejection in El Salvador,” said the Martin Ennals organization in a statement. “Crimes against them are almost never brought to justice, which results in a climate of impunity. Sadly, this treatment of transgender people can be seen well beyond El Salvador. We aim to highlight Ms. Avelar’s bravery in continuing her work. We are encouraged that the authorities contacted her after the media coverage of the latest threats. This needs to be followed up with judicial proceedings against those responsible and, most importantly, effective protection for Karla Avelar.”

Her profile has meant that the threats against her are receiving attention, and the Attorney General’s office has been in touch with her to discuss issues of her safety. But for Avelar and others in El Salvador’s LGBT community the risks are daily and grave. She estimates around 600 cases of unsolved murders of LGBT people in the country over the last 25 years.

“Sadly, these most recent threats against me are not surprising and are part of a broader and systematic pattern of persecution of members of the LGBT community in El Salvador,” said Avelar. “I will not be silenced by these threats, but the Salvadoran government must guarantee my safety and that of all human rights defenders and activists, who work tirelessly to monitor and urge respect for the human rights of the most vulnerable.”

Forced to leave her home again and again, she’s asking for protection as well as international visibility. Making her more famous won’t guarantee her safety but we can try to help by sharing her story with whoever we know, by showing that we’re watching, and by saying that she should be protected and never be forced to move again.

Source: Karla Avelar’s Life Of Constant Threats | HuffPost