Santiago, Chile – The hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of protesters who took to the streets in countries across the Americas last year were met with violent crackdown, with governments often using measures in “flagrant disregard for their obligations under domestic and international law”, Amnesty International said on Thursday as it released its annual report for the region.
The 2019 review depicts a region where citizens were attacked for protesting and defending human and environmental rights across many countries.
The tsunami of protests that swept across Latin America and the Caribbean last year were often met by repressive and increasingly militarised tactics, Amnesty said.
The year was marked by states’ inability to channel people’s discontent and demands for their rights, the rights group said. Instead, they resorted to repression and excessive use of force, including intentionally lethal force, the report said.
In Chile, the army and police were found to deliberately injure protesters taking part in nationwide demonstrations against inequality. Since the social uprising erupted in October, Chile’s main cities have been choked with tear gas as state forces cracked down on protesters. Widespread abuses have taken place at the hands of the state, from excessive force to alleged sexual violence.
Although Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has acknowledged abuses have taken place, the government continues to pursue a heavy-handed response to “restore public order”. More than 400 people have suffered eye injuries caused by “non-lethal” firearms used to disperse demonstrations.
Constanza Salseo, 25-year-old midwifery student says she was protesting peacefully in her Santiago neighbourhood when a pellet hit her eye. The pain was so severe she threw up.
“Repression is always very extreme here,” she says. “But I’m not changing my position. I’m not scared to go out on the streets. I could even die. We have to make sure this never happens again.”
In Venezuela‘s anti-government protests, Amnesty documented President Nicolas Maduro‘s security forces committing crimes under international law, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions.
Towards the end of last year in Haiti, national police forces were implicated in many of the deaths related to anti-government protests.
At least 210 people died violently in the context of protests across the Americas: 83 in Haiti, 47 in Venezuela, 35 in Bolivia, 31 in Chile, eight in Ecuador and six in Honduras, according to Amnesty.
“2019 brought a renewed assault on human rights across much of the Americas, with intolerant and increasingly authoritarian leaders turning to ever-more violent tactics to stop people from protesting or seeking safety in another country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
A ‘death sentence’ for asylum seekers
The human rights organisation also condemned governments’ aggressive stances against migrants and asylum seekers. The number of Venezuelans to have fled the country rose to 4.8 million, second only to Syria, yet Peru, Ecuador and Chile imposed restrictive entry requirements.
In the United States, the government unlawfully detained children fleeing situations of violence in Central America and imposed new measures to restrict access to asylum, the rights group said. Amnesty warned US President Donald Trump‘s asylum ban, issued in July, could be a “death sentence” for people seeking safety.
Under the Trump administration’s immigration policies, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been forced back to Mexico to wait out their cases in the US. Hundreds of Salvadorans and Hondurans have been sent to Guatemala to apply for asylum there instead, despite warnings from rights group who say the Central American country is not equipped to handle asylum seekers.
Eariler this month, Human Rights Watch said at least 138 people deported to El Salvador from the US in recent years were killed.
Amnesty also said, however, repression has been countered by resistance as social movements and youth uprisings demanded justice and recognition of their rights.
“We also saw young people stand up and demand change all over the region, triggering broader demonstrations on a massive scale. Their bravery in the face of vicious state repression gives us hope and shows that future generations will not be bullied,” Guevara-Rosas said.
Most notably, 2019 saw the growing strength of diverse women’s movements across the region.
In Mexico, a string of sexual violence cases sparked outrage and protests across the country, while in Argentina, thousands of women took to the streets over abortion rights.
The most powerful movement was the chant, A Rapist in Your Path, by Chilean feminist group Las Tesis that rallied women together against sexual violence. Gender-based violence remains widespread across the region, with impunity for perpetrators being the norm.
The song, which highlights patriarchal culture as the root causes of violence against women, quickly became a feminist anthem repeated by women across the world.
“The ‘green wave’ of women and girls demanding sexual and reproductive rights and an end to gender-based violence showed unstoppable momentum across the Americas. From Santiago, Chile, to Washington, DC, their awe-inspiring performances of the feminist anthem ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ gave us the soundtrack to solidarity in 2019 and renewed optimism for what we can achieve this year,” said Guevara-Rosas.
“There has certainly been a worrying shift towards repressive tactics from security forces, and with few elections coming up in 2020 there is little reason to expect these approaches to change,” said Asa Cusack, managing editor of the London School of Economics’ Latin America and Caribbean blog, and associate fellow of the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London.
“But in the past, the region’s remarkably strong and effective social movements have been able to raise awareness and bring about real change all across Latin America and the Caribbean. Though things might get worse before they get better, this long history of activism at least gives people the tools to clear a path away from the current turmoil.”