(Washington, D.C.) – The administration of President Rafael Correa should reverse its decision to shut down a local environmental and indigenous rights group, Human Rights Watch said today. The administration should revoke the recent presidential decree granting the government sweeping powers to oversee and dissolve independent organizations, undermining freedom of association and expression.
On December 4, 2013, the Environment Ministry “dissolved” the Pachamama Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that has engaged in environmental and human rights advocacy for more than 16 years, on the grounds that several of its members had allegedly participated in a violent demonstration. Government officials and police sealed off the entrance to the organization’s office in Quito the same day.
“President Correa’s recent decree regulating civil society gave the government the power to shut down human rights and other groups that interfere with his agenda,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The decree now has its first casualty.”
On November 28, members of the Pachamama Foundation participated in a demonstration with others protesting petroleum exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The demonstration by a few dozen people occurred outside of a hotel in Quito where officials were reviewing licensing applications by several foreign companies seeking to explore for oil areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon populated by indigenous communities.
On December 1, during his weekly TV show, President Correa accused the protesters of physically attacking the Chilean ambassador in Ecuador and a Belarusian businessman, as well as police officers. Correa played a video showing protesters following and verbally accosting the two foreigners, who were escorted by police officers, after they left the meeting. The only evidence of physical violence is a clip showing one protester attempting to deliver a single blow to the businessman and a police officer with the pole of a spear. The identity of the protester is unclear.
On December 4, a senior Interior Ministry official asked the Environment Ministry to close the Pachamama Foundation, claiming that its members had initiated a “violent protest, undermining public order and the physical integrity of those present.” The president of the Pachamama Foundation denies its members participated in any violence.
On the same day, the Environment Ministry ordered the closure on the grounds that the Pachamama Foundation had violated Presidential Decree 16. Adopted in June, the decree prohibits organizations from “mov[ing] away from the objectives for which it was created,” and “carrying out political activities reserved to parties and political movements... that interfere with public policies that undermine national or external security of the state or compromise public peace.”
On December 5, the lawyer of the Pachamama Foundation told the press they were preparing legal appeals to be filed in Ecuador and were considering taking their case to international bodies.
Presidential Decree 16, and its application in this case, contravenes the rights to freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, governments must ensure that human rights defenders are allowed to pursue their activities without reprisals, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, or unnecessary legal obstacles.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights held in 2003 that “[r]espect for human rights in a democratic state depends largely on human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees so as to freely go about their activities.”
The rights to freedom of expression and association may be subject to limitations, but the limitations must adhere to strict standards so that they do not improperly impede the exercise of those rights. Any restrictions should be prescribed by law, necessary in a democratic society, proportionate to the aim pursued, and should not “harm the principles of pluralism, tolerance, and broadmindedness.”
Article 16 of the American Convention on Human Rights states that the right of freedom of association “shall be subject only to such restrictions established by law as may be necessary in a democratic society, in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.”
In 2012, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association observed that the “[s]uspension or involuntary dissolution of associations should be sanctioned by an impartial and independent court in case of a clear and imminent danger resulting in a flagrant violation of domestic laws, in compliance with international human rights law.”
“Any alleged acts of violence by the protesters should be subject to impartial criminal investigations, but they should not be used as a pretext for preventing an organization from engaging in public debate and promoting human rights,” Vivanco said.