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Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega greets soldiers during the oath of the Commander in Chief of the Nicaraguan army General Julio Cesar, at the Revolution square in Managua, Nicaragua February 21, 2020. © REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Sustained international pressure has played an essential role in the past in curbing serious and widespread human rights abuses by the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Recent developments in Geneva indicate that the international community is following closely the human rights situation in the country. Such scrutiny will be fundamental to hold the Ortega government accountable for its crimes.

On July 2, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council warning about current abuses by the Ortega government. On June 19, after expressing “grave concern at the continuing reports of serious human rights violations,” the Human Rights Council issued a resolution granting the High Commissioner a specific mandate to enhance its monitoring and continue to report on abuses. The resolution was drafted and presented by several Latin American governments and was supported by more than 40 governments from all over the world.

Bachelet has previously reported on Ortega’s display of excessive force that, starting in April 2018, left a death toll of 328 people and almost 2,000 people injured, and led to hundreds of detentions. Human Rights Watch documented at the time cases of brutal force on the streets, abuses against detainees that in some cases amounted to torture, and retaliation against medical professionals who provided care to victims. Many of the violations and abuses were committed by the National Police or pro-government armed groups.

There has been complete impunity for these abuses. Bachelet’s office and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had a strong presence in Nicaragua during the crackdown, until the Ortega government expelled them in retaliation for their critical reporting.

International monitoring and reporting like what the Human Rights Council required last month, together with targeted sanctions against key officials responsible for the abuses, have deepened Ortega’s international isolation and led him to make some concessions in the past. In 2019, increased domestic and international pressure, particularly from the Organization of American States, as well as Ortega’s desire to end the United States and Canadian sanctions against his top officials and family, pushed him to release hundreds of detainees during the crackdown. This year, the European Union, United Kingdom, and Switzerland also imposed sanctions against Ortega administration officials. The US imposed another round of sanctions in May and July of this year.

However, the government continues to crack down on dissent, arbitrarily detaining protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders. According to the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, 86 people remain arbitrarily imprisoned as of May 4, including some who were arrested during the 2018 crackdown. In 2018, authorities fired 465 health professionals who provided care to victims of state violence; similar retaliation by the Ortega-Murillo government continues today. So far this year, the authorities have fired at least 21 health professionals for voicing concern about the government’s handling of the pandemic. More than 100,000 Nicaraguans, including at least 90 journalists, have fled to neighboring countries.

The Human Rights Council resolution also notes that “free, fair, transparent and credible elections” are essential to a “peaceful and democratic resolution of the human rights crisis in Nicaragua.” Elections are scheduled for 2021, and so far, the authorities have shown no intention of making them free or fair.

Since taking office in 2007, Ortega’s government has aggressively dismantled nearly all institutional checks on presidential power. Stacked with his supporters, the Electoral Council barred political parties and removed opposition lawmakers. An independent electoral observation group reported several irregularities in past elections, including having names of dead people in the electoral roll. Ortega has also refused international oversight of elections.

In a context without internal checks on executive power, sustained international pressure, including through expanded international sanctions on abusive officials and constant scrutiny by human rights monitors, it is essential to prevent further abuses. The international community has sent a clear message in Geneva that it will remain vigilant concerning the human rights situation in Nicaragua. Ortega should take notice that the world is watching.

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