(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should renew the mandate of the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua and the reporting mandate on Nicaragua of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for two years, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Group of Experts was established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2022 with a one-year mandate to investigate abuses committed since 2018. On March 6, 2023, it presented to the Council a compelling report finding reasonable grounds to conclude that Nicaraguan authorities have committed “widespread and systematic” human rights violations including murder, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced deportation, and persecution on political grounds that amount to crimes against humanity.
“By stripping 317 Nicaraguans of their nationality, the Nicaraguan government has left no doubt that it is one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the region,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Extending the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua’s mandate for two years would send a strong message to the Ortega government that the international community is paying attention and will not give those clinging to power a blank check to continue committing abuses.”
On February 9, the government released 222 political prisoners and expelled them to the United States, labeling them as “traitors,” stripping them of their nationality, and confiscating their assets.
Following their release, the government stripped the nationality of 95 other government critics, including journalists, human rights defenders, writers, and political leaders, and the Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused to leave the country and was recently sentenced to over 20 years in prison under a range of charges such as “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.” Bishop Álvarez, who had been under house arrest, was sent to a maximum-security prison and has remained in incommunicado detention.
The recent legislative changes allowing for stripping people of their citizenship on arbitrary grounds run contrary to Nicaragua’s international obligations, which forbid deprivation of nationality that results in statelessness as a response to racial, ethnic, religious, or political grounds. With these measures, Nicaragua, a party to both the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, violates its obligation to ensure the enjoyment of the right to nationality and to take measures to prevent and eradicate statelessness.
Bishop Álvarez and 36 other government critics remain imprisoned, according to local organizations. Many have been charged with undermining national integrity and propagating false news in criminal proceedings that were based on bogus charges and violated basic due process rights.
The resolution that established the Group of Experts also renewed and strengthened OHCHR’s reporting mandate on Nicaragua. A resolution led by Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru to renew both mandates is expected to be offered during the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council in March.
Renewing the mandate would allow experts to continue gathering evidence of serious, ongoing human rights violations, report on current dynamics in the country, and provide recommendations for necessary action, Human Rights Watch said.
During 2022, the government of President Daniel Ortega continued to arbitrarily detain and prosecute people perceived as government critics, including journalists, opposition leaders, human rights defenders, members of the Catholic Church, leaders of community, business, and student groups, and detainees’ family members.
Some detainees have been subjected to inhumane conditions, including being held incommunicado for weeks or months, with some in prolonged solitary confinement. Former detainees and those allowed to receive family visits have reported abusive conditions, including repeated interrogations, inadequate medical attention, and insufficient food, and have said they are often not allowed to read in prison, including the Bible, or to write.
The government has also dramatically restricted civic space. Since early 2022, authorities have canceled the legal status of over 3,200 nongovernmental organizations, 47 percent of the nonprofit organizations that existed in Nicaragua prior to April 2018. Among the groups stripped of their legal registration are dozens of humanitarian organizations, which played a critically important role in ensuring access to health services, water, and food for low-income, mostly rural communities. The authorities have also canceled the legal status of 18 universities.
The Ortega government has repeatedly refused to cooperate with international human rights bodies, it has not implemented the OHCHR’s recommendations, and has failed to engage with the Group of Experts, OHCHR, and several UN human rights treaty bodies. No international human rights monitor has been allowed to visit the country since the government expelled staff members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the OHCHR in late 2018.
It has expelled the Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua, who was seeking the release of political prisoners, the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the European Union (EU) envoy to Nicaragua days after the EU mission to the UN in Geneva called for the restoration of democracy in the country.
The judiciary does not operate independently in Nicaragua, and impunity for human rights violations is the norm. No police officer is known to be under investigation for the abuses committed during the government’s brutal 2018 crackdown against protesters, which left over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured and resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests.
“International pressure and accountability remain fundamental for Nicaragua’s transition back to democracy and the Group of Experts have a key role to play toward achieving that goal,” Taraciuk Broner said.