Ecuador faces chronic human rights challenges, including poor prison conditions, laws that give authorities broad powers to limit free speech and judicial independence, and far-reaching restrictions on women’s and girls’ access to reproductive health care.
President Lenín Moreno, who took office in May 2017, has implemented policy changes that have fostered a climate of open debate and are aimed at repairing damage suffered by democratic institutions during former President Rafael Correa’s decade in power. Although some measures have been adopted and other initiatives are underway, structural changes are needed, such as repealing key provisions of the Communications Law that severely undermine free speech.
In February 2018, Ecuadoreans voted on a proposal by President Moreno to amend the constitution. The electorate supported all proposals, including reversing indefinite re-election of public officials, ending statutes of limitations for sexual crimes against children, and appointing a new Transition Council of Citizen Participation tasked with evaluating the performance of key state institutions and authorities, and empowered to replace them. At time of writing, the Transition Council had suspended several authorities and designated their temporary replacements, including the attorney general, the ombudsman, and the prosecutor general.
Freedom of Expression
President Moreno has undertaken important changes to restore freedom of expression, including by ending government pressure to determine the editorial line of public media outlets and by ending President Correa’s practice of publicly threatening and harassing independent journalists, human rights defenders, and critics.
In May, President Moreno announced that a 2013 communications law, which gives the government broad powers to limit free speech, would be amended, recognizing that “international standards have been breached in the past decade.” The law requires that all information disseminated by media be “verified” and “precise,” opening the door to retaliation against media critical of the government. It also prohibits “media lynching,” defined as “repeatedly disseminating information with the purpose of discrediting or harming the reputation of a person or entity.” And it prohibits “censorship,” defined as the failure of private media outlets to cover issues the government considers to be of “public interest.”
The proposal includes positive changes that could strengthen free speech, such as repealing the “media lynching” provision and media outlets’ obligation to cover information considered by authorities to be of “public interest.” However, it also includes problematic provisions, such as an obligation to rectify information that does not comply with a vague requirement to produce “quality information” and a requirement to allow the government to broadcast “mandatory statements” without specifying that it should only apply in emergency situations.
In March 2018, the Transition Council removed the head of Superintendency of Information and Communication (SUPERCOM), a government regulatory body created by the 2013 law, and appointed his temporary replacement. Under President Correa, SUPERCOM had been used to harass and sanction independent media outlets. Since President Moreno took office, sanctions imposed by SUPERCOM have declined steeply. His amendment proposal would eliminate SUPERCOM, the enforcement powers of which would be transferred to the Ombudsman Office.
Provisions that criminalize expressions and opinions, including slander and the misdemeanor of “discrediting expressions,” which have been used in the past to punish government critics, remain on the books but are rarely used.
In April, President Moreno confirmed that three Ecuadoreans working for El Comercio newspaper had been killed. Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas, and Efraín Segarra had been investigating increased violence along the Ecuador-Colombia border when Colombian guerrillas abducted them. In June, the bodies were found in Colombia and repatriated to Ecuador. In July, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) created a special team, with the support of the Colombian and Ecuadorean governments, to support investigations, which were still underway at time of writing.
Freedom of Association
During his time in office, President Correa issued decrees granting the executive broad powers to intervene in the operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Several organizations critical of the government were dissolved, or threatened with dissolution, under these provisions.
In October 2017, President Moreno replaced Correa’s decree with a new one that limits some of the previous decree’s vaguely worded language but maintains some ambiguous grounds for dissolving civil society organizations.
A proposal to adopt a law that could make Correa’s decree permanent was pending before the National Assembly at time of writing and may be modified during debate in Congress.
Corruption, inefficiency, and political interference have plagued Ecuador’s judiciary for years. During the Correa administration, high-level officials and Judiciary Council members interfered in the resolution of cases that touched on government interests, and in the appointment and removal of judges.
After taking office, President Moreno said that judges would be free to “make decisions without any pressure whatsoever” and vowed “never to call a judge to influence him.”
In April, the Transition Council suspended all pending designations of judges and prosecutors by the Judiciary Council, while evaluating its performance. In June, it found all council members were responsible of actions including establishing a system to favor government interests through its decisions and removed them. The Transition Council designated temporary authorities to carry out the Judiciary Council’s activities until permanent authorities are appointed. However, following strong public criticism, in September, the Transition Council suspended their power to evaluate the performance of the judiciary, including the National Court of Justice, to ensure such review was carried out by a permanent body.
In August, the Transition Council removed all nine members of the Constitutional Court, arguing, among other things, that they lacked independence and that there were irregularities in the use of public funds related to their functions. Civil society groups have questioned the legality of these removals and their impact on judicial independence. The court has not operated since.
The legal framework that allowed for political interference in the judiciary under President Correa remains in place. Ecuador’s Organic Code on Judicial Function allows the Judiciary Council to suspend or remove justice officials, including judges, for acting with “criminal intent, evident negligence or inexcusable error.” Between 2013 and August 2017, 145 judges were suspended or removed for committing “inexcusable errors,” according to the council. This broad rule allows for the removal of judges for legal errors, and exposes them to political pressure and undermines judicial independence.
Prosecutions of Indigenous Leaders
The Correa administration used the criminal justice system to target environmentalists and indigenous leaders. Since taking office, President Moreno has opened a dialogue with them. In July, he met with leaders of the indigenous umbrella group CONAIE, who later reported they would submit a new request for an amnesty for indigenous people whom they say have been arbitrarily prosecuted in recent years. The National Assembly rejected a previous amnesty request for 200 people in 2017, when a former interior minister of Correa’s administration was presiding.
In May, a court found indigenous leader Agustin Wachapá not guilty on charges of “inciting discord” through a Facebook post calling on the Amazonia people to mobilize against the military presence ordered by then-President Correa in Morona Santiago province. The military was deployed there after a police officer died and several people were injured during clashes between the police and indigenous Shuar people who were attempting to take over a mining camp that they said was built on ancestral lands without their consent.
In January, the Shuar indigenous leader Pepe Acacho was sentenced to eight months in prison for promoting a 2009 indigenous protest against a bill that would have granted the State powers to manage hydrological resources and eliminated indigenous boards that had such powers in ancestral territories. During the protest, a person was killed. Shuar activists argued the law deprived them of control of water in their territories. All of the evidence supporting Acacho’s prosecution was dubious, and nothing said by him in several radio interviews cited as evidence by prosecutors could reasonably be construed as incitement to violence. Though initially arrested in 2011, Acacho was freed a few days later, after filing a habeas corpus. Acacho was detained again in September and released 17 days after his arrest when President Moreno granted him a presidential pardon.
Prison overcrowding, poor prison conditions, and violence inside prisons are longstanding human rights problems in Ecuador.
Video recordings leaked to the public in 2016 showed prison guards beating inmates at the prison, some of them naked, and subjecting them to electric shock. In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office changed the grounds for investigation from torture to “overreaching in the execution of an act of service,” and declined to accuse 34 of the 49 officers implicated. A judge then dismissed charges against all of the officers. But an appellate court annulled the dismissal of charges. In September, the trial against 42 officers accused of torture began, and was ongoing at time of writing.
Accountability for Past Abuses
A truth commission set up by the Correa administration to investigate government abuses from 1984 to 2008 (from the beginning of the repressive presidency of León Febres Cordero until Correa took office) documented 136 cases of gross human rights violations involving 456 victims, including 68 extrajudicial executions and 17 disappearances. A special prosecutorial unit created in 2010 to investigate the cases has initiated judicial procedures in less than 10 of them, and final rulings were rendered in only two. Both the investigation and judicialization of the remaining cases appears to be completely stalled.
In Ecuador’s criminal code, the right to seek an abortion is limited to instances in which a woman’s health or life is at risk, or when a pregnancy results from the rape of a “woman with a mental disability.” Women who have abortions in other cases face prison sentences of up to two years. Fear of criminal prosecution drives some women and girls to have illegal and unsafe abortions and impedes access to health care and services for survivors of sexual violence.
Research by an academic institution and civil society organizations, citing official data, reported 243 abortion-related criminal cases in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017. A proposal to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, which was supported by civil society groups, remained pending before the Justice Commission at time of writing.
According to government statistics released in 2012, when the latest national survey on gender-based violence was conducted, 6 out of every 10 women and girls had suffered gender-based violence, and 1 out of every 4, sexual violence.
From 2014 through February 2018, the government recorded 288 femicides in the country. Ecuador’s criminal code punishes femicide, defined as the exercise of power relations resulting in the death of a woman for “being a woman,” with prison sentences ranging from 22 to 26 years. According to civil society organizations, there were 64 cases of femicides between January and October 2018.
Sexual Violence Against Children
In March, a special legislative commission created to analyze information on sexual violence against children reported that ministers of education in office from 2013 until 2017 were negligent in processing reports of sexual abuse in schools. The commission was established after a series of cases were made public in 2017—and after President Moreno’s Education Ministry revealed that 882 cases had occurred in schools between 2014 and 2017. Impunity in those cases remains the norm.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry in Ecuador. Since 2008, civil unions have been recognized but do not accord the full range of rights enjoyed by married couples, including the ability to adopt children.
In July, two Cuenca lower courts issued historic decisions in favor of two same-sex couples who had challenged the civil registry office, which refused to register their marriages. The courts cited Ecuador’s international obligations and ordered the marriages registered. The civil registry appealed. In September, a provincial appeals court overturned the Cuenca courts’ decisions, ruling that the Ecuadorean Constitution defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
In May, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court ruled that a girl, born in Ecuador, with two British mothers should be registered as an Ecuadorean citizen, and that the registry office should record the names of her two mothers as her parents.
In October, a family judge in Quito ruled in favor of a girl and her parents, who were requesting the change of name and gender in her identity document, to match her self-perceived gender identity. The Civil Registry appealed the decision.
In September, President Moreno affirmed before the United Nations General Assembly that Ecuador was receiving more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day. Many pass through Ecuador to other countries, but at least 250,000 have stayed. Several xenophobic attacks against Venezuelans have been reported in 2018.
In August, Ecuador declared a state of emergency in three provinces on the northern border, to attend to Venezuelan migrants’ urgent needs. In August, Ecuador announced that Venezuelans would need to present a valid passport to enter the country. But the measure, opposed by the ombudswoman, was suspended. As of October, Ecuador required Venezuelans who wished to enter the country with their Venezuelan ID to present a certificate ensuring the ID’s validity, issued by a regional or international body or by the Venezuelan government. These measures make it effectively much harder for Venezuelans to enter Ecuador.
In September, Ecuador hosted a summit to address the region’s response to the Venezuelan exodus.
President Moreno has criticized excessive use of force against protestors, detention of political opponents, and a lack of democratic guarantees in Venezuela. In June, Ecuador abstained from voting on an Organization of American States (OAS) resolution on Venezuela’s crisis. But in September, it supported a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, departing from former President Correa’s staunch support for the Maduro government. In October, it expelled Venezuela’s ambassador to Ecuador after Venezuela’s information minister called Moreno a “liar.”
In July, the Ecuadorean government condemned violence by security forces in Nicaragua against students and members of the Catholic Church. It expressed concern about human rights violations, calling on the Nicaraguan government to investigate and punish those responsible.
Key International Actors
President Moreno has taken important steps to rebuild relations with the Inter-American human rights system. In May, he visited the Inter-American Court and expressed support for it. In June, Ecuador participated in a hearing before the IACHR on judicial independence in the country, reversing the previous administration’s practice—which had continued through 2017—of refusing to participate in such hearings.
In October, the commission hosted a hearing in which several human rights organizations criticized the government’s handling of official statistics on how many people had gone missing since 2014, and how the Attorney General’s Office was investigating the hundreds of reported cases of people whose whereabouts remain unknown.
In August, the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression visited Ecuador for the first time in more than a decade. In October, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression visited Ecuador following an invitation from President Moreno.