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Statement on the conclusion of the visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary to El Salvador – 14 to 18 August 2017

18 August 2017

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, I have had the honour to conduct an official visit to El Salvador from 14 to 18 August at the invitation of the Government of the Republic of Salvador. The objective of my visit was to consult on the phenomena of internal displacement in the country due to factors including generalized and gang-related violence and to assess the situation of internally displaced persons. I met with senior Government officials, both national and local, with responsibility in areas relating to my mandate as well as with United Nations specialized agencies and entities, national and international civil society organizations and, most importantly, some of those who have been forced to flee their homes and who shared their experiences with me.

I take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Government of El Salvador for its official invitation for me to visit and for its excellent cooperation with my mandate as well as numerous civil society organizations and others who assisted me to conduct my work. I thank the Government as well for its full respect of the independence of my mandate. My comments today represent only my preliminary views based on my visit to El Salvador and the information that I have received to-date. I will be producing a full report on my findings and recommendations that will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2018.

Firstly let me say a few words about my United Nations mandate on the human rights of internally displaced persons. I take my guidance from the human rights standards relating to those persons who have to flee their homes but remain within the borders of their countries. In particular, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, adopted in 1998, establishes that internal displacement can be caused by factors including conflict, natural disasters, development projects, and most significantly in the context of my visit to El Salvador, as a result of generalized violence. While many associate internal displacement mostly with conflict and disaster, it is important to recognize that governments have an obligation to prevent displacement as a result of such generalized violence and to protect the human rights of those internally displaced by it to the best of their ability and resources. In other words, a country does not have to have camps and evacuation centres to establish that internal displacement exists.     

During my visit I was informed of the devastating and extraordinary impact of generalized and particularly gang-related violence on individuals, families and communities. Gangs may control or dominate territories and populations through threats, intimidation and violence and a culture of violence that infects whole communities and peoples’ everyday activities, movements, interactions and relationships. Killings have become commonplace and extortion of individuals and small businesses is widespread and seen as a “tax” by the gangs on local communities. Community members described to me being unable to let their children out to play for fear that they would fall under the influence of, or be threatened by, gang members. With individuals under threat from the gangs, I was informed that they or their whole families would simply disappear, leaving their homes abandoned or selling them as cheaply if they could.

I was informed that young people cannot lead normal lives in some neighbourhoods or visit friends in other areas. Crossing from one neighbourhood to another could result in death for a young person if they move from one gang controlled territory to another without care or permission. In other cases, the only way for them to stay safe is not to leave their homes. Simply being a young person or living in a known gang neighbourhood would draw suspicion on young people that they are members of gangs or associated with them and some described to me incidents of violence or intimidation by both the gangs and the police. One young woman told me “It is a crime to be a young person in El Salvador today.” a deeply depressing sentiment that I heard echoed several times during my visit, including from senior public officials.

Young women and girls are particularly vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence, including rape, and high levels of femicide have been recorded. Women whom I met, some in secret ‘safe-houses’ or shelters described to me their experiences of threats and violence by gang members leading them to have to flee their homes with their children in fear of their lives or to protect their children. One woman informed me that when she refused to help a gang commit a kidnapping she was raped and forced to flee. Members of the LGBTI community, and particularly transgender women, are also highly vulnerable to violence and I met some who described to me being forced to flee their homes several times due to threats, assassination attempts and intimidation by gangs as well as members of the police or military.   

In a kindergarten that I visited I was shown the pictures made by young children who responded to the question “what do you fear” by depicting men with guns and masks and families leaving their homes. When asked what they wanted for the future, those whom I interviewed described their hopes for a normal life of safe neighbourhoods, secure streets and the everyday interactions and activities that they are currently deprived of - a life without the threat of gang violence or an oppressive police and military presence. While community members told me that they felt that not enough is being done to tackle the violence and establish the rule of law, they also noted that they also feared the police and armed forces when they come into their communities.    

I was informed that schools in some localities are no longer considered as safe spaces for children, teachers are threatened, gangs operate within and around some schools where they recruit children, expose them to involvement in their criminal activities, and identify girls as sexual targets for gang members. I was informed that children could be stopped on their way to school by gang members and could be killed for refusing to join a gang. Very high dropout rates from schools are partially attributed to violence and the displacement of families. If one child is affected by violence or threats, the whole family is affected and becomes vulnerable and may have to leave their homes.  

The extent of violent crime is such that I was told that there is often no investigation carried out into even some of the most serious crimes, including homicides, resulting in high levels of impunity and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system.  Such a situation indicates a deeply worrying law enforcement deficit in El Salvador and that its police and investigation service is overwhelmed and under-equipped to respond to the challenges they face. In regard to my own work on internal displacement, it also suggests an environment and society in which gangs can function with almost absolute impunity from prosecution for even the most egregious crimes, which leads individuals and families to see no option but for them but to flee to find safety.    

The majority of public officials, senior judges and other officials whom I met, acknowledged and described to me the extent of the problem of gang violence and internal displacement and expressed their deep concern over the situation.

However, in contrast to the information that I received from them and from civil society sources and community members, I also heard from some key elements of the Government that the numbers of persons affected by internal displacement due to violence have been relatively low and that their displacement is frequently temporary and quickly resolved. I was informed that all victims are provided with assistance and protection under policies including the Safe El Salvador Plan that was having a dramatically positive impact on criminal activity. I regret that this positive picture was sometimes not consistent with the broad range of other information that I received.  

I acknowledge and warmly welcome Government initiatives and that some improvements have taken place in the Municipalities that I visited, following my extensive programme of meetings and consultations. At the same time, the issue of internal displacement seems to be a hidden and largely publicly unacknowledged challenge in El Salvador. Victims of violence and displacement often have to take their safety and protection measures into their own hands due to the lack of an over-all effective and functioning protection system provided by the State. The difficulties facing the Government are significant, however fully acknowledging the challenges of internal displacement is an essential step towards effectively confronting them and providing necessary protection and durable solutions for IDPs.

The true number of those affected by internal displacement is therefore hidden as victims seek anonymity and, for some, routes out of the country to find safety elsewhere. Statistical data and further independent research is vital to reveal the full extent of the problem of internal displacement in El Salvador, including not only the numbers affected but their circumstances, vulnerabilities and protection issues, in order to begin to find effective solutions for many hidden and anonymous victims. In this regard I welcome an internal displacement situation profiling study being conducted by the Government in cooperation with the United Nations and others, and due to be finalized soon, which will be an essential resource and tool, providing a necessary evidence-base for all stakeholders, and helping the Government to plan its responses to internal displacement.  

It is clear to me that the phenomenon of internal displacement caused by generalized and gang-related violence is a significant and largely un-recognized crisis in El Salvador, affecting thousands of individuals, families and whole communities. As mentioned to you, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are the key international human rights standard relating to internal displacement and they are clear that the obligations of governments include to prevent and respond appropriately to internal displacement caused by generalized violence. The Guiding Principles and other international human rights law and standards relevant to internal displacement provide important guidance to the Governments on measures to protect those affected by internal displacement.

The Government must be commended for taking important initiatives to address the significant challenges of violence. For example, the Safe El Salvador Plan was frequently discussed by government officials and provides an important element of government policy with objectives including prevention of violence, prosecution of perpetrators and protection of victims of violence. Importantly, this valuable Plan includes reference to internally displaced persons as being amongst those to be protected and assisted under its provisions. A commendable system of protection exists for women, children and adolescents. The establishment in February 2017 of local offices for attention to victims (OLAV) also demonstrates important progress in attention to the victims of violence.  

It is my preliminary analysis that in practice there are insufficient protection protocols in place, including under the Safe El Salvador Plan, specifically targeting internally displaced persons. In addition communities are greatly concerned by such elements as extraordinary security measures conducted in their communities including joint police and military operations.

Establishing a legal, policy and institutional framework to specifically address the needs and vulnerabilities of internally displaced persons, as a category of victims, is essential and overdue in El Salvador. The current legal approach of the Government is focused on addressing the illegal restriction on freedom of movement of people and illegal occupation of property. This does not adequately encompass or address the crimes and impact of internal displacement or provide adequate protection for those who have been forcibly displaced. Equally the Victims and Witnesses Law is focused on witnesses of crime and witness protection and does not adequately include internally displaced persons as a unique category of victims requiring support, assistance and protection. 

It must be recognized that in El Salvador there are particular challenges to providing protection from violence in view of the small size of the country and the extent of influence and networks of the gangs. Several senior officials acknowledged to me that due to the lack of protection options in the country, for many of those at the greatest risk of violence, the only options remains to seek relocation and protection outside the country. Many of those displaced by violence end up joining irregular migrant routes out of the country. They frequently find themselves deported and returned to situations of high vulnerability in El Salvador where they may return to a situation of internal displacement, continuing threats and diminished resources. For youth, young women and the LGBTI community in particular, this creates a downward spiral of vulnerability as their resources dwindle and their vulnerability to abuse increases.

I was pleased to visit the Migrant Assistance Centre of La Chacra which services some 52,000 returnees to El Salvador annually. I was greatly impressed by the services provided which treat those returning, many of whom are vulnerable, with dignity and care and provide essential short-term support. Many of those returnees are not able to return to their original homes and may therefore return to situations of internal displacement and possible threats of violence. It is my hope that the service and process may evolve to include a comprehensive screening of protection concerns to individuals and families, as well as being able to refer those who may be internally displaced into a dedicated protection framework. 

While legislation and policy development dedicated to addressing internal displacement would provide an essential foundation, in view of the reality of displacement it is essential to rapidly establish and maintain an integral functioning protection system for internally displaced victims of violence within El Salvador. Moreover, there is a need to include the participation of victims of violence who, as internally displaced persons are entitled to participate in the decision-making on their specific situation and aspirations.  The protection system as it currently exists should be improved to include a network of safe shelters for women, youth and adolescents, as well as men who are internally displaced and assessed to be at risk of violence. Family unity is essential for the victims of internal displacement and I have been alarmed to learn that while the unity of families are taken in consideration in the assessment of the victims, there are few options for the protection of families together. I met one displaced woman who was informed that she could not be protected together with her children and who risked separation from them.    

El Salvador should strengthen its institutional attention to internal displacement including by establishing a clear institutional focal point and effective coordination mechanisms to lead on activities and coordinate the work of relevant ministries and other entities. Currently, national institutions are restricted in their activities by factors including the lack of institutional and political acknowledgement of the challenges of internal displacement. Increasing the budgets and capacity of key institutions must be part of wider solutions to the problem of internal displacement. For example, I met with the child and adolescent protection structures and institutions of the State, CONNA and ISNA. They should be strengthened to specifically address the issues and protection needs of internally displaced children and adolescents. While they can adapt their services to address such cases to some extent, their role in the future could be greatly enhanced if their resources and capacity are improved and their mandate expanded as required.

The influence of violence must be acknowledged; when I asked several different officials and others if I can walk safely in the streets of El Salvador, I regret to say that I never received a positive response. This will require improved security responses and measures to address and reduce the criminal structures and influence of the gangs that are sensitively implemented in consultation with communities affected by violence. Communities and victims consistently told me that they fear aggressive and intimidating security strategies that appear to criminalize entire neighbourhoods and consider ordinary community members as potential gang members. Steps taken to develop and implement genuine community policing initiatives are welcome and should be enhanced through community engagement.

I regret to say that I have been informed by numerous people that they have suffered violence and abuse by members of the National Civil Police and allegations of the re-surfacing of extermination groups. I note that this has been strongly rejected by senior Government and security officials whom I met. I do believe that efforts are being made to confront and prevent any abuse by such authorities, including internal investigation into allegations of police abuse. Nevertheless, allegations of police murder, brutality, corruption and connection to the gangs must be taken extremely seriously and investigated fully. Trust in the police has deteriorated significantly and must be rebuilt over time. I was told on a number of occasions that individuals fear the authorities as much as they fear the gangs. I also want to acknowledge that police and soldiers often operate at high risk to themselves and I regret to learn that they and their families have also been targeted by the gangs and some killed and displaced.  This is also the case for judges who have had to ask for transfers to safer places to the administration of justice so that they and their families can live in safety.

It is essential to also address the root causes of internal displacement in El Salvador. It was emphasized to me frequently that poverty, economic under-development and social deprivation are important factors leading to the structures and activities of crime. The most affected neighbourhoods and communities are commonly also the poorest. Poverty is a key cause of gang membership and it is a sad reality that the poor are displacing the poor. These neighbourhoods, where opportunities are limited, jobs are few and incomes are low are fertile recruiting grounds for the gangs. Consequently solutions must be holistic and long-term, involving important developmental and economic measures. Indeed, Municipal Mayors whom I met emphasized to me that this was an essential component of tackling the root causes of gang criminality. I was impressed by social programmes underway in Municipalities including Mejicanos and Cuzcatanzingo that I visited, including to provide training and entrepreneurial grants, establish community councils, establish or reclaim public spaces and engage the communities in social projects.

El Salvador’s five year Development Plan can be an important element of long-term solutions. Equally, the international community should continue to play an important support and assistance role, cooperating and helping to fund vital initiatives to help break the cycle of gang violence and displacement and promote social, economic and other solutions for those affected by poverty, violence and internal displacement. Strengthening regional approaches and cooperation in the struggle to confront gang-related violence and internal displacement would be a highly positive, recognizing the common challenges shared by Northern Triangle Countries. 

During my visit I met with numerous representatives of indigenous peoples who described to me their concerns relating to internal displacement. They described a long history of displacement and threats to their existence on their ancestral lands. Some noted to me that their concerns include problems relating to land rights and titles, violence and large-scale development projects such as dams, mining activities and infrastructure development implemented by the Government as well as large corporations. Some noted that members of their communities had been killed trying to protect their rights as indigenous peoples. Such allegations require investigation and I emphasize that the rights of indigenous peoples must be respected, including the right not to be displaced from their lands, according to standards including the UN Declaration on indigenous peoples. I was also informed of the significant environmental risks that El Salvador faces and I will seek more information on this important potential cause of mass internal displacement. The National Policy for Risk Management is a positive step in this regard.     

In conclusion I have also been deeply impressed by the work of numerous civil society organizations in El Salvador. These organizations and their dedicated staff perform numerous functions in support of the victims of violence and for internally displaced persons in the absence of dedicated Government institutional assistance to them. These organizations are frequently filling an huge protection gap and many victims informed me that they find themselves entirely reliant on their support. This is welcome and these organizations must be supported and better resourced to continue their work.

However, they are fulfilling functions which the State should be taking as part of its responsibilities and obligations under human rights law and standards. I am saddened to learn that some of the human rights defenders working for these organizations have been threatened themselves and providing adequate protection measures for them is a responsibility of the Government.

I once again want to thank the Government of El Salvador and stress my desire to continue our constructive engagement aimed at strengthening its efforts to protect the rights of internally displaced persons. Thank you.