Mr. Obiora C. Okafor, United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity
San José, Costa Rica
San José (2 March 2022) – At the end of his mission to Costa, Mr. Obiora C. Okafor delivered the following statement:
“I would like to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the Government of Costa Rica for inviting me to the country to conduct my fourth official visit as Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, and for their full support and cooperation before and during my time here, as well as to the United Nations Country Team and agencies present in the country.
During my official visit to Costa Rica from 21 February to 3 March 2022, I had the honour to meet with the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Minister for Planning and Economic Policy; several Vice-Ministers (in the Presidency, and for the Ministries of Human Development and Social Inclusion, Interior, Migration, Taxation); as well as many high-level officials from various ministries, government agencies and commissions. I had the honour of meeting the Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Congress (the Legislature), with the President and Judges of the Supreme Court and the President of the National Human Rights Institution. In addition, I also held meetings with academics at the UN-backed University for Peace (UPEACE), the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, and ILANUD. Finally, I had meetings with the UN Country Team, representatives of Embassies and donors present in the country, as well as various kinds of civil society organisations. Besides these formal meetings I also carried out visits to Shelter City San José, to the neighbourhood of La Carpio (where I visited the SIFAIS foundation), to the Parque de La Libertad, and to Guatuso in Alajuela province (where I visited several environmental projects involving women and indigenous communities, who are supported by government agencies known as FONAFIFO and FUNBAM).
My objectives during my visit were primarily to learn more about, and gain first-hand understanding of, issues related to the experience and practice of international human rights solidarity in the Costa Rica, including positive efforts that have been made in that direction and the remaining challenges. I was especially interested in learning more about how Costa Rica incorporates human rights in its international solidarity thought and action, as well as how its programmes and initiatives contribute to the promotion of an international human rights solidarity-based approach to addressing many of the global challenges that the world is currently facing. These include – but not limited to – development cooperation, climate change and protection of the environment, COVID-19 and issues arising from the pandemic, cross-border migration, refugee issues, and social inclusion within Costa Rican society.
Costa Rica has a long-standing tradition of practising international human rights solidarity at the international, regional, and national levels. I was impressed by the strong and long-standing emphasis on multilateralism in the country’s foreign policy, which has allowed the country to stand out as a safe and peaceful beacon in a region with a troubled history. As well, the strong emphasis placed in Costa Rica on social programs and protection, particularly in education, health, housing, and environment protection is to be commended and encouraged. I also noted the importance attached by the government and people of Costa Rica to addressing the needs of historically violated communities and persons, such as indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, women, Afro-descendants and LGBTI persons.
Of recent, Costa Rica has been at the forefront in addressing the pandemic and its effects on its population, in part through the deployment of its robust health system and allowing free and (eventually) universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, including to (even undocumented) migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. The welfare state model in Costa Rica is designed to provide basic social security and social protection, including through pursuit of universal access to education, health care, vaccines, and housing, to its citizens and residents. This model for the allocation of resources has, over the decades, allowed Costa Rica to grow into one of the most stable and developed countries in the whole Central American region and to become an upper middle-income country. Its socio-economic and political achievements were recently recognized through its recent accession to the OECD.
As notably, Costa Rica has continued to receive a high number of migrants and refugees (as compared to its small population), not only from neighbouring countries, but also from other Latin American countries and other regions of the world and has created a number of regularization categories to enlarge its ability to provide succour to more migrants and asylum-seekers. In fact, Costa Rica has for a very long time been a welcoming society for persons fleeing persecution, as well an outspoken defender of the principles of human rights and democracy on the international scene. These remain at the heart of its foreign policy. The country has thus played a leading role among nations in the promotion and protection of human rights, including through the advancement of gender equality; the combating of discrimination and xenophobia; and the promotion of the rights of women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, LGBTI persons and other minority groups.
I have also seen first-hand the numerous efforts and initiatives undertaken from all stakeholders, to protect the environment and mitigate the impact of climate change, with numerous related projects being targeted at addressing the rights and needs of indigenous communities, rural areas, and women. These projects help to reforest the country and protect biodiversity. Costa Rica has been an innovator when it comes to living in a more sustainable and environmental-friendly way. I was pleased to hear during my visit about the many innovative policies and measures that are being implemented and taken to ensure a more sustainable society at home and abroad. This is an important contribution to international human rights solidarity in the climate change and environmental field. It is ripe for replication in similarly situated countries around the world.
I was also very impressed, during my visit, by Costa Rica’s efforts to advance international human rights solidarity locally and around the world. Costa Rica has been at the forefront of engaging with other countries, regional bodies, and international organisations, to exchange good practices and challenges, including through Triangular and South-South cooperation initiatives.
Similarly, the international community has played an important role in addressing Costa Rica’s needs in key human rights areas, including migration and asylum-seekers, access to health care (including challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic), and climate change and the protection of the environment, and the empowerment of historically violated communities and groups. This has been done through some support for the crafting and implementation of Costa Rica’s national policies, plans and programs, and cooperation with civil society organisations. I strongly believe that the role of civil society organizations and their cooperation with the authorities, international organisations, donors and other relevant stakeholders, is fundamental to the advancement of international human rights solidarity in these and many other thematic areas.
I also commend the efforts that have been made by the Government of Costa Rica and by several civil society organizations and private businesses to advance human rights principles and social protection in their work, in particular to promote the greater integration of women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants, and refugees in the labour market. I also welcome the efforts that have been made by all levels of the Government to mainstream the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in all policy areas and from a human rights perspective. I encourage the authorities to continue their efforts to monitor and evaluate the implementation of Agenda 2030 in all Costa Rican laws, policies, regulations, plans of actions, and programmes.
The Judicial arm of the Costa Rican government is to be commended for their commitment and many systematic efforts to support the advancement of laws, policies, programs and activities that support the greater enjoyment of human rights and social protection in the country, especially by persons belonging to historically marginalized communities and groups, together with international cooperation. I encourage them to expand and deepen those efforts in order to close the remaining gaps.
I was also impressed by the frankness of the discussions with my many interlocutors from the Government, civil society and international organisations, in open and always constructive dialogues, about the challenges being faced currently by the country in the areas of focus of this visit.
One of the challenges that was often identified by my interlocutors from the Government, UN agencies and civil society is the fact that Costa Rica is now an upper-middle level income country and a member of the OECD. While this is commendable in terms of acknowledging its success in development and economic growth, this has led to a decrease in access to international development assistance and other forms of international cooperation received from donors, at a time when its need for support has actually increased (in part due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, accentuated pressure on the country from both transit and destination migration and refugee flows from neighbouring and other Latin American countries, and the enduring poverty of about 23% of its population.
This situation has had particularly negative impacts on the country’s capacity to support the increasingly high number of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers it processes. For example, a planned migration centre in the North of the country remains un-established because of a resource gap. Civil society groups have reported some significant gaps on the ground in the social protection of migrants and refugees, which need to be addressed.
Due to the insufficiency of the number of officers processing their applications, migrants and refugees also experience long delays before their applications for the regularization of their status is determined. Despite a recent Presidential Decree reducing them, the fees charged by the Government to migrants and refuges to regularize their status remain prohibitive for all-too-many migrants and asylum-seekers, many of whom remain unemployed despite having access to work permits. I heard that migrant and refugee access to social services (such as public healthcare and education) has too often been impeded as a result of a lack of knowledge on the part of the relevant civil servants and the private sector (potential employers included).
The closure of the border during the lockdown imposed to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many migrants and refugees were unable to cross into the country and that those already present were forced into even more difficult socio-economic conditions, and represent a challenge that Costa Rica needs to address, including through greater cooperation with neighbouring countries. Similarly, as in many other countries, the lockdown exacerbated existing inequalities in Costa Rican society (especially in terms of access to health services, income, and digital education).
I also heard that women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and LGBTI persons continue to face discrimination in many areas, and that the increase in the influx of migrants and refugees from neighbouring countries and beyond has led to a rise in xenophobic discourse and hate speech, particularly in social media. Efforts must continue to be made by all actors to combat this worrisome trend.
While Costa Rica serves as an example in the climate change and environmental protection area and has been at the forefront of many initiatives to combat climate change, most of the actions taken so far have related to climate mitigation measures, and not nearly as many have been climate adaptation programs. There is a need – with greater international assistance – to re-balance the approach taken in this regard to some better protect people in regions of the country that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, the rise of oceans and deforestation.
These challenges facing by Costa Rica also need to be addressed in greater measure by the international community as an expression of its international solidarity to the country. This is more so as Costa Rica itself has long displayed a commitment to expressing international solidarity to other countries and peoples. In this spirit of international cooperation, more funding and assistance should be directed to assisting Costa Rica in its provision of support to migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, as well as to enabling more of them access basic social services (such as health care, education, and a basic income). The international community also has a significant role to play in the government’s efforts to ensure more employment for these groups. Such international assistance is also needed to cut the long delays sometimes experienced by members of these groups in accessing social programs, due to the inadequacy of resources within some agencies.
The contribution of migrants and refugees to Costa Rican society should also be acknowledged and recognised in greater measure, as these groups have played a positive role in the country’s socio-economic development for many decades, contributing up to 20% of its GDP despite being only 9% of the population.
Greater access to land should also be provided to historically disadvantaged groups such as indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and women. I heard that many Afro-descendants have faced the threat or reality of losing their lands. Every effort should be made to redress this situation. The grant of formal land titles to Afro-descendants who have lived on their lands, in many cases for generations; and to migrants and refugees who have built homes in very difficult circumstances and managed to successfully integrate into Costa Rican society; should also be made much easier, as was recommended by other UN experts and officials who visited Costa Rica in the past.
More actions should also be taken to ensure that historically disadvantaged persons and groups, such as women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, LGBTI persons, can live in a society free from discrimination, violence and hate speech directed against them.
Poverty remains a serious issue in the country with 23% living under the poverty line, a situation that was exacerbated by the pandemic. While Costa Rica has over the last decades significantly improved its economy, income distribution inequality in the country has worsened appreciably.
My visit to Costa Rica has been a very productive and fruitful one. The above comments are preliminary in nature and are not comprehensive in scope. I will prepare a full and detailed report of the visit with recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders and present it to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2023.
I thank you for your attendance and will now take any questions you may have.”