Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
This oral update takes place in compliance with Resolution 46/2 of this Council, which requested OHCHR to monitor closely the situation of human rights in Nicaragua, including in the context of the electoral process, and to present, before the end of 2021, an interim oral update with recommendations, followed by an interactive dialogue.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing economic hardship, I would like to start by acknowledging the efforts of the Government of Nicaragua to maintain necessary social spending on health and education, as well as the promotion of gender equality, as indicated in its First National Voluntary Report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
However, truly sustainable development must encompass the full spectrum of a society's needs. The 2030 Agenda, and especially SDG 16, constitutes a powerful call for building peaceful, just, tolerant and inclusive societies, based on the respect for human rights and effective rule of law.
The general elections held on 7 November offered a valuable opportunity for Nicaragua to take a step forward towards a peaceful and democratic solution to the political, social and human rights crisis that has afflicted the country since 2018. It was also a chance to open spaces for progress towards accountability and reparation for victims of the range of human rights violations that have occurred over that period.
However, as the High Commissioner warned this Council in June and September of this year, the worrying deterioration of civil and political rights during the electoral process resulted in the arbitrary exclusion of many Nicaraguans from participation in the elections, notably those holding views different from the views of the ruling party.
As previously indicated by OHCHR, the electoral reform adopted in Nicaragua on 4 May did not introduce safeguards to ensure the independence and impartiality of electoral authorities. In addition, the rights to freedom of expression and association were disproportionately restricted through vaguely defined prohibitions. The selection of the members of the Supreme Electoral Council, which took place on the same day as the adoption of the new electoral legislation, did not include consultations with civil society organizations, as mandated by law, and lacked appropriate diversity in its membership.
For an election to duly serve its public purpose, it is essential that the authorities ensure a safe and enabling environment for candidates to set out, explain and promote their visions and policy proposals for the country, and for voters, in turn, to freely express their will without arbitrary limitation. However, in Nicaragua, OHCHR documented the arbitrary detention of no fewer than 39 political leaders, human rights defenders, business people, journalists, and peasant and student leaders during the electoral period, between May and October. This includes seven people who had registered as pre-candidates or had publicly expressed their intention to run for President.
All of them were detained on the basis of legal provisions incompatible with international human rights standards, as noted by our Office and this Council's Special Procedures mandate holders. Furthermore, the judicial proceedings to which they were subjected did not adequately respect due process.
Thirty-five of these persons are still detained in the pre-trial detention centre known as "Nuevo Chipote". According to the information received, many have been detained incommunicado for over 90 days, some in prolonged solitary confinement, and have only been able to see their families on isolated occasions. Such conditions pose real risks to their physical and mental integrity and may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even rise to torture.
As a matter of urgency, authorities must allow regular visits by lawyers and relatives of the detainees, including their children, and ensure detention conditions fully comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules).
In November, during the election weekend and the following days, OHCHR also documented the detention of another eight men and two women political activists and journalists. Only two men and one woman have reportedly been released. Those who remain in detention are being held incommunicado while facing ambiguous criminal charges. Respect of due process needs to be guaranteed.
In the months before the election, three political parties were stripped of their legal status, leaving important political groups that emerged from the 2018 protests without the ability to present candidates. The same happened to 45 non-profit organisations, including international aid organisations, women's organisations and medical associations critical of the government's response to the pandemic. Civil society organisations receiving foreign funding to observe elections and promote freedom of expression were also forced to cease or limit their activities due to obstacles imposed by the so-called "Foreign Agents Regulation Act". Harassment and arbitrary arrests also limited the ability of human rights defenders to monitor the electoral process. Despite repeated calls by the Organisation of American States (OAS), no impartial international observers were invited to observe the elections.
In the weeks leading up to election day, many journalists were denied accreditation and entry into the country, hindering independent coverage of the electoral process. This was in addition to the violations of freedom of the press and the right to information previously documented by OHCHR, including raiding of the country's main print newspaper and arbitrary arrests, harassment and threats of journalists and media workers involved in critical reporting of the Government, leading dozens of them to flee the country.
Finally, protests or demonstrations by groups not participating in the elections were banned in the country by the new electoral law.
All these restrictions and human rights violations created an environment unconducive to genuine and free elections. On 12 November, the OAS General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that "the 7 November elections in Nicaragua were not free, fair or transparent and lacked democratic legitimacy". In response, a week later, the Government denounced the OAS Charter, starting a two-year process of withdrawl from the OAS.
Last week, on 8 December, the OAS Permanent Council adopted a resolution urging the Government to release all political prisoners and to accept a high-level mission of good offices with the aim, among others, of holding early elections with international observers.
In his Call to Action for Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General emphasised that the international human rights protection system helps to overcome the challenges, seize opportunities and restore relations between peoples and their leaders.
I therefore call on the Government of Nicaragua to engage with this Council, as well as with the Special Procedures and other human rights protection mechanisms of the United Nations system. I also urge the Government of Nicaragua to urgently restore public rights and freedoms and the impartial rule of law, and to bring its national legislation fully into line with international human rights standards.
In this regard, all people arbitrarily detained should be immediately released and have their civil and political rights fully restored. The legal personality of political parties and civil society organisations arbitrarily stripped should also be reinstated.
It is equally important to stop the criminal prosecution and harassment of political opponents, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders on account of their opinions and beliefs , and to ensure accountability, truth-seeking and full reparation for victims of serious human rights violations committed since April 2018.
Through this Council, the international community can support Nicaragua in re-establishing the rule of law and democratic institutions.
With that in mind, I call on the Human Rights Council to remain apprised of the human rights situation in Nicaragua and to consider all measures within its power to promote accountability for the serious violations that have occurred since 2018. OHCHR stands ready to assist in these efforts.
At the same time, I call on the Government of Nicaragua to create the conditions necessary for, and conducive to, a national dialogue, based on a road map with clear commitments, and to grant OHCHR and other human rights mechanisms necessary access to the country to duly perform their mandates. We remain ready to assist Nicaragua in implementing the recommendations included in our reports.