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Risking it all to stand up for human rights in exile

19 April 2024

Wendy Flores, Nicaraguan human rights defender presenting report at the 55th session of the Human Rights Council. © Colectivo Nicaragua Nunca Más

“I had to leave Nicaragua irregularly. I left with a backpack, my computer, and the feeling that I was leaving my country for having defended other victims, for having accompanied them. I felt like I had committed a crime, when what I had been doing was defending human rights,” said Wendy Flores, a human rights defender from Nicaragua.

Flores studied law and became motivated to defend human rights after observing the injustices occurring in her country. She later joined the non-profit organization Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) as an intern in April 2002.

“I began to realise that I was a human rights defender because I was working for the victims, for their rights and supporting them as they faced a series of obstacles in the country,” Flores said.

Flores is currently living in exile, after the government began to cancel the legal status of several civil society organisations dedicated to the defence of human rights, as well as detaining their members, following the protests of April 2018.

According to an Office report, in early April 2018, demonstrations led by environmental groups, the rural peasant population and students erupted in Nicaragua to denounce the slow and insufficient response of the Government to forest fires in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. After this, more dissatisfaction grew from among the public from social security reform to the reduction of pension payments, which led to even more protests. The people protesting were quickly seen as Government opponents, which resulted in the repression of the protests, the criminalization of demonstrators and their arrests.

“During the last five years, in Nicaragua more than 3,600 civil society organizations have been cancelled. In December 2018, CENIDH was one of the first 10 organisations to be cancelled,” Flores said. “And even when we said we would continue to defend human rights, unfortunately we didn't manage to do so inside the country because detentions started happening and it was obvious that that was going to prevent me from doing my job as a defender.”

Flores had to leave Nicaragua because of the risk of being criminalised for defending human rights and putting her family in jeopardy.

“Feeling that I was leaving behind, even temporarily, my almost newborn son and my daughter, was one of the hardest situations I’ve faced,” Flores said.

Fortunately, Flores was able to reunite with her family after approximately two and a half months after leaving Nicaragua, but she said the separation inevitably had a traumatic impact on the whole family. She is aware that unfortunately many other women defenders have had to wait a long time to reunite with their families. And that even in some cases they have not succeeded, which has had psychological impacts in children and defenders.

In exile

Leaving Nicaragua forced Flores to reinvent her work as a human rights defender and with other human rights defenders who were also in exile, she established the human rights collective Nicaragua Nunca Más (Nicaragua Never Again). The collective aims to support victims, denounce human rights violations, and sends a symbolic message that, despite many obstacles and the need to live in exile, they continue to fight against impunity for human rights violations in Nicaragua.

When you don't have freedom, you value more what you lose. We have lost the freedom to express ourselves within Nicaraguan territory, to move around, to develop our own life projects within our country, to participate politically or to defend human rights.

Wendy Flores, Nicaraguan human rights defender in exile, founder of the human rights collective “Nicaragua Nunca Más”

“We were emotionally broken, apart from our families, disjointed, but we had the strength to continue denouncing human rights violations. And that was the main motivation that we had and that I identified with. In February 2019, we held a press conference to announce that we would continue our work as defenders in exile,” Flores said.

“And since then, we’ve continued to document cases of displaced people in Nicaragua. We’ve managed to identify more than 1140 cases in these five years. We’ve documented the way in which acts of torture have been perpetrated against political prisoners,” Flores said. “We’ve identified more than 40 methods of torture used against political prisoners and their families. And we’ve also identified perpetrators within these documented cases.”

Flores knows that those who remain in Nicaragua face danger, but she points out that there are also extraterritorial risks.

“Those of us who are outside have also experienced acts of siege and surveillance by State forces or forces installed outside Nicaraguan territory to persecute and intimidate defenders. In addition, the denationalisation imposed by authorities, affected more than 317 people who are mainly outside Nicaragua,” Flores said.

“For us to be able to return to Nicaragua, we would need a country that complies with international obligations, that initiates a process of dialogue with international mechanisms for the protection of human rights and that shows evidence that the country is going to undertake a democratic process and respect human rights,” Flores said.

For Flores, some of this evidence would include allowing international organisms such as UN Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to return to the country.

Our work for defenders in exile

Flores said the impact of UN Human Rights work for human rights defenders in exile has been vital for her as a human rights defender and the human rights movement in her country.

“The UN Human Rights Regional Office for Central America and the Caribbean (ROCA) supports the work of defenders in exile by providing technical assistance to facilitate their access to the human rights mechanisms of the UN and accountability at the international level, such as universal jurisdiction,” said Alberto Brunori, the Representative at ROCA.

Thanks to successive resolutions adopted since 2019, the Human Rights Council addresses the situation in Nicaragua at its sessions through oral updates and written reports submitted by UN Human Rights.

In addition, in 2022, the Council promoted the creation the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua to promote accountability,.

This way, the Office has succeeded in bringing the human rights violations that continue to occur in Nicaragua to the attention of the international community and has supported a solution to the crisis based on human rights principles and standards.

“The Office has advocated for host countries to provide defenders fleeing Nicaragua with the protection they need, as well as the necessary support for their work,” Brunori said.

“Human rights defenders who are forced to leave the country need international protection as they require a safe legal situation that allows them to continue promoting human rights without fear of being returned to Nicaragua,” Brunori said. “They also need their claims of insecurity in exile to be considered. Their work requires financial resources and the necessary political support to ensure that their work, their analysis, and their human rights proposals are included in the decisions that are made about Nicaragua at the international level. Supporting their work means contributing to a more democratic and human rights-based future for the country.”

For Flores, it is essential that the international community continues to keep an eye on Nicaragua.

“Networking and the work that other organisations can do, supporting human rights defenders, really becomes an action for life, because to live is not only to breathe and feed oneself, but to live has to be to live fully, and this has to do with the psychological, mental and physical conditions in which we can carry out our work,” Flores said.