El Salvador, Central America – The UN human rights office, OHCHR, on Tuesday expressed concern over mass detentions and other measures implemented during the state of emergency in El Salvador, now in effect for a year.
An initial month-long crackdown on gangs was introduced on 27 March 2022 and has been regularly renewed, with the latest extension announced last week. At least 65,000 people, including children, have been detained since then.
OHCHR underlined that the right to life, the absolute prohibition against torture, the principles of fair trial, and the procedural safeguards that protect these rights, apply at all times, even during states of emergency.
Duty to comply
“We understand the serious challenges posed by gang violence, and the State’s duty to ensure security. However, it is the State’s duty to do so in compliance with international human rights law,” Spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists in Geneva.
Hurtado said some of the mass detentions “may amount to arbitrary detention as they appear to be based on poorly substantiated investigations, on crude profiling of the physical appearance or social background of those detained.”
Ill-treatment and deaths
Conditions in overcrowded places of detention were also deeply concerning. OHCHR has received allegations of serious violations of prisoners’ rights, such as prolonged solitary confinement.
There have also been instances of inmates with chronic disease not receiving prescribed medication, and reports of other forms of ill-treatment.
“It is especially worrying that 90 people have allegedly died in custody since the state of emergency was first enacted, and only limited information is available on how the investigations into these deaths are proceeding,” Hurtado said.
Thousands of complaints
She stressed that States have a heightened duty to protect the lives of individuals deprived of their liberty. So far, El Salvador’s national human rights institution has collected nearly 8,000 complaints of rights violations against prisoners.
OHCHR urged the authorities to ensure people are not arrested without sufficient legal authorization, and to ensure that those detained are afforded all fundamental safeguards as required under international human rights law.
Repression reduces reintegration
The government must also allow the national human rights institution unrestricted access to all prison facilities so it can conduct regular, independent reporting on the conditions.
“We remind the authorities of international experience showing that relying on an overly repressive penitentiary model reduces the chances of prisoners being successfully reintegrated into society,” said Hurtado.
She added that finding long-term solutions to insecurity and crime will require addressing the root causes of gang violence, such as social inequalities, marginalization, and the lack of effective social policies and governance.