GENEVA, Switzerland – UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday urged all actors in Ecuador to engage in dialogue to prevent new conflicts and forge an inclusive, peaceful society with full respect for its multicultural nature.
The high commissioner also called for independent, impartial and transparent investigations into allegations of human rights violations and abuses committed in Ecuador during the protests from October 3 – 13 including killings, violations of international norms and standards on the use of force, arbitrary detentions, as well as looting and destruction of public and private property.
Following an invitation by the government of Ecuador, the UN human rights office sent a mission to the country from October 21 – 8 November. The high commissioner thanked the Ecuadorian authorities for their openness to international scrutiny, for their collaboration and for the information provided by national authorities and state institutions to the human rights mission.
The purpose of the mission was to collect first-hand information and identify possible human rights violations and abuses that occurred in the context of the protests that broke out in response to austerity measures, such as the elimination of subsidies for fuel, and a package of economic and fiscal proposals.
The team met with high-level officials from all branches of government, with civil society representatives, indigenous groups, journalists, unionists, health sector workers, and businesses, among others. In total, the mission interviewed 373 people, including 83 individual victims. The team also visited three detention centres and conducted field visits in Chimborazo, Tungurahua, Cotopaxi and Guayas Provinces.
According to information received by the team, over 11 days of social unrest, at least nine people died and 1,507 were injured, including 435 members of security forces. Reportedly, 1,382 people were detained. There are allegations that many of these people were arbitrarily detained.
“Last month’s unrest had a high human cost,” the high commissioner said. “People should be able to express their grievances without fear of being hurt or arrested. At the same time, it is important that protestors do not resort to violence.”
The team received reports from victims and witnesses of use of force by law enforcement officials that were not in conformity with international norms and standards, including unnecessary and disproportionate use of force. Law enforcement officials included the police and the military, which was deployed following the declaration of a state of exception.
Victims and witnesses informed the team that teargas and pellet rounds were regularly shot by the security officers directly at the protesters at very close range, causing hundreds of injuries, and possibly some of the deaths.
While acknowledging that the public prosecutor’s office and the police have opened 17 and 31 investigations respectively, the UN human rights chief stressed the importance of investigating the circumstances of all deaths and serious injuries. She added that it is imperative that the internal protocols regarding the use of force for law enforcement officials are reviewed and that the authorities ensure they comply with international norms and standards.
Some protestors also resorted to violence and unidentified individuals have been accused of inciting and using violence. Riots, roadblocks, looting, attacks on dozens of ambulances, arson and destruction of public and private property, cutting off water supplies, and damage to oil production facilities were all used as means of expressing dissent. According to official reports, more than 400 police and military officers were held against their will and subjected to harassment and ill-treatment.
According to figures provided by civil society organizations, there were more than 100 attacks on journalists, carried out both by security officers and by protestors. Media outlets’ signals were cut, particularly in El Arbolito in Quito on October 10, and one of their headquarters was raided by the police – indicating a deliberate effort to hinder the ability to both impart and receive information, which is a key aspect of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. Violent groups burned the Teleamazonas building and attacked the El Comercio newspaper.
On a number of occasions, unidentified individuals who the organisers of the protests said were unknown to them were allegedly responsible for either inciting violence or for carrying out acts of violence themselves. The UN human rights office team was informed that the public prosecutor’s office has opened inquiries into these cases.
Bachelet also called on the authorities to refrain from statements and other actions that may lead to stigmatization of indigenous peoples and foreigners, as well as of journalists and political opponents, exposing them to additional risks of physical harm.
A worrying pattern identified by the mission was the very high number of alleged arbitrary detentions. Mass arrests were carried out throughout the crisis, and in several cases without any evidence against specific individuals. A number of victims and witnesses reported cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during their arrests to the UN human rights team.
In addition, there are allegations that in many cases, due process was not followed: detainees were held incommunicado, transferred to unauthorized places of detention, and access to lawyers was often delayed or obstructed. According to information from the government and the public prosecutor’s office, 80 percent of those detained were subsequently released, in most cases without charges. The remaining 20 percent were charged on an array of counts ranging from contraventions, assault, and illegal association through to terrorism charges.
According to the authorities, this last charge was laid against at least 30 people accused of setting fire to the building of the office of the state comptroller general.
“The government should ensure that those released without charges are not left with an adverse record against them as a result. By the same token, those who have been charged should enjoy a fair trial and proper treatment in accordance with international standards,” the high commissioner said. “A comprehensive package of reparations should also be provided for the victims. People not only have the right to the truth but also to remedy, which includes guarantees of non-recurrence. Without these, the feeling of frustration and injustice will prevail.”
Regarding the triggers of the crisis, the UN human rights office strongly recommends that the government promote a participatory approach to decision-making, ensuring the enjoyment by people of their right to participate in public affairs. Such a strategy of participation should be extended to economic and fiscal measures – including on proposals of austerity measures – and especially with the communities likely to be worst affected. This would be in line with the view of the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights which recommended that Ecuador ensure that any economic decisions affecting people should be taken in a transparent manner and in consultation with the affected population.
The historical and persistent discrimination against indigenous peoples should also be a matter of concern and priority for the government. The high commissioner urged the authorities to do their utmost to identify effective measures to deal with this problem and to recognise that it is a barrier to overcoming structural economic inequalities.
“Social and economic inequality remains a structural barrier for development for vast sectors of society, who have felt left behind for generations and do not see positive prospects for the future,” Bachelet said. “It is of paramount importance that society as a whole, with the government as a guiding force, embark together in search of paths of mutual understanding with the aim of constructing an inclusive, multicultural and peaceful society.”