The IACHR and Its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Call on the State of Panama to Protect the Right to Peaceful Protest

November 9, 2023

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Washington, D.C. – Given the social protests that have been taking place in Panama in recent weeks, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression call on the State to respect and protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression in compliance with the applicable inter-American standards.

The protests that are ongoing in Panama demand the revocation of Act 406, which granted a private company a 20-year concession to exploit the largest open-pit copper mine in Central America. According to the available reports, this contract was negotiated after the country's Supreme Court of Justice declared unconstitutional another concession granted to the same company, that had been in force since 2017. Complaints say that the new concession was rushed through and that it too is unconstitutional, due to its impact on natural resources and on the environment more generally.

According to publicly available reports, there have been clashes between protesters and police officers from the Crowd Control Unit who have allegedly resorted to an excessive use of force. The Panamanian Ombudsperson's Office said it had launched investigations into 18 complaints for human rights violations allegedly committed in this context. According to the Ombudsperson's Office, over the course of the protests, complaints were filed about the use of tear gas that was past its expiration date and there were allegations that at least 63 people had been injured, seven of whom were left in serious condition. One of the injured is allegedly a photojournalist who suffered serious eye trauma after being hit with a pepper-spray pellet. The IACHR was also told that, on November 7, two demonstrators died after being shot by a third individual, who was arrested by the authorities.

According to publicly available reports, more than 900 people have been arrested for vandalism and damage to property. In a public statement, the Ombudsperson's Office said it had been able to verify 325 arrests, most of them involving individuals who were later released with fines and verbal warnings. The State said that arrests had been conducted in the context of flagrant acts of violence in violation of the country's laws.

The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship were also informed about physical violence and harassment against journalists and media outlets by demonstrators who prevented them from covering the protests.

In a statement, the National Police said it respects the right to peaceful, unarmed assembly but stressed its duty to "anticipate and prevent abuse in the exercise of this right when it leads to disturbances in public order, causes damage and other impacts on third parties, or involves criminal activities." The National Police further denied using lethal weapons to restore order and protect security and dismissed the "misinformation and fake content campaign" on this issue that is allegedly ongoing on social media.

On October 29, the Panamanian President publicly announced that he would ask the Electoral Court to hold a referendum on December 17 to establish whether Act 406 should be revoked. On October 31, the firm to whom the Panamanian government granted this mining concession issued a statement, stressing its openness to engage in talks and its commitment to the rule of law. Members of Panama's National Assembly were reportedly drafting a bill to revoke Act 406.

In a statement issued on October 30, the plenary of Panama's Electoral Court said that the country's Supreme Court of Justice was assessing various allegations of unconstitutionality concerning Act 406 which, if resolved before a referendum takes place, would make the referendum unnecessary. The Electoral Court plenary further noted that it would not be the institution of competent jurisdiction to enforce referendum results or to decide whether those results are binding, which would both be up to the party who requested the call to a referendum. The Court also stressed that the prevailing conditions are currently not suitable to hold such a referendum. However, if legally required to do so, the Electoral Court would need to hold this consultation, as long as it can ensure appropriate conditions for the exercise of all political rights.

The IACHR commends the Panamanian State on the approval of Act 407 of November 3, 2023, banning moves to grant concessions to explore, extract, transport, and profit from the exploitation of metal mining throughout the country's territory. This mining moratorium was one of the main demands of Panamanian citizens.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that social protest is essential for the existence and consolidation of democratic societies and for the defense of human rights, and that it requires the exercise of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. When social protests reflect demands or other moves to question government measures or matters of public interest, they are particularly protected by Article 13 of the American Convention.

The State has a duty to respect, protect, facilitate, and enable social protest, considering that the fact that some people engage in acts of violence during a protest does not in itself make the whole protest illegitimate or justify moves by law enforcement forces to dissolve that protest using force. When certain individuals engage in acts of violence during a protest, they must be identified, but the right to peaceful assembly of all other protesters must be enforced.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression note that the actions of law enforcement agencies to prevent or end violence during protests must comply with the applicable protocols and with the necessity, proportionality, and legality principles held in the applicable standards. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression further note that vulnerable protesters need to be granted special protection in this context. At the same time, given reports of challenges linked to highway blockades, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship call on the various stakeholders to provide corridors that enable a simultaneous exercise of all rights and facilitate the movement of foodstuffs, medical supplies, and other essential goods.

The State must do all it can to ensure that journalists can do their work during social protests without being attacked, threatened, or otherwise coerced for doing their job. In cases of social conflict, the media play the crucial role of reporting on events to inform the rest of the population.

Finally, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship call on the State of Panama to search for ways to engage in talks with protesters while protecting the right to peaceful protest.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate stems from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has the mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as an advisory body to the OAS on the matter. The IACHR is made up of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 261/23

9:10 AM