Press Release

IACHR Condemns Murder of Indigenous Bribri Leader Who Was a Beneficiary of Precautionary Measures in Costa Rica

March 25, 2019

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Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the murder of Bribri indigenous leader Sergio Rojas in Salitre, Costa Rica. As a member of the Bribri indigenous people in Salitre, Sergio Rojas was a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR on April 30, 2015.

According to publicly available reports, Sergio Rojas Ortiz was murdered on the night of March 18, 2019, while he was at his home in the Salitre community. He was killed hours after he accompanied some neighbors from his community to the public prosecutor’s office, to report threats they had received. The Commission notes that Sergio Rojas was a member of the national coordination mechanism of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAPI, by its Spanish acronym) and of the council of indigenous authorities called Consejo Autoridades Propias Defensores de la Madre Tierra in the village of Salitre. He had already been subjected to several attacks and threats in the past.

The IACHR issued Resolution 16/15 to grant precautionary measures in favor of members of the Teribe and Bribri indigenous peoples in Salitre—including Sergio Rojas—given the risks they faced. In that resolution, the Commission asked the State of Costa Rica to adopt any measures necessary to protect beneficiaries’ lives and personal integrity and to investigate the sources of the danger they faced, among other aspects. Once precautionary measures have been granted and the State has been notified of a situation of risk, the State has a special duty to protect beneficiaries. Effective implementation of those measures is a tool to prevent the realization of that risk and a means for the State to avoid being declared internationally responsible for any such events.

The Commission stresses that acts of violence and other attacks against human rights defenders not only affect the safeguards they are due as human beings. They also impact the fundamental role those defenders play in society. Such attacks harm the people for whom defenders work, increasing their vulnerability and potentially leaving them defenseless. Further, as stated by the Inter-American Human Rights System, the loss of an indigenous leader could have an impact on the group they represent and might lead to a disintegration of their community and other forms of damage.

Given the context in which these events took place, the IACHR stresses the territory’s importance for the physical and cultural survival of indigenous peoples. The Commission insists on what the Inter-American Court has already said, namely that States’ failure to identify and effectively demarcate indigenous land can create an atmosphere of permanent uncertainty, which affects the group’s social harmony.

The Commission notes that the Costa Rican President has condemned the murder and described “a tragic day for the Bribri people, for our indigenous peoples and for all of Costa Rica.” The Commission further notes orders given for investigators to identify the people responsible for the murder and to solve this case, as well as the security measures adopted in favor of Sergio Rojas’ family.

“We salute the State’s response and its decision to create a special unit to investigate the death of indigenous leader Sergio Rojas,” said Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, the IACHR’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “This crime must be investigated in a serious, timely, thorough, independent and impartial manner, and its masterminds and perpetrators must be punished. In particular, the State must adopt a differentiated ethnic-racial approach when investigating, trying and punishing those crimes and when providing reparations for them,” Commissioner Urrejola added.

Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said that “the State must include in its investigation lines that assess, as a hypothesis, the possibility that this crime may have been motivated by [Rojas’] activity as a human rights defender.”

Finally, the IACHR urges the State to immediately take any measures necessary to protect the rights to life, personal integrity and safety of all other precautionary measure beneficiaries. The Costa Rican government has invited the IACHR to conduct a working visit to monitor these precautionary measures.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 078/19