Press Release

IACHR Issues Preliminary Observations and Recommendations Following On-Site Visit to Chile

January 31, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) completed today an in loco visit to Chile that had started on January 25. The aim of the visit was to observe first-hand the human rights situation in the country following recent social protests and to assess the causes and consequences of the unrest. The Commission thanks the State of Chile for the invitation to conduct this visit and for the logistics support and assistance provided—especially by the country’s Foreign Ministry—to make it successful.

The Commission met with officials from the government and from autonomous institutions and with representatives of international and civil society organizations. The IACHR appreciates all the information that was provided, as well as the good disposition to engage in constructive dialogue. The Commission particularly appreciates the efforts made by victims of human rights violations and their families and by students, civil society organizations, and other groups to meet with the delegation and present their testimony, complaints, and communications.

The delegation was led by Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, the IACHR’s President. It also included Commissioner Joel Hernández, the IACHR’s Vice President as well as its Rapporteur for Chile; Commissioners Margarette May Macaulay, Flávia Piovesan, Julissa Mantilla, and Stuardo Ralón; Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão; Assistant Executive Secretary María Claudia Pulido; Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza; Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights Soledad García-Muñoz; and members of the staff of the Commission’s Executive Secretariat.

The IACHR delegation visited the cities of Santiago, Arica, Temuco, Ercilla, Concepción, Antofagasta, and Valparaíso. It also visited the communities of Lo Hermida and Pudahuel Sur, and the Center for Pretrial Detention Santiago 1, the Carabineros (national police) station 3a, the penitentiary in Temuco, and the San Miguel Family Accommodation Center and its replacement CREAD Pudahuel (both managed by the National Service for Minors, known as SENAME by its Spanish acronym). Throughout this visit, the IACHR met with more than 900 people, including victims and their families.

The Commission has been following the human rights situation around the protests since social unrest erupted, through requests for information from the State, a preliminary visit, this in loco visit, and press releases like the one issued on December 6 to condemn the excessive use of force during social protests in Chile, express the IACHR’s grave concern about the large number of alleged human rights violations, and reject all forms of violence. The IACHR will also draft a final report on this on-site visit.

I. Democratic institutions

The Commission acknowledges that Chile has a democratic system in place, where the rule of law prevails through s
lid democratic and human rights institutions. However, the country’s democratic institutions are facing a profound challenge, in the context of a social crisis that has had a major impact in Chilean society and can only be overcome with determined measures. Among efforts to solve this situation, the IACHR highlights the work of the National Institute for Human Rights, the Public Criminal Defense Office, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of the Ombudsperson for Children, and the Transparency Council. These institutions have received, recorded, investigated, and denounced alleged human rights violations in the country and sought to launch the relevant prosecutions.

The IACHR also highlights the crucial actions of judicial institutions to investigate and try allegations of human rights violations. In this context, the Commission acknowledges the efforts made by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Criminal Defense Office, and the Forensic Medical Service. The State has the obligation to ensure full accountability for human rights violations, and society eagerly expects it to do so.

The IACHR commends the Chilean government for its openness and transparency regarding international observation of the human rights situation in the country, and for its willingness to enable channels for communication and coordination in this field.

II. Complaints and shortcomings concerning rights

The Commission was able to observe a vibrant civil society that is fully aware of its rights, shows solidarity, and rallies around its demands. The Commission recognizes legitimate historical demands, particularly those linked to equal pay and access to education, healthcare, social security, water, and other social rights.

The IACHR observes that the State of Chile has a historical debt to pay in terms of justice, concerning serious human rights violations committed in the past. The legal system still has regulations in place that prevent punishment for the most serious crimes committed during the military dictatorship. Criminal prosecutions have not made progress befitting the seriousness of the cases that have been identified in that context. The Commission highlights that the perpetuation of impunity for serious violations not only affects victims and their families but society as a whole, since it signals tolerance for such actions.

The IACHR notes that all expressions of discontent and protests in Chile since October 2019 show growing, accumulated, and intergenerational dissatisfaction with access to social rights, basic public services, and higher levels of well-being.

Although Chile has had high rates of economic growth and attained goals in poverty reduction and social service coverage, high levels of inequality and exclusion persist and the rights of a major portion of the population are still not being adequately recognized. Protests express not only the discontent of people who particularly suffer from poverty and exclusion, but also that of broad middle classes who feel that their chances to develop and lead dignified lives are severely restricted.

Chile has worked to increase family incomes, but many problems persist in the form of structural processes and practical and legal hurdles that prevent an effective enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights (ESCER). These include poor regulation and supervision of business activities that affect social and environmental rights.

While inequality and exclusion levels have varied over time in their nature and intensity, access to education, healthcare, adequate pensions, water, and a healthy environment has in all cases been restricted, for different reasons. This particularly affects young people, women who head households, indigenous peoples, and older adults. The IACHR heard particularly worrying reports about the situation of retired teachers, especially in Antofagasta, and of residents of the so-called “environmental sacrifice zones,” including the Quintero Puchuncaví area, and of regions suffering from water scarcity, such as the Petorca province.

All social groups must be fully involved in efforts to find solutions to the current problems, to effectively ensure access to and enjoyment of the economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights that are the focus of social demands.

III. Characteristics of the protests

Over the past decade, Chile has experienced a series of protest cycles with various formats led by different social movements. Students, women’s groups, and indigenous peoples are some of the most common protesters. Despite these actions, there is still a lack of space and effective instruments to promote dialogue and participation.

A new series of protests started on October 18, 2019 and gradually gained intensity. The resulting conflict featured repeated instances of abuse, many arrests, and a disproportionate use of force. The failure to comply with international standards when dealing with these protests caused a strong wave of unrest in civil society.

IV. Victims

According to the information received by the IACHR, 29 people have been killed in these social protests since they began, on October 18. The death toll includes four people who allegedly died as a direct consequence of the actions of officers of the State or while being held in custody in Carabineros stations. According to the Ministry of Health, Chile’s medical emergency services treated 13,046 individuals who had been injured in connection with the protests over the period October 18–December 18. The National Institute for Human Rights (INDH, by its Spanish acronym) directly checked with hospitals and found that, by January 15, 2020, 3,649 people had been injured in demonstration contexts, and 1,624 of them had suffered pellet wounds. According to the INDH, 405 people presented eye injuries, including 33 with globe rupture and, in some cases, total loss of vision in both eyes.

The IACHR heard statements directly from victims and saw audiovisual documentation suggesting that pellets and gas cylinders had been shot at demonstrators’ bodies, necks, and faces. Some of those cases led to total loss of vision, including a 21-year-old student hit by pellets in both eyes during a demonstration on November 8 and a worker who was hit in the face by a tear gas canister on November 26, as she awaited the bus to head home. The IACHR also recorded complaints filed by scores of journalists and photojournalists who had been attacked or had their equipment broken by the security forces.

In terms of the sites where acts of violence had allegedly been perpetrated by officers of the State by November 30, the National Prosecutor’s Office said that 3,798 had happened on the street, 582 in police stations or military facilities, and 202 inside police vehicles. In terms of the institution mentioned in complaints, the Public Prosecutor’s Office said that 4,770 cases involved the Carabineros, 244 involved the Army, 96 involved the Investigative Police, 27 involved the Navy, and 15 involved other institutions. By November 30, charges had been pressed against 34 officers of the State. According to the information the IACHR collected during its visit, this figure has now risen to 38.

Sometimes the polarized context included stigmatizing remarks made by public officials, without court decisions or evidence to back them up. Several journalists also complained that they had been harassed or even sacked in connection with their coverage or opinions concerning this protest cycle. In other cases, there were leaks about alleged spying on journalists investigating the State’s security apparatus. Some commercial media outlets had their facilities set ablaze by violent attackers in various parts of the country.

The IACHR expresses its utmost concern about the many allegations of human rights violations made in the context of these social protests and condemns those alleged events. The Commission urges Chilean authorities to investigate with due diligence all allegations of human rights violations, to identify and punish anyone responsible for them, and to appropriately report the results of these efforts to citizens.

V. Plundering, damage caused to the private sector, and impact on the State’s law-enforcement officers

Various stakeholders acknowledge that most demonstrations had been peaceful. However, some protests were headed by groups who resorted to violence and threw stones, Molotov cocktails, and other hard objects and firebombs at the Carabineros and at various facilities—the State says there were 2,500 instances of this sort. The Commission was informed of attacks against Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish religious buildings.

According to information provided by the State, a total of 4,062 Carabineros officers were injured during demonstrations. The IACHR delegation met with a group of Carabineros officers, who described those attacks and explained how they had been affected by them. Various experts noted that some law-enforcement officers were inadequately trained to take part in situations that required a high degree of specialization, and that—given that there were many demonstrations—they had had to do work that is usually entrusted to special operations units. The Commission was also informed about plundering, instances of arson, and attacks on shops, private firms, places of worship, homes, and private individuals, among other acts of violence, during the social unrest.

Concerning demonstrations that turn violent, the IACHR reminds the State that operations to dissolve them must be exceptional. They require express orders from higher up the chain of command and must involve a serious risk for the lives or personal integrity of private individuals and law-enforcement officers, and they must only be adopted if there are no other, less damaging measures available to protect those rights. In all cases, law-enforcement forces need to respect and guarantee the work of journalists, photojournalists, and other professionals who record demonstrations when protesters are being dispersed or when the authorities resort to using less lethal force.

The IACHR strongly condemns all violence and stresses that social protest is legitimate as long as it is peaceful. It calls on the State to investigate and punish acts of violence committed against the Carabineros and third parties—including the private individuals mentioned above—in the context of protests.

VI. State response

The IACHR notes that the State’s response to protests focused on repression, with a disproportionate use of force and repeated acts of violence against demonstrators, which left a large number of victims of serious human rights violations. These include, among others, criminal prosecutions and the move to send to Congress a legislative package to enable harsher sanctions for some types of protests, particularly those that are violent.

The IACHR is particularly concerned about the large number of arrests conducted since October 18, 2019. Based on the information received by the Commission, at least 23,274 arrests were carried out since the beginning of the protests. These were followed by preliminary hearings and allegedly led to at least 1,615 individuals being placed in pretrial detention.

The Public Criminal Defense Office reported that it had alleged illegal detention in 32.8% of all cases of individuals in pretrial detention, and that 8% of all these pretrial detentions had been declared illegal. This Office also warned the Commission of a lack of adequate legal counsel for detainees since they were arrested and until they were taken before the relevant authorities.

The IACHR is seriously concerned about reports that say sexual abuse (including allegations of rape), torture, and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment were perpetrated in the context of arrests. The Forensic Medical Service said that, by January 29, it had received 1,172 requests for enforcement of the Istanbul Protocol. The Commission is extremely concerned about allegations that the Carabineros engaged in mock executions, serious physical and verbal abuse, beatings, overcrowding in places without adequate ventilation, and mistreatment of children and adolescents, among other such practices.

The IACHR stresses that the general requirements set by the system to prevent arbitrary detention also apply in protest contexts. These principles say that a person can only be deprived of liberty for reasons that are explicitly established by law and in cases where there is justified cause based on the assumptions described by the law, in strict compliance with all procedural formalities.

The Commission is also concerned about criminal charges related to violations of public order as a way to criminalize activities linked to social protests, and about the application of charges that are not in proportion to demonstrators’ actions and discourse, such as those held in the State’s Homeland Security Act. In this context, during a meeting with the Interior Ministry, the IACHR was informed that 959 complaints had been filed in connection with the Homeland Security Act, of which 269 involved plundering in supermarkets, 146 involved barricades and street blockades, and 1 involved inciting rebellion.

Concerning the legal initiatives that have emerged to restrict various aspects of the protests, the IACHR was informed about the alleged submission to Congress of a package of bills that could criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The IACHR asks the State not to develop criminal categories that turn into a crime behavior that is commonly observed in protests and that does not affect aspects like individuals’ lives, safety, or liberty.

VII. Differentiated consequences for groups of special concern

Concerning the defense of the rights of women, State institutions reported forced undressing, squats, and threats of rape issued to teenage girls and women (including some who were pregnant). In most of these cases, no formal complaints have been filed before the justice system, due to the persisting stigma and stereotypes that affect victims of these sorts of crimes, the fear of retaliation, and lack of trust in the authorities. The lack of specialized facilities also increases fear of revictimization, which leads to underrecording and does not enable efforts to assess the magnitude of this violence and to adequately address it.

The IACHR was also informed of the particular incidence on the LGBTI community of acts of violence committed by officers of the State in the protest context. The Commission was extremely concerned about acts of discrimination and violence committed against LGBTI persons. One example involves a medical student who was arrested by the Carabineros and was subsequently subjected to various forms of abuse—some of it sexual—based on their sexual orientation and gender expression. Further examples involve young lesbians who were insulted by the Carabineros and threatened with rape to “fix” their sexual orientation.

Concerning children and adolescents, the IACHR warns that social protests launched in October 2019 granted more visibility to an earlier process where these groups pressed their demands to defend their own rights, particularly regarding access to good-quality education. The Commission notes the repression and use of force deployed by the Carabineros inside some educational facilities.

According to the Office of the Ombudsperson for Children, the Carabineros entered the public secondary school Instituto Nacional General José Miguel Carrera at least 29 times in March–September 2019. During its on-site visit, the IACHR was informed of secondary school student protests against the University Admissions Test (PSU, by its Spanish acronym). According to these reports, the protests led the test to be cancelled at several examination centers. In this context, the State urged the Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate some of the leaders of these student movements, citing the State’s Homeland Security Act. The IACHR was also told of the decision to ban 86 students from taking the PSU and to expel the leaders of student protests from academic facilities.

The IACHR has followed with particular concern the situation of indigenous peoples and their historical demands in Chile. These demands include the need for constitutional recognition and criticism of the economic model based on the exploitation of natural resources that the State has been promoting in recent decades, which affects the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. The Commission has also observed the State’s response to these demands, which have mainly focused on a criminalization of indigenous leaders and authorities.

he Commission continues to receive information about the enforcement of Chile’s Anti-Terrorism Act, which uses what are known as “faceless witnesses,” as well as secret investigations and lengthy pretrial detentions. The IACHR has been monitoring constant allegations of police abuse, murders, and set-ups staged by law-enforcement agencies against indigenous persons, along with illegal raids and a disproportionate use of force. During its visit, the IACHR delegation collected statements about threats, ill-treatment, deprivations of liberty, use of less lethal weapons including tear gas and pellet guns against indigenous adults, older adults, children and adolescents, which have had a differentiated impact on these groups given their historical exclusion.

Concerning migrants, the Commission was informed of an increase in the use of stigmatizing discourse—even by officers of the State—particularly since the beginning of social unrest. The IACHR also heard statements about harassment, detentions, and exclusions, as well as about individuals who had been followed to their homes. Besides all this, the Commission also heard reports about the enforcement of the Homeland Security Act to deport migrants who were allegedly linked to acts of plundering and other actions associated with offenses against public order.

Finally, concerning the rights of Afro-descendant persons, the IACHR salutes the enactment of Act 21,151, which—among others—grants legal recognition to Chile’s Afro-descendant tribal people. However, the Commission notes that these individuals continue to face discrimination. According to the information the IACHR had access to, stereotypes and social prejudice prevail against these people and prevent them from enjoying equal access to jobs, education, and healthcare. The problem is even more serious for Afro-descendant migrants (mainly from Haiti and Cuba).

Considering the magnitude of the impact of social unrest on the different levels of Chilean society, the IACHR calls on all State institutions to address the social crisis through democratic, peaceful, and participatory measures, prioritizing dialogue and full respect for the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all persons.

VIII. Recommendations

Based on the observations made during this in loco visit, and considering Article 41.b of the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issues the following recommendations to the State of Chile:

1. Taking all measures necessary to immediately end the disproportionate use of force by the Carabineros in the context of social protests. The authorities must stress that they condemn the disproportionate use of force during the current wave of unrest. The IACHR further notes that the behavior of State security forces in efforts to preserve law and order must strictly comply with the applicable international human rights standards.

2. Conducting comprehensive institutional reform within the Carabineros, to ensure their actions comply with the principles of citizen safety and respect for human rights. Creating an institution to externally supervise police actions and granting that institution the necessary independence and the capacity to correct any faults it finds.

3. Ensuring that the security forces active to protect and monitor the development of demonstrations and protests focus on preserving people’s lives and integrity and refrain from arbitrarily arresting demonstrators or otherwise violating their rights, in accordance with the applicable protocols. Setting up effective independent supervision of intelligence agencies in general and electronic surveillance systems in particular that are deployed in the context of social protests and social movements.

4. Promoting inter-American standards that stress the obligation of public officials to refrain from comments that stigmatize defenders or incite violence against them, or that suggest that certain organizations are acting in an inappropriate or illegal way just because they demonstrate or take part in protests.

5. The State must protect freedom of worship and religion and freedom to express opinions and take measures to fight and condemn discourses that incite hatred and discrimination.

6. The State must urgently provide and coordinate programs to ensure comprehensive reparations for victims, particularly in cases of torture involving sexual violence and eye injuries caused by officers of the relevant institutions. These programs must have national coverage, be comprehensive, and provide both psychosocial and mental care for victims and their families.

7. Identifying the damage caused to private individuals and setting up a fund to provide appropriate support.

8. Taking any measures necessary to ensure access to justice for all people whose rights have been violated. In this context, the IACHR recommends that the State of Chile provide the Public Prosecutor’s Office with special reinforcements to investigate the events that happened in the context of these social protests, so allegations of human rights violations can be dealt with promptly. The State should also increase the independence and operational capacity of the Forensic Medical Service.

9. Strengthening autonomous bodies and State institutions charged with investigating, protecting, and promoting human rights. This includes granting the INDH and the Office of the Ombudsperson for Children more staff and financial resources to operate and expanding their mandate; and strengthening the Public Criminal Defense Office, making it fully autonomous and expanding its capacity to contact detainees within a few hours of their arrest.

10. Strengthening inter-institutional cooperation among different ministries and with representatives of civil society, in order to consolidate the operations of the human rights protection system and to coordinate efforts to ensure compliance with the recommendations issued to the Chilean State by international human rights institutions.

11. Ensuring publication of a report on the events that have happened since October 18, 2019 and their context, drafted by an independent mechanism and including social participation.

12. Refraining from arresting or prosecuting—whether in criminal or administrative proceedings—demonstrators, human rights defenders, and social and student leaders for exercising their freedom of expression in a context of social protests.

13. Supporting the content and protection of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, particularly the rights to health, education, social security, a healthy environment, and water, with a focus on equality, non-discrimination, and intersectionality as the central axis for normative frameworks, institutional design, and public policies. These efforts should all take into special consideration the Inter-American Standards on Business and Human Rights.

14. Ratifying the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, also known as the Protocol of San Salvador; the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement; the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance; and the Inter-American Convention Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance.

15. Refrain from applying anti-terrorist legislation and the State’s Homeland Security Act to actions that are unrelated to them, so as not to restrict people’s rights and liberties (particularly those connected to the demands of indigenous peoples). The State must also take inter-American standards into consideration when enacting new legislation.

16. Any new crime categories that are adopted and that may affect rights linked to social protests must be formulated without ambiguity, in concise, precise, and unequivocal terms, so they clearly define the conduct that is to be punished as a crime, and specifically establish what their features are and what factors distinguish them from other conduct that may also be subjected to punishment.

17. Developing and implementing a policy to promote respect for the rights of LGBTI persons and their acceptance and social inclusion, especially through education and general knowledge, and further pursuing training and awareness-raising programs among Chile’s law-enforcement agencies, so they may show in their actions respect for and acceptance of LGBTI persons and any other individuals who do not place themselves within a heterosexual, cisnormative, binary framework. The State must also take measures aimed at fighting violence against LGBTI persons.

18. Taking any measures necessary to set up—under the watch of the Ministry of Women—mechanisms to enable access to justice for women and girls who are victims of violence in the context of social protests, including mechanisms to file complaints, access care, and ensure investigation and reparation with a gender perspective, close by and through specialized staff.

19. Adopting a special code or law for children that includes the creation of a national system to comprehensively protect the rights of children and adolescents, ensuring that it can operate and access funding, and ensuring that domestic legislation reflects the international human rights commitments made by the State, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

20. Taking all reasonable positive measures necessary to prevent, end, reverse, or change discrimination that perpetuates stigmatization, prejudice, and intolerant or criminalizing practices against individuals based on their migrant status, country of origin, lack of citizenship, or any other aspect that undermines their human dignity.

Finally, the Commission issues a warning about the human rights challenges that might emerge in future social protests. The State of Chile and Chilean society as a whole stand before a unique opportunity to reverse the current situation and enter a new era where all people fully enjoy all rights. The IACHR will continue to monitor the development of social protests and remains fully willing to provide technical assistance to monitor compliance with these preliminary recommendations.

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.

*This press release was subjected to changes on February 4, 2020.

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