Press Release

IACHR Condemns the Excessive Use of Force during Social Protests in Chile, Expresses Its Grave Concern at the High Number of Reported Human Rights Violations, and Rejects All Forms of Violence

December 6, 2019

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Washington, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) spoke out against the excessive use of force during the recent social protests in Chile and the serious abuses of power waged during some demonstrations. It also condemned the high number of reports of human rights violations levied against state organizations since the demonstrations started.

As part of its mandate to permanently monitor the human rights situation in Chile, the IACHR has received various reports indicating that people who were arrested were subjected to acts of sexual violence, torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, among others. In response to these serious allegations, the IACHR decided to establish a Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit (SACROI) to monitor and respond to the human rights situation in Chile.

The IACHR noted that the president of Chile made a public statement on November 17, 2019, acknowledging that human rights were violated during the social protests and that state security forces had made excessive use of force in some cases.

According to the information received by the IACHR, there have been 26 fatal victims since the start of the social protests on October 18, at least five of whom died as a consequence of direct action on the part of state security forces, and two of whom died while being held in state custody. According to information from the Ministry of Health, the country’s emergency medical services treated 12,652 people who were injured in connection with the demonstrations, and the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) confirmed that 2,808 people had been hospitalized after being injured during the demonstrations. According to the Medical College of Chile, at least 283 people suffered eye injuries caused by the use of pellet guns or teargas by the National Police Force, and, in somecases, people suffered a total vision loss in both eyes. At least 20,645 people have been arrested since the protests began, and 950 are being held in pretrial detention. Over this period, the Attorney General’s Office has made progress on investigations into 2,670 cases of alleged human rights violations, 422 of which concern children or adolescents, 44 entail torture, and 26 relate to rape or sexual abuse by state agents. The IACHR urged the Chilean authorities to investigate these acts of violence with due diligence, to identify and sanction those responsible for such acts, and to inform the public of the outcomes.

To that effect, the IACHR expresses grave concern about the high number of serious human rights violations reported by various international organizations and state bodies. It also expresses concern over the nature of these violations, which point to the existence of repeated patterns of violence against demonstrators during the recent protests. The IACHR welcomes the president of Chile’s public commitment to ensuring that these cases are duly investigated, prosecuted, and sanctioned and to guaranteeing that victims will be assisted during the recovery process.

In this regard, the IACHR received information on the excessive and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators at the hands of Chile’s national police force (Carabineros de Chile). The IACHR noted that in their respective reports, both the INDH and the Office of Children’s Ombuds reported a disproportionate use of force against people who were taking part in peaceful protests, which implied a serious breach of the Protocols for Maintaining Public Order, and of Carabineros Circular No. 1,832 on the use of force. Specifically, these organizations have reported that shots were fired from pellet guns, targeting demonstrators’ bodies, necks, and faces; teargas canisters were thrown at demonstrators’ bodies; there has been a lack of gradual escalation techniques in the use of force without prior warning; teargas was used around the elderly, children, and pregnant women; and there have been serious injuries from pepper gas, pellets, teargas canisters, and gas guns. The IACHR acknowledged that on November 10 and 17, the Ministry of the Interior sent written instructions to the national police force regarding compliance with protocols on the use of pellet guns.

Moreover, the SACROI has been informed of the disproportionate use of force during demonstrations, as security forces acted without distinguishing between those who were taking part in the demonstrations and those who were not, to the extent that INDH observers and other human rights defenders and observers were also injured, as were relief and medical workers who were wearing distinctive clothing so they would be identified. The State of Chile reported that these workers were allegedly contravening the regulations on how human rights observers should behave. On this point, the IACHR expresses its concern over the information it received regarding a demonstrator with a heart condition who allegedly died because he did not receive appropriate emergency medical care as police action during the demonstration prevented the health professionals who were treating him from doing so effectively. The IACHR notes that the national police force has opened a case file to clarify these events.

The IACHR also stresses that, according to the information it received, 561 protesters in the town of Lo Hermida, in Peñalolén, including a pregnant woman, claimed to have been the victims of violent police repression. They reported that 12 houses were raided and destroyed; a man and a teenager were run over by police motorbikes; and teargas canisters were thrown indiscriminately into homes, first-aid points, and near a school and a daycare center. The IACHR was also informed of illegal arrests, obstructions of justice, and of detainees being beaten inside the police station at Lo Hermida. The IACHR warned that the Attorney General’s Office will formally charge two carabineros for the alleged crime of unlawful coercion in Lo Hermida.

The IACHR expresses its extreme concern over the large number of people who have suffered eye injuries during the social protests due to the national police force’s use of pellet guns or teargas canisters to scatter protesters. According to information from the Ministry of Health, as of November 18, 2019, 194 people had been assisted by Chile’s emergency services for eye injuries, 77% of which were due to the impact of pellets and 9% to teargas. In at least 17 of these cases, the victims suffered a total loss of vision in one eye, and a further 36 are at risk of doing so. The IACHR warned that, according to information from the Medical College of Chile, as of November 17, 2019, the number of people who had been treated for eye injuries since October 19, 2019, was allegedly substantially higher than the numbers reported by the Ministry of Health, and actually stood at 283 cases. The IACHR regrets the fact that, on November 26, it was confirmed that the 21-year-old student Gustavo Gatica suffered the total loss of his vision as a consequence of receiving pellet shots in both eyes during a demonstration on November 8.

In this case, the IACHR observed that on October 23 and 24, the Medical College of Chile informed the Human Rights Commission of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies of the alarming number of eye injuries that were being inflicted during the protests. The IACHR noted that representatives from the Medical College reported on various situations in which human rights were violated by the police and armed forces during the state of emergency. These violations included torture, cruel treatment, aggression, the use of rubber bullets, and sexual abuse by state agents, all of which were reported at different medical centers in Chile. On November 4, the Chilean Society of Ophthalmology reiterated this concern to the Senate Human Rights Commission and on November 15 it sent a letter to the Minister of the Interior to report the high number of people who had suffered severe eye injuries.

The IACHR also expresses its concern over the high numbers of people who have been arrested since October 18, 2019, in connection with the social protests. According to the information it has received, at least 20,645 people have been arrested since the protests began and at least 950 are being held in pretrial detention. The IACHR also noted that according to the information it received, this figure might be even higher due to the uncertainty around the actual number of detainees, those being held at police stations, and those who have been released by the police without the Public Prosecutor’s Office being informed of this. Likewise, the IACHR was informed of the increase in reports of illegal detentions at detention monitoring hearings—the Public Ombud’s Office alleged 26.3% of these detentions were illegal, as were 6.2% of cases.

The IACHR expresses its grave concern over information it received indicating that torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment took place during arrests. It also notes its alarm at the information published by national human rights institutions that described the national police force’s treatment of detainees, which included simulated executions, severe physical and verbal abuse, beatings, overcrowding in unventilated places, and the harassment of children and adolescents.

The IACHR is also alarmed at the large number of allegations of sexual abuse during arrests. According to the information it received, detainees were allegedly raped, subjected to sexual abuse and other forms of sexual ill-treatment, threatened with rape, and forced to strip or squat. The SACROI received information on instances of sexual abuse and inappropriate physical contact with children and adolescents. According to this information, in some cases, children and adolescents were allegedly beaten repeatedly in the genital area with police batons and were then forced to undress in the police station. The IACHR also learned of the case of a homosexual student who was allegedly sexually abused while under arrest by the national police force and was also insulted and denigrated over his sexual orientation. The IACHR acknowledges that this case is being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office.

The IACHR calls on the authorities to order state security forces to immediately cease their disproportionate use of force. In this regard, the IACHR reminded the state that the national police force’s actions to maintain public order must comply strictly with international human rights standards that govern the use of force through the principles of exceptionality, proportionality, and absolute necessity.

The IACHR noted that a bill to modernize how the country’s law enforcement agencies are managed and run and improve probity and transparency is currently being debated. The IACHR emphasized the importance of prioritizing this debate and including it in the institutional reform of the national police force mentioned above. The IACHR also notes the statement made by the president of Chile on November 24, in which he said that a bill will be presented to give the Armed Forces a mandate to control public infrastructure without the need for a state of emergency to be declared. In response, the IACHR drew attention to the fact that, in accordance with inter-American standards, maintaining public order and safety is primarily the mandate of civilian police forces. The Armed Forces must only play a part in citizen security under extraordinary circumstances, during which they must play a subordinate, complementary role, and be subject to regulation and supervision.

On the matter of the investigations into alleged human rights violations, the IACHR notes that according to information from the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Ombud’s Office, and other institutions, a large number of complaints have been filed against state security forces for alleged human rights violations since the start of the protests.

Specifically, the IACHR has received information indicating that the INDH has filed 332 complaints against the national police force since the start of the protests, 39 against the military, and 6 against the Investigations Police (PDI). Most of these complaints entail acts of torture and cruelty, as well as torture involving sexual violence. These figures represent double the total number of complaints filed by the INDH against the national police force in its nine years of existence.

According to information published by the Attorney General’s Office, between October 18 and November 25, investigations were made into 2,670 alleged human rights violations, 422 of which concern children or adolescents, 5 relate to the LGBTI community, and 44 entail torture. Of these investigations, 90 relate to forced stripping, 26 to rape or sexual abuse, and 8 to threats of sexual assault. With regard to the institutions concerned in these investigations, the Attorney General’s Office noted that 2052 of these victims mentioned the national police force, 183 the Army, and 50 the Investigations Police. On this point, the IACHR observed that according to this information, at least 203 state agents were singled out in the investigations. The IACHR also observed that the Attorney General’s Office is moving ahead with investigations into the killing of at least five people by state agents, most of them by armed forces during the state of emergency.

In this regard, in terms of investigations and the protection and promotion of human rights, the IACHR notes how robust Chile’s democratic and human rights institutions are. This has enabled different reports of human rights violations during the recent social protests to be investigated and sanctioned by the judiciary. Furthermore, the IACHR acknowledges the hard work of the INDH and the Office of the Children’s Ombud, which have received and recorded reports of human rights violations in Chile. The IACHR also recognizes that different areas of the legal system have been acting independently to investigate and prosecute reports of human rights violations by  state security forces in response to the current protests. In this respect, the IACHR praises the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Ombud’s Office, and Chile’s courts and tribunals for investigating and prosecuting alleged human rights violations.

The IACHR wishes to emphasize the importance of ensuring that the Attorney General’s Office has specific support for investigating events that occurred during the social protests such that it may rapidly identify human rights violations. The IACHR also underlined the importance of strengthening autonomous organizations and state institutions with a mandate to investigate, protect, and promote human rights, including the INDH, the Office of the Children’s Ombud, and the Public Ombud’s Office.

The IACHR acknowledges the efforts made by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to coordinate between these different institutions and provide an effective, articulated response to the current circumstances in the country. In this regard, the IACHR welcomes the fact that the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has convened special sessions for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to review how well the different state areas have been functioning during the protests, which led to the creation of a working group to look into the records of arrests and examine detainees’ access to defense.

The IACHR condemns the fact that, in certain circumstances, groups of demonstrators have provoked extreme reactions by throwing blunt objects at law enforcement agents, defacing or destroying public property such as schools, buses, trains, and subway stations, and engaging in looting and other types of aggression, including against firefighters. In this regard, the IACHR received reports of attacks on Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish places of worship. The IACHR vociferously condemns all acts of violence and recalls that social protest is legitimate as long as it is peaceful. The IACHR reminded the state that its security forces are obliged to allow demonstrations and protests to take place and to only isolate demonstrators who resort to violence. In this sense, the IACHR spoke once more of its rejection of all forms of violence and called on the state to investigate all human rights violations and crimes that have taken place during these demonstrations exhaustively, impartially, and rapidly, and to prosecute and sanction those responsible for them.

Finally, the IACHR urges Chilean society to engage in effective, inclusive dialogue to address the population’s legitimate demands while fully respecting human rights and the democratic rule of law. On this point, the IACHR welcomed efforts to establish a new constitution for the country.

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. 317/19