Press Release

IACHR and OSRESCER Express Serious Concern About the Human Rights Situation During the Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Nicaragua

April 8, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Economic Rights (OSRESCER) expressed their concern over the state of Nicaragua’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the context of the serious ongoing human rights crisis in the country, the state of Nicaragua may be further jeopardizing the entire population’s enjoyment of rights such as the rights to life, health, and personal integrity. In this context, in the course of exercising their duty to guarantee human rights, the IACHR called urgently on Nicaraguan authorities to adopt effective measures to respond to and contain the pandemic, in accordance with international technical and scientific recommendations that seek to protect the human rights of Nicaraguans.

The government’s lack of response to the pandemic

Nicaragua is being affected by the pandemic in the midst of an ongoing human rights crisis that began in the country on April 2018, as documented by the IACHR Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI). On this point, the IACHR and the OSRESCER are concerned that the state has not implemented measures to prevent the spread of the disease as established by the World Health Organization (WHO), such as advising people to engage in physical distancing, cancelling large events, closing educational establishments or any other places where large numbers of people gather, implementing contact tracing, acquiring tests and carrying out testing, and adopting other measures to manage, control, and prevent infectious disease. The WHO has publicly expressed its concern on the matter.

Contrary to what experts are recommending, according to public information, national and local authorities have reportedly called for demonstrations, rallies, events, festivals, and religious celebrations to be held. For example, the Ministry of Education, which reportedly called on teachers and students on March 17 to hold a mass demonstration in Jinotepe then announced school vacations between April 4 and 20 for students and April 4 and 17 for teaching and administrative staff. The Ministry of Labor and the National Committee for Free Trade Zones permitted government officials to take holiday time between April 4 and 15, and similar arrangements may also have been offered to employees of private-sector organizations. However, the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism is said to have continued to publicize large-scale public events around the Carazo Summer Carnival, beginning on April 3.

In addition, there is a lack of transparency and reliable, detailed information on measures to prevent and contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as on matters that are essential to understanding the current status of the pandemic in Nicaragua, such as how many tests are available and how many people have already been tested, and how confirmed cases are being monitored. There has also been contradictory information from authorities regarding how many cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and how many people are under observation after presenting symptoms. This situation is contributing to increasing the public distrust that is already widespread in the country and to reducing the authorities’ capacity to take appropriate measures and implement policies to protect and safeguard the health of the population. It also prevents citizens from making informed decisions to prevent the spread of the disease or seek specialized care. These circumstances have been aggravated by authorities calling for public activities to continue as normal, including during the holiday period.

The IACHR has been informed by the MESENI that Nicaraguan civil society organizations have responded to international recommendations by calling on the state to take measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in a way that fully respects human rights and have even taken informal steps in this direction. Specifically, according to publicly available information, the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee of Nicaragua recommended that authorities suspend classes at educational institutions and implement physical distancing. Human rights organizations have asked specialist international agencies such as UNICEF, WHO, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to demand that Nicaraguan authorities handle the pandemic appropriately, in accordance with international guidelines. According to publicly available information, a project for COVID-19 prevention centers launched by the Catholic Diocese of Matagalpa was prevented and prohibited by authorities at the Ministry of Health. It was also reported that some educational institutions and private companies have ordered in-person activities to be put on hold and replaced with remote or online formats.

Given the unprecedented scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR and the OSRESCER made it clear that the failure to adopt measures and actions that are in line with the recommendations of international public health organizations around COVID-19 could jeopardize the life, health, and physical integrity of large swathes of the population. The state of Nicaragua has an international obligation to protect these rights, in accordance with its duty to guarantee human rights. The IACHR and the OSRESCER also recalled that states are obliged to allow individuals access to public information and to guarantee that this is available. This is particularly important in circumstances where this information is a tool for exercising the right to health, integrity, and life itself, as is the case in the current pandemic.

People who are deprived of their liberty

The IACHR is also concerned about the situation of people who are deprived of their liberty, as they are at particular risk of catching COVID-19 due to the conditions that prevail in prisons and penitentiaries. The IACHR has already recommended that states adopt measures such as reevaluating cases of pretrial detention to identify those in which alternative measures to the deprivation of liberty can be used, prioritizing those populations whose health means they are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. States should also consider alternative measures such as probation, house arrest, or early release for people within the risk group, such as the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, pregnant women or those with children in their care, and those who are close to completing their sentences.

Although the Nicaraguan authorities have previously implemented large-scale releases of prisoners, the IACHR noted with concern that no such measures have been adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On this matter, the IACHR noted that, as part of the continuing human rights crisis in the country, at least 60 people are being deprived of their liberty in retaliation for their having taken part in antigovernment demonstrations, after being accused of petty crimes through arbitrary, illegal proceedings. Several of these individuals fall into risk groups due to their age or the health problems they suffer, in addition to the precarious conditions of the prison facilities in which they are being held.

The IACHR and the OSRESCER called on the state of Nicaragua to promptly release people being deprived of their liberty during this global pandemic using objective criteria and taking risk factors into account. They also called on the state to release cases in which guarantees of due process have not been observed, as is the case with people who were detained during the human rights crisis that has been affecting the country since April 2018.

The IACHR has received information through the MESENI that consistently indicates that the way that prison in Nicaragua have approached the global health crisis has been characterized by an absence of specific prevention measures and protocols. The IACHR is concerned about information received through the MESENI according to which some prison officials not only downplay COVID-19 and describe it as no more than a common cold that is not cause for concern, they also deny families the information they need about detainees’ health and prevent the entry of preventive supplies that families send detainees, such as hand sanitizer, gloves, facemasks, and disinfectant. In addition, information from civil society organizations indicates that these supplies are often confiscated without any justification.

The IACHR reminded the state of Nicaragua of its specific obligation to protect the life, integrity, and health of all people in its custody, and noted that this obligation is particularly significant while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The IACHR and the OSRESCER also called for preventive measures and protocols to be developed and implemented for the benefit of the prison population. These measures should ensure that detention centers have an adequate supply of basic preventive materials such as soap, alcohol, gloves, and cleaning products.

The situation of health professionals

Based on the monitoring carried out by the OSRESCER on public health conditions in Nicaragua, the IACHR has been informed that highly qualified medical personnel have recently resigned due to the lack of appropriate conditions for tackling the pandemic. In response to the situation, according to public information, the Ministry of Health has been recruiting university students from the health sector to fill the vacancies left by health workers who were dismissed from their posts or forced to resign due to persecution.

Both the IACHR and the OSRESCER are deeply concerned about the diminished capacity of the public health system to respond to the pandemic, partly as a result of the dismissal of more than 400 public health professionals and workers during the human rights crisis.

The IACHR is also concerned about information indicating that the employment stability of health professionals is closely linked to their political leanings and may even be affected by their refusal to take part in networks with ties to the current administration. Both the IACHR and the OSRESCER have received information regarding these practices, which have already been the subject of public debate in the context of the ongoing political crisis in Nicaragua. These practices allegedly persist and are having an illegitimate impact on the job stability of public health personnel, jeopardizing the system’s capacity to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. The IACHR and the OSRESCER are calling urgently on the government of Nicaragua to refrain from these discriminatory practices and to take measures and make every effort to strengthen the capacities of its public health system by employing all available health workers, particularly by reinstating health professionals who have been arbitrarily dismissed.

Finally, the OSRESCER was informed of the lack of biosecurity materials and hospital equipment and supplies to deal with the pandemic. The reports it had access to indicated that currently there are only 6000 hospital beds and 160 respirators in the whole of Nicaragua. Likewise, with regard to the implementation of institutional public policies, civil society has warned that there is no epidemiological guidance within the health authorities that is independent from the office of the president. This is allegedly having a direct impact on response capacity and evidence-based decision-making.

Both on the information provided by the MESENI and the OSRESCER, the IACHR has called urgently on the state of Nicaragua to acknowledge how serious the current situation is and to immediately adopt measures to address and contain the pandemic in accordance with the available scientific evidence. The IACHR also urged the state to respond to demands from civil society, especially those of the Nicaraguan Medical Union, which is calling publicly for strict compliance with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and has offered to work with the state and provide support services, particularly in connection with care for the most vulnerable social groups.

The IACHR and the OSRESCER called on the state of Nicaragua to immediately implement measures to protect public health that guarantee safe, nondiscriminatory treatment for the entire Nicaraguan population within the public health system, as per the state’s international obligations. In this sense, the life, health, and integrity of the population must be placed above all party politics and other political considerations. Likewise, the IACHR called urgently on the state to make all relevant information on the effects of the pandemic and effective management of it available to the population, in accordance with its international obligations regarding transparency and access to public information.

The OSRESCER is an autonomous office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

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. 072/20