Regional Commission Studies Nicaragua
Human rights and democracy in Nicaragua and other Central American countries have been reviewed at two recent meetings of a regional human rights organization. Gathering in Managua from April 6 to April 9, the board of directors of the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA) recognized the "priority given in Nicaragua to the defense of human rights" and mentioned the "unflagging work of the National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (CNPPDH)." The latter, along with human rights organizations from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize, is a member of the Costa Rica-based CODEHUCA.
The directors also noted that the CNPPDH has opened up new areas of human rights work, such as education of police and prison personnel and periodic inspections of prisons. And the group expressed its agreement with and support for Nicaragua's position that human rights behavior in Central America should be scrutinized by "international organizations of recognized capability, reliability and credibility."
At CODEHUCA's eleventh general assembly, held in Tegucigalpa in late May, the CNPPDH as well as the other member organizations presented reports and analyses of the rights situation in their respective countries. Bishop Sergio Méndez-Arceo (retired bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico), the president of the International Association of Jurists, an Amnesty International representative and economist Xabier Gorostiaga of Nicaragua were among the more than 80 participants. "A large percentage of the delegates," Gorostiaga told envío, "were from church communities, people's organizations, labor unions and women's groups."
Rights of peoplesSince 1979 Nicaragua has insisted on including social and economic rights as well as civil and political ones in discussions of human rights. At the Honduras assembly the CNPPDH emphasized a "third generation" of human rights: those held not by individual citizens but by nations ("peoples") as collective entities. These rights, which the Nicaraguan commission explained "condition the full exercise" of the previous categories of human rights, include the right to self-determination, development, peace and sovereignty.
It is especially in the relations between governments that these rights are honored or violated. "The use or threat of force in relations between governments is a serious attack on these rights," CNPPDH stated, citing article 2 of the UN Charter. Such violations are seen clearly in the history of relations between the United States and Nicaragua: "Our country continues to suffer the consequences of the Monroe Doctrine and so-called Manifest Destiny, which since the 19th century have defined relations between the United States and the countries of our America."
Aggression by the United States is an open violation of international law and of Nicaragua's rights as a nation, the group charged, citing the World Court verdict of June 27, 1986. Gorostiaga later characterized the emerging Bush Administration policy as moving "from a Rambo policy to a more subtle style of diplomacy using the concept of democracy as a weapon to delegitimize governments."
The CNPPDH, noting that every empire inevitably has a certain blindness, pointed out that the United States does not accept the fact that the "Sandinista People's Revolution has unilaterally dissolved the vassal relationship that tied Nicaragua and the United States together for almost two centuries, from 1821 when independence was gained from Spain to July 19, 1979."
A vassal relationship, on the other hand, still characterizes Honduras' ties with the United States, as pointed out by the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) at the assembly. "Honduras must be seen," the CODEH report began, "as a country that evolved from being a mining enclave in the last two decades of the 19th century to a banana enclave in the first half of the 20th. Now in the eighties it has become a military and diplomatic enclave of the Pentagon and the US administration in Central America. As a result it is a country whose foreign policy, conducted in theory by its executive branch, responds almost exclusively if not totally to US strategic interests."
The high cost of the foreign debt was named as a factor violating Honduras' rights to development and self-determination. At the end of its report, CODEH noted that "if Honduras were a self-sufficient country economically, perhaps it could make its right to self-determination a reality." One participant in the meeting suggested that Honduras should "nationalize its government."
Civil and political rightsThe CNPPDH began its analysis of civil and political rights (the category that is usually the exclusive focus as far as the US, its allies and the Western press are concerned) by observing that these rights are more broadly exercised in Nicaragua today thanks to the general cooling off of the war. Restrictions on such rights at certain times "were directly related to the war situation."
This does not mean, the CNPPDH explained, "that we have reached perfection or that there are no violations of human rights in our country." Such violations by government personnel, according to the CNPPDH, do not constitute a systematic pattern and are not condoned; some are the product of "structural shortcomings in the administration of justice" that have not yet been remedied. (Nicaragua's Constitution was promulgated in early 1987; the resultant revamping of the laws and judicial procedures is still underway.)
From May 1988 to April 1989 the CNPPDH reported receiving 103 denunciations of individual rights violations. Among these, the most frequently cited problem—34 allegations of police misconduct—is of particular concern. In these instances the police are accused of misconduct "against common criminals, generally recidivists or members of youth gangs." The latter are said to be a growing phenomenon in Nicaragua.
In addition to expressing its concern about the charges of police misconduct, the CNPPDH has conducted nine training seminars since early 1988 to help the police understand the human rights requirements of Nicaraguan law.
Delayed justice is another complaint reported by the CNPPDH and attributed to "objective limitations in the justice system." Forty-one percent of prisoners have not yet been convicted and sentenced. The Honduran rights group CODEH pointed out that 84% are in that category in Honduras, according to statements by that country's own minister of justice. Moreover, CODEH added, "almost all trials are invalid because they involve illegal arrest, coercion, torture, illegal detaining of people and keeping them incommunicado, or undue delay."
The CNPPDH said that police and even some judges in Nicaragua display a certain "lack of respect" for the precise time given in a sentence. Inadequate legal defense for indigent defendants, due to the state's own lack of funds, is also cited. The "police courts," which can sentence people for minor offenses for up to six months, have been assailed for some years now and once again get a legal beating in this report.
In relation to these problems, the CNPPDH called for "profound changes" in the laws and the judicial structures. Toward that end it helped organize a seminar in mid-May on the "independence of the judicial system," which produced recommendations now being studied in official circles.
The group is not alone in demanding respect for human rights. Last December 27, Interior Minister Tomás Borge, while emphasizing Nicaragua's determination to defend itself "with all necessary force," also stressed the government's firm resolve to punish personnel who commit human rights violations. Borge, speaking during a ceremony in which 30 Ministry of the Interior (MINT) officers received promotions, said the government would tolerate no abuses that MINT officers may commit under cover of their uniform or rank. When a violation occurs, he noted, "it is an exception that goes against our principles, and the guilty person will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
As for political rights, the CNPPDH noted a flourishing of political activity during the past year, including public assemblies and demonstrations, that took place without incident with the exception of the July 1988 demonstration in Nandaime. (That demonstration turned into a melee between some demonstrators and the police, resulting in the arrest of a number of demonstrators and the expulsion of US Ambassador Richard Melton, accused of authoring a destabilization plan.) The CNPPDH speculated that violent provocations by sectors of the opposition could increase as the electoral campaign gets underway, with the goal of delegitimizing the process. The report points out that Nicaragua has not only a broad range of political parties but also a variety of organizations of "peasants, students, workers, professionals, religious personnel, business and commercial associations, etc."
Freedom of expression is seen in the "absolute freedom" enjoyed by La Prensa, "which certainly would not be tolerated in many other countries of the region." Why not? Because La Prensa seeks to delegitimize the government of a country that is still at war and serves as a mouthpiece for forces intent on the violent overthrow of the government. In addition, the report mentions four newspapers associated with various parties, and radio stations "most of which are in private hands."
The section on violations of the laws of war begins by correcting a mistaken notion that may be circulating abroad that Nicaragua is at peace. Assassinations and other forms of violence against persons, including kidnapping and torture, "continue to be violated in a systematic and massive way by the special forces financed by Washington, despite the ceasefire declared by the Nicaraguan government in March 1988 as part of the Sapoá accords, and continued unilaterally up to the present.
"Although the attacks on cooperatives and the use of land mines has diminished," the report said, "kidnappings have increased, amounting to a current total of about 7,500 persons kidnapped throughout the years of the war, over 5,000 of whom are peasants. In April of this year pastoral workers in the Waslala and the mining area of the Atlantic region protested that just in the first three months of 1989 more than 300 peasants from their parishes had been kidnapped."
In a June 9 letter to Secretary of State James Baker III, Nicaraguan Foreign Relations Minister Miguel D'Escoto protested that the contras had made over 100 attacks on civilian, economic and military targets between February 15, when the El Salvador agreement was signed by the five Central American Ppresidents, and May 30. During this period, 37 civilians were killed and 32 wounded by the contras, in addition to many kidnapped. Father D'Escoto's letter was prompted by a contra attack on a hydroelectric plant near Jinotega in which one soldier was wounded by mortar fire. D'Escoto protested such acts "of continuing terrorism perpetrated by mercenary groups at the service of the US government."
The CNPPDH also noted that "some military authorities have been involved in crimes." Investigations have ensued and guilty parties have been severely punished, the report stated, "making Nicaragua a unique case in this regard in Central America, where the armed forces of most countries enjoy not only impunity but even license to kill." In 1988, the military prosecutor’s office brought charges against 3,519 members of the armed forces, including 1,000 officers. Over 2,500 were found guilty and sentenced, with terms ranging from less than one year to the 30-year maximum. (Military prisoners with sentences of less than three years serve their time in military facilities; those sentenced to more than three years are discharged and placed in the national penitentiary system.)
"Nevertheless," the report acknowledged, "we cannot state with certainty that every charge has been investigated and guilty parties punished. We are also aware of the danger of serious violations in the more remote war zones. But what is beyond all doubt is that it is not the Nicaraguan government's policy to tolerate such violations."
On the other hand, violations of the various categories of human rights in Honduras "are the result of government policy," according to the Honduran human rights group CODEH. "Such violations are hardly ever investigated, nor are those responsible brought to trial; their crimes go unpunished. Since those responsible are almost always members of state security, which is part of the armed forces, extraordinary courage is required to denounce these crimes."
The CNPPDH concluded this section of its report by listing briefly a number of human rights gains. Respect for the right to life is demonstrated by the elimination of the death penalty and the absence of death squads in Nicaragua. The prison system seeks to rehabilitate, not punish. With the pardoning in March of 1,894 former National Guardsmen, the prison population is down to 7,305. Thirty-nine of these are former Somocista Guardsmen whose possible release is under consideration; 1,586 are charged with or convicted of contra activity, and the government has said that they will be eligible for release once the contras are disbanded as a fighting force in keeping with the El Salvador agreement. In addition, 5,394 prisoners are serving time for common crimes and 286 are former Sandinista military personnel sentenced to more than three years.
From 1983, when amnesty for contras was announced, to the end of 1988, over 5,000 persons have availed themselves of this amnesty. "Unlike other countries in the region," the report said, "Nicaragua sees to it that the life of every amnestied person is protected." As for people who had left Nicaragua for whatever reason, almost 34,000 had returned by the end of 1988.
The refugee situation in Guatemala, on the other hand, continues to become more acute. "The civilian population in the conflict zones has been forced to flee from their homes," according to the report of the Human Rights Commission of Guatemala to the assembly in Tegucigalpa. "The continuing exodus still has devastating effects, with many staying in the mountains and wilderness regions for long periods. Some, who have had all the suffering they can take, come down to the towns looking for medicines and food and are taken captive by the army. The displaced populations have also been attacked because they resist being placed in special areas under absolute military control."
Economic and social rightsIn addition to the rights of nations and the civil and political rights of citizens, Nicaragua has also put a premium on economic and social rights, e.g., the people's rights to health, education, housing, work and the like. In this regard, the report mentioned the agrarian reform, the elimination of tuition fees in the universities and the construction of new schools. The literacy crusade in 1980 reduced the national illiteracy rate from over 50% to below 13%.
A national health system was established, resulting in the drastic reduction of infant mortality and the elimination of polio. But, the report added, "all this could not last very long, since the example was too dangerous. So a criminal war was launched against our country to destroy the socioeconomic infrastructure and thus prevent people from continuing to enjoy the exercise of their social and economic rights.
"These terrorist actions, combined with the credit and trade embargo, have produced an obvious deterioration in the standard of living, which has reverted to that of the fifties." Production has declined, and military expenditures consume over 52% of the government budget. Ten thousand state workers have been laid off because of the required belt-tightening, and the ongoing compacting of the government bureaucracy has produced a 30% unemployment rate. (Neighboring Honduras tops Nicaragua with a 41% unemployment rate, "either open or disguised," said CODEH, while the Commission of Human Rights of Guatemala reported an unemployment and underemployment rate of almost 66%.)
"To top it all off," the Nicaraguan report continued, "Hurricane Joan did $829 million worth of damage last October, and the US government responded with an international campaign to prevent Nicaragua from receiving emergency aid for the more than 300,000 affected."
In the education sector, over 5,000 workers lost their jobs, and subsidies to private schools were cut by 50%. The Ministry of Education determined that some private schools could get along quite nicely by hiking tuition without causing undue hardship to parents of students. (While illiteracy has increased from the 13% low achieved by the 1980 literacy crusade, it is still far below the 40% reported for Honduras by CODEH.)
In the health sector, over 60 medical centers have been closed and 46 health workers killed; during the first 16 weeks of 1989, 110 infants under one year old died of diarrhea, whereas 90 had succumbed to diarrhea in the same period of 1988. While the "low-intensity warfare" conducted by the US government is not the only cause of Nicaragua's problems, it is causing high-intensity suffering for Nicaragua's children.
Honduras, for all the "aid" it is receiving from the United States, is not faring any better: there, according to CODEH, over 80% of children under five suffer from some degree of malnutrition. As for Guatemala, the human rights group from that country reported that "only 15% of our population can meet its food and other basic needs adequately.” Citing a 1982 USAID study, the group added that Guatemala has the most glaringly unequal land distribution in all of Latin America.
Resolution on Nicaragua"By using and threatening force, the United States is violating Nicaragua's right to self-determination," the Assembly concluded in its final set of resolutions, citing the June 1986 World Court verdict. CODEHUCA condemned US funding of the contras and called for an end to the embargo, citing it as a violation of Nicaragua's right to develop.