The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council has continued to work its way through reviewing each country around the world during the Council’s second cycle, completing two new sessions since our last report.1
In this, our second report, we focus on how much attention is given to Latin American countries on issues of protecting civil society and human rights defenders. Twenty Latin American countries received recommendations from the global community regarding the rights of civil society and protecting human rights defenders.
However, many of the recommendations involving civil society regard including civil society input on specific topics of human rights, such as women’s rights, health or LGBT issues, rather than on protecting civil society itself.
Latin America generally does well when it comes to accepting the role that civil society should play in protecting human rights and in the need to protect human rights defenders specifically in the UPR process. The vast majority of the recommendations made to the region fell into one of three categories: involvement of civil society in protecting and promoting human rights, protection of the basic rights needed for civil society to function (such as freedom of assembly and the right to protest), and the need to protect human rights defenders and investigate when they have been threatened or victimized (including unsolved murders of activists). For some in the region these are much bigger issues than in others: Honduras and Mexico each received 27 and 26 recommendations about their treatment of human rights defenders.
By and large, the countries accepted these recommendations. There were only a few countries that did not accept every recommendation given to them: Bolivia accepted 2 of 3, Cuba 4 of 16, Guatemala 4 of 8, Jamaica 0 of 2, and Peru 3 of 4.
In contrast, when it comes to raising similar concerns in other countries, only a handful of Latin American countries speak out on behalf of the rights of civil society and human rights defenders. Those most outspoken on these issues generally were Mexico, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile, and Colombia. Each one of these issued multiple recommendations to countries around the world, including to other Latin American countries, such as Paraguay and Honduras, and to leaders of the Global South such as Russia and China. In these cases they raised their voices in defense of protecting the right to peaceful assembly, association and expression, the need to protect human rights defenders, and in some cases the need to re-examine laws that seek to restrict civil society. In all of the receiving countries there had been alerts issued by international NGOs about either legal or regulatory limits placed on independent civil society or on the treatment of human rights defenders.
Other countries that spoke out, in a limited fashion, on these concerns included Argentina (to Honduras and Cameroon), Brazil (to Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Honduras, and Paraguay), and Paraguay (to Honduras and the Maldives), though more on the specific topic of protecting threatened human rights defenders than on protecting civil society generally.
Not surprisingly, those countries most involved in cracking down on civil society within their own borders (see page 17) are silent when it comes to protecting civil society against similar abuses in other countries. The silence and the similarity of the efforts across regions indicate a potential cross-country learning effect and even collaboration.
One note: when Venezuela does speak up, it is to encourage “strengthening ties” between government and civil society in Iran, Qatar and Sri Lanka. It did not encourage an independent and vibrant civil society. The reasons are obvious: for many of these countries—competitive authoritarian, theocratic, and totalitarian—civil society exists to serve the state, not as a source of independent thought and action that can mobilize and represent citizens before the state.
1. The 25th session has submitted its recommendations, but the countries under review have not yet responded. The 26th and final session of this cycle will take place in November–December 2016.