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Legal community voices concern about Nicaragua’s covid-19 response

Legal community voices concern about Nicaragua’s covid-19 response Credit: shutterstock.com/Millenius

Nicaraguan human rights activist Bianca Jagger has urged the international community to impose sanctions on the Nicaraguan government to condemn its weak response to covid-19, while the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has similarly urged Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega to rethink his approach to the pandemic in an open letter to the government.

Jagger, founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, made the remarks in a webinar presented by the IBA’s human rights law committee last week. She said, “it is critical that the international community continues to impose sanctions on the Nicaraguan government.”

While the coronavirus has been spreading across Central America, Nicaragua has officially reported the fewest cases of covid-19 and deaths caused by the virus in the region. But independent observers say the number of cases is at least three times larger than the official numbers and the number of deaths is likely more than 2,000. Jagger argued that the government is not taking the pandemic seriously and is not following World Health Organisation recommendations. “On the contrary, the government is promoting mass gatherings, exposing people to the virus,” she said.

In May, 700 health practitioners signed a letter to the government urging the government to acknowledge the spread of the virus and put nationwide preventative measures in place. The letter also asked for the provision of personal protective equipment and stated that the health system was under serious threat of collapse. Since then, several health practitioners that had signed the latter were reportedly fired.   

The government is punishing people in the public health sector rather than hiring more doctors to help the public, Jagger said.

IBA has raised concerns too

The webinar was held a few weeks after the IBAHRI expressed concerns in a letter to Nicaragua’s government, stating that it was denying the severity of covid-19 and refusing to implement crucial protective measures against the disease, while also encouraging mass gatherings. 

The letter, co-signed by IBAHRI chairs Michael Kirby and Anne Ramberg, raised concern about the spike in pneumonia cases and pointed to a concerning rise in rushed burials, suggesting that the government may be concealing the true number of covid-19 cases in the country.

Coronavirus test results are being shielded from medics and the general public, with the government controlling all communication of the figures, says the letter. President Ortega has also actively encouraged mass gatherings. In March, the president advocated a demonstration in Managua to show solidarity in the face of the disease.

IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto released a separate statement condemning the government’s inaction towards the covid-19 crises. Neto referred to the Nicaraguan administration’s failure to act against the virus as “an example of the erosion of the rule of law in the country,” but reassured that amid the uncertainty, “the IBA remains steadfast in calling out abuses of the rule of law and violations of fundamental human rights.”

Speaking to Latin Lawyer, the IBA president said that amid ongoing human rights violations in Nicaragua in recent years, covid-19 intensified circumstances even further. “As the Americas became the epicentre of this crisis, the spreading of misinformation and a failure to cooperate internationally had to be called out,” explained Bernardes, who is a partner at Brazilian law firm Motta Fernandes Advogados.

Bernardes adds that he was compelled to make a statement in support of the IBAHRI after hearing the news that doctors were prohibited from reporting covid-19 cases in the country. “There was a complete disregard for the protection of its citizens, constituting a blatant violation of human rights principles.” When it comes to drawing international attention to injustices, human rights groups, including the IBA, have a responsibility to hold governments accountable, explained Bernardes.

Local reaction

The pandemic is not the first human rights crisis that Nicaragua has faced in the last few years. In April 2018, the country’s national police force detained and tortured protestors following demonstrations over pension reforms, during which hundreds were killed when violence erupted. With a heavy security presence, there have also been concerns over freedom of expression in the country, with several media outlets already shut down by the government.

One Nicaraguan lawyer – who wanted to remain anonymous – told Latin Lawyer that the government response has contained a “rhetoric of lying” with regards to covid-19 cases and that the testing process has been completely centralised by the government. With a lack of protective equipment, “everyone is fending for themselves,” explained the lawyer, who added that the government is putting lives at risk through its lack of response.  

Dozens of political prisoners are also in a vulnerable position after being arrested for peaceful protests against the government, said the same anonymous source, adding that several detainees showing covid-19 symptoms are not receiving treatment. Although significant, it is unlikely that the [IBA’s] letter will provoke a response, given that similar requests in the past have not led to a change of course, explained the source. “Our human rights have been stomped on since 2018.”  

The recent health emergency, paired with human rights violations, has dealt a hefty blow to the economy. In 2019 the country’s GDP contracted by 3.8% and credit rating agency Fitch predicts the economy will shrink by a further 4.5% in 2020. “Most countries in the world are getting ready to reopen their economies and the sad part right now for Nicaragua is that there is no economy to reopen,” added Latin Lawyer’s source.

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