As part of a systematic attempt to crush dissent, the government of Nicaragua is perpetrating widespread violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity.
In April 2018 tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Nicaragua to protest severe pension cuts. While cracking down on demonstrations, the police – at times in coordination with pro-government armed elements – were accused of using disproportionate force against protesters, which triggered an escalation in the demonstrations. Between April and September 2018 at least 320 people were killed and 2,000 injured in the ensuing violence and crackdown. In 2018 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts mandated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) documented widespread and systematic violations and abuses of human rights on behalf of state authorities and pro-government actors between April and May 2018, including murder, persecution and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In response to these reports, the government expelled the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Group of Independent Experts from the country.
Since then, the Nicaraguan government has rapidly descended into authoritarianism, resulting in an unprecedented human rights crisis. Under President Daniel Ortega, the government has engaged in a broad campaign of repressing dissenting voices, including human rights defenders, women’s rights groups, journalists, religious and community leaders, students and academics, business owners and political opponents. Repression intensified in the context of the 2021 presidential elections, when the government banned large parts of the opposition from participating. Violence has also been perpetrated against indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, including killings, harassment, the invasion of their lands and the deliberate burning of homes. Various government structures are committing widespread human rights violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity, including murder, imprisonment, torture and sexual violence, deportation and politically motivated persecution. Ongoing political persecution has forced many Nicaraguans to flee. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2022 Costa Rica hosted 253,800 refugees and asylum-seekers, of which 88 percent were Nicaraguans.
In its first report released on 2 March 2023, the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHREN) found that the government, as well as pro-government groups, have committed crimes against humanity as part of a systematic campaign to “eliminate, by different means, any opposition in the country.” President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have dismantled checks and balances and civic space and instrumentalized the country’s executive, judicial, legislative and electoral branches. Dozens of government critics remain arbitrarily detained under what the GHREN has defined as a state policy.
The systematic crackdown on civic space has resulted in the forced shut down of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets and the prosecution of independent journalists on charges of hate crimes and terrorism. Official numbers provided by local rights groups, the GHREN and OHCHR suggest that over 3,000 NGOs have been forcibly shut down since December 2018 – more than half of which were closed in the past year. Several universities have also had their legal personality cancelled over the past year.
Since early February 2023 the government has revoked the citizenship of more than 300 alleged political opponents. On 9 February Nicaraguan authorities forcibly deported 222 of these individuals, who had been arbitrarily detained for political reasons, and sent them to the United States (US). On 19 August the US announced the imposition of visa restrictions on 100 Nicaraguan officials who curtail Nicaraguans’ human rights and undermine democracy.
On 3 May at least 40 government critics, including political opponents, independent journalists, human rights defenders and peasant activists, were detained in a massive police raid overseen by President Ortega and Vice President Murillo. This operation was likely the highest number of detentions registered on a single day since the so-called “Operation Clean-Up” in 2018.
On 12 September the GHREN warned that political persecution has continued to intensify in recent months, including patterns of attacks against universities, students and professors, concluding that these may constitute the crime against humanity of persecution on political grounds. The GHREN also documented the deliberate denial of re-entry to Nicaragua for those who have been forced to flee. Both the GHREN and OHCHR also warned about the sharp escalation in frequency and gravity of attacks against the Catholic Church in recent months. At least 50 religious leaders have fled the country since 2018.
Ongoing crimes against humanity have been facilitated in part by the deliberate dismantling of democratic institutions and safeguards enabling systematic policies to silence dissenting voices, as well as impunity for human rights violations since President Ortega took office in 2007. Civic space has been under systematic attack and no independent media outlet can operate within the country. In the absence of an independent national judicial system, domestic avenues to ensure redress for victims of state-led violence remain elusive.
Arbitrary criminal prosecutions are used as an instrument of political persecution, which has expanded over time and now targets a broad and diverse range of dissenting voices. Patterns of violence against opponents – including psychological torture – often vary by gender, with specific methods of torture targeting and inflicted upon women.
Since the expulsion of OHCHR and IACHR in 2018, no independent human rights monitoring body has been able to access the country. Nicaragua’s isolation from regional and international institutions helps facilitate the commission of atrocity crimes. Pervasive impunity for violations committed before and since 2018 enables ongoing crimes against humanity.
The Nicaraguan government has been unresponsive to targeted sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU), US, Canada and others. Ongoing investigations and public reporting by the GHREN remain crucial to ensure international scrutiny on the deteriorating crisis and exert pressure on UN member states to respond to ongoing atrocity crimes.
The government of Nicaragua must immediately halt the systematic persecution of actual or alleged opponents, allow independent media and civil society organizations to operate safely and freely and immediately release all arbitrary detained individuals. The government should commit to full and meaningful cooperation with regional and international human rights monitoring mechanisms, including by granting unfettered access to the GHREN. All human rights violations and abuses should be independently investigated and those responsible held accountable, including at the highest level of government.
UN member states should utilize the evidence collected by the GHREN to pursue accountability for victims, including through universal jurisdiction. Latin American governments, together with the EU and other allies, should intensify efforts to ensure a coordinated, consistent and holistic response to the crisis which prioritizes human rights protection and democratic reform, in consultation with Nicaraguan civil society.
Governments and regional institutions should also maximize bilateral pressure on the Nicaraguan government to end systematic repression, including when negotiating development or other financial cooperation, and strengthen and expand a robust individual sanctions regime against perpetrators at the highest level within the government.