The government of Nicaragua is committing possible crimes against humanity in a systematic attempt to crush dissent.
In April 2018 tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Nicaragua to protest severe pension cuts. 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. At least 320 people were killed and 2,000 injured between April and September 2018. An August 2018 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed widespread and systematic violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity. Further research by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)-mandated Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts determined that crimes against humanity, including murder, persecution and arbitrary deprivation of liberty, were committed by the government between April and May 2018. 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 gradually eroded the rule of law and rapidly descended into authoritarianism, resulting in an unprecedented human rights crisis. It 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, as well as violence against indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Repression further intensified in the context of the 2021 presidential elections, when the government banned large parts of the opposition from participating, including through criminal prosecutions of presidential candidates. Various government structures are committing widespread human rights violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity, including persecution, murder, imprisonment, torture and sexual violence, deportation and politically motivated persecution.
In its first report released on 2 March 2023, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHRE) 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 Daniel 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. On 3 April the HRC renewed the mandate of the GHRE for two years.
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 GHRE 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.
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.
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 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. According to the newspaper El País, this operation was likely the highest number of detentions registered on a single day since the so-called “Operation Clean-Up” in 2018.
On 21 June the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the silencing of critical voices persists in a context of widespread fear and harassment by authorities. As a sign of intensifying repression, 119 civil society organizations and eight universities have had their legal personality cancelled since March. Dozens of government critics, including prominent members of the Catholic Church, remain arbitrarily detained under what the GHRE has defined as a state policy. On 19 August the US announced the imposition of visa restrictions on 100 Nicaraguan officials who restrict Nicaraguans’ human rights and undermine democracy.
Ongoing crimes against humanity have been facilitated in part by the deliberate dismantling of democratic institutions and safeguards, as well as impunity for human rights violations since President Ortega took office in 2007. Nicaragua is considered one of the most authoritarian governments worldwide. President Ortega’s absolute control over the country’s institutions has created a state apparatus that enables systematic policies to silence dissenting voices. 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 justice and 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 also helps facilitate the commission of atrocity crimes.
The Nicaraguan government has been unresponsive to targeted sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU), US, Canada and other states. Ongoing investigations and public reporting by the GHRE 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 GHRE. All human rights violations and abuses, including those resulting from political violence, 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 GHRE 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 Nicaraguan government.