Tamara Taraciuk, the new acting director of Human Right Watch (HRW) for the Americas talks about human rights in the region. He occupies the position -on an interim basis- of José Miguel Vivanco, who left the organization last December, after almost thirty in it. Taraciuk has been at HRW for 16 years, has a Master’s degree in Law from Columbia University, and a diploma in Human Rights from the University of Chile. At HRW, she covered Mexico and Venezuela, and worked on several countries as a senior researcher and deputy director, until her current position. Previously, he served in the International Commission on Human Rights (DD.HH.) of the OAS. He lives in Uruguay.
-What issues in the region are Human Right Watch (HRW) most concerned about?
-In the first place, we see a serious setback in terms of fundamental freedoms and above all the risk of attacks against guarantees and fundamental democratic spaces. There I include not only the cases of the harshest dictatorships, such as those of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, but also cases of countries where leaders are democratically elected and, once they come to power, they disregard fundamental guarantees, such as the judicial independence, independent journalism, the work of civil society.
Second, there is the pandemic and how it has been a generator of human rights problems in the region. And in third place (although all with equal importance) is the migratory issue; there are millions of people who have fled their countries and this creates enormous challenges for the host countries and for the migrants or refugees themselves. There I include the more than six million Venezuelans, more than 110 thousand Nicaraguans and thousands of Central Americans, from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, who cross Mexico to try to reach the US.
-In these days the Cuban government will prosecute the demonstrators who were arrested in the last protests in that country, what reflection do you deserve?
-According to the latest events in that country, we have received reports that more than 200 people related to the protests have been put on trial, in many cases for “crimes of sedition”, which criminalize the action for “disturbing the order”. socialist”. These are trials that often take place behind closed doors, without independent defense attorneys and before judges who are not independent either. The sentences imposed, which have reached up to 25 years in prison, are grossly disproportionate.
-Let’s go to Argentina, which lately, for example, has promoted the abortion law a lot, what are you seeing there?
-In Argentina there are structural human rights problems, which are pending debts, such as police violence, the excessive use of preventive detention, violence against women, impunity for the attack against the AMIA. As positive measures of the last year I would highlight social mobilization, activism and progress in the legalization of abortion.
-At the end of 2020, this issue was put on the table and contributed to the movement in this area in the region, because throughout 2021 we saw that four states in Mexico advanced in protections for access to sexual and reproductive rights at the state level , and the Constitutional Court of Ecuador also took it. So Argentina has been a pioneer there. The other point that I would highlight is the inclusion of non-binary gender identity in identity documents, it was the first country in Latin America to do so.
-The great debt that Argentina has is its foreign policy on human rights, which has been erratic and inconsistent. On the one hand, it takes a stand against resolutions on Nicaragua at the OAS, while in Geneva it supports some resolutions on the same issues.
-For example, Argentina criticizes the repression in Colombia, how well it does, but does not question the repression in Cuba. This apparent ideological or erratic foreign policy affects credible leadership. This is an important issue, because starting this month, Argentina chairs the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But there is inconsistency in what Argentina does in Geneva and what it does in the OAS or CELAC.
-How do you see the investigations linked to the dictatorship in Argentina?
-It is another of the pending debts, despite the fact that there were advances in Argentina throughout those four decades. There were twists and turns with the laws that were later declared unconstitutional, such as Punto Final, with the pardons that were also declared unconstitutional.
-What does HRW think of the principle of non-intervention?
-It is an archaic principle of international law and does not apply to human rights violations. Fundamental rights have no borders. In fact, that is the reason why progress was made in the creation of the “responsibility to protect”, which establishes that States have the obligation to protect the rights of individuals in other countries, when serious human rights violations are committed. HH Of course not every time there is a serious violation in this matter, you have to invade, because it is usually a terrible way to resolve conflicts, but human rights are universal, without borders.
-This brings us to the issue of Nicaragua. The world witnessed a re-election considered illegitimate and no one was able to stop the process, largely due to the principle of non-intervention, do you see it that way?
-Yes, in that case, many governments hid behind the principle of non-intervention. But the elections were harshly questioned by different governments, to the point that a discussion was opened within the OAS framework on whether or not the Inter-American Democratic Charter was applied. That debate, still under way, could lead to Nicaragua’s suspension from the OAS.
-What do you think of the international sanctions that can affect the population?
-It is necessary to distinguish two types of international sanctions. There are those that were imposed in the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan cases, aimed at public officials in particular, implicated in serious human rights violations or acts of corruption. And besides, there are the economic or commercial sanctions. For example, HRW opposes the embargo against Cuba because it distracts attention from what is really happening in the country. The embargo has been a bad policy to improve human rights in Cuba.
-The situation in Venezuela, for example, is very different because there has been a humanitarian emergency there since before the US oil sanctions. In addition, there is no guarantee that a corrupt regime like the Venezuelan one will use the money linked to oil to help the people.
-What do you think of Uruguay’s foreign policy in terms of human rights?
-Our assessment is that Uruguay has maintained a very consistent foreign policy on this matter. In the OAS, Uruguay has voted in favor of resolutions that questioned the elections in Venezuela and the human rights violations in Nicaragua. Last year, the president’s speech at CELAC clearly spoke about democracy. This is clear in the region and globally as well. Uruguay was a member of the Human Rights Council.
-Voted in favor of creating a Group of Experts in Afghanistan, a Commission of Experts on Human Rights in Ethiopia, renewing the mandate of a Group of Experts on Yemen, on South Sudan. The only thing I would say is that in Geneva there are resolutions that are voted on within the framework of the Commission and there is also another mechanism that is joint pronouncements made by the States, which are not put to the vote. And there were some joint pronouncements where Uruguay did not join in on China, Russia or Saudi Arabia, which would have been good if they did.
-Why do you think that Uruguay did not pronounce itself in those cases?
-I do not know. What I can say is that, in general terms, except for those exceptions, Uruguay has been a great ally of human rights.
-Finally, how does HRW stand before Vivanco’s departure?
-HRW will continue working with the same conviction and strategy. We will open a public and open competition to definitively award this regional management position. Surely it will be this or next month.
Tamara Taraciuk believes that many complaints made by human rights organizations, institutions and civil society are capable of stopping or reversing abuses of power.
He affirms that it is not only about denouncing, but about going further to generate changes. In his words: «In the midst of a gloomy panorama, the good news about Latin America is that there is, even in the most repressive countries, a response from civil society and independent journalism and, in democracies, a response from certain institutions that have put a brake on executive power. For example in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has openly ignored the WHO recommendations on preventing the transmission of the coronavirus, but there were two governors who imposed social distancing measures. The Bolsonaro government judicially questioned these measures, but the judges of the Supreme Court upheld the measures agreed upon by the governors. That is an example where, even in a country where the government is openly questioning the role of judges -also specifically the Supreme Court-, there are institutions that respond to these attacks.
The interim director of HRW mentions other cases in which the complaint changes or begins to mobilize institutional reforms. “In Chile, people went out to protest en masse in 2019. From that movement that took to the streets and was brutally repressed by the carabineros, two important measures emerged: the Constituent Convention (a radically different avant-garde Constitution could be reached to the Pinochet Constitution), and the other point is that the repression made it clear that it is essential to structurally reform the Chilean police. That reform, while it is a long way from being finished, started at the end of 2019 and is ongoing,” he said.
winter games in beijing
In the middle of this month, HRW declared that it supports the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, considering that “the Chinese government uses the event to whitewash its record of human rights violations.” The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have already announced that they will not send their political representatives to the inauguration on February 4. Taraciuk says that it is difficult to predict the influence that HRW’s position will have on the decisions of other countries, but that in the past they have influenced other world events. “There are cases where we have been successful in the region. For example, we work hard in Haiti, where there were serious allegations of sexual violence within the Haitian Federation of Women’s Soccer. We carried out a campaign -similar to the one now with these Winter Olympics-, to advance in the protection of the girls and in the investigation of the president of the federation, who was implicated in these cases. Thanks to the work of HRW, they ended up removing the president of the federation, FIFA sanctioned him. We are oriented to promote changes”, he affirmed.