Juanita Goebertus: ‘Favoring only trade discussions would take away the spotlight from Europe as a beacon of human rights’

The director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch regrets that the final declaration of the EU-CELAC summit does not openly condemn the region’s authoritarian regimes

Juanita Goebertus
Juanita Goebertus in her Bogotá apartment, on October 1, 2022.Juan Felipe Rubio
Lorena Arroyo

Colombian lawyer Juanita Goebertus was recently in Brussels to attend the summit of the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) with a clear message: business talks in Latin America cannot ignore the discussion on human rights. With the final declaration in hand, she congratulates the two blocs for bringing up the serious public security and humanitarian situation in Haiti, the need to resume negotiations between the government and the Venezuelan opposition, and the importance of fighting the climate crisis together.

However, for Goebertus, the director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, the declaration is far from providing answers to the serious human rights problems that affect the region. She is especially concerned about the silence regarding the dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and about “the very serious human rights violations” that take place in those countries, as well as the absence of references to the rise of authoritarianism, the risks to electoral systems and the crisis of insecurity or migration. She also dislikes that the process had “constant objections from the [Daniel] Ortega regime” in Nicaragua regarding the rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It is a sign that it is not possible to leave a regime like Nicaragua’s adrift. Today more than ever, as a result of this declaration, it is essential to advance jointly in a process that allows for the recovery of democracy and the rule of law in Nicaragua,” she told EL PAÍS on Tuesday afternoon. Hours earlier, she spoke to this newspaper in a hotel in the Belgian capital, near the building of the Council of the European Union, where the European and Latin American heads of state and government were negotiating the declaration.

Question. After eight years without meetings of this kind, the EU is looking at Latin America in this context of convergence of crises and in an attempt to counter Chinese influence in the region. At this summit, we have Latin American countries of different political persuasions, which will make it difficult to make a forceful statement against human rights violations. From your perspective, which red lines should not be crossed?

Answer. Having all the countries of the region here is important, it is a step, but it should be a means to achieve, for example, joint progress regarding the main problems facing the region. It is essential that in relation to the issue of Venezuela, for example, there are joint statements regarding concerns about the restrictions on the right to vote and political participation, particularly the recent decisions about returning to official control, the National Electoral Council or the concerns regarding the disqualification of María Corina Machado.

In the case of Cuba, we are very concerned about the more than a thousand political prisoners who are still in detention. They are evident violations of due process, among other rights. And of course, the serious humanitarian crisis that the island is experiencing. In Nicaragua, we have launched a group of friends of the people of Nicaragua, seeking not only to alert about the very serious violations that are committed every day in terms of not only arbitrary arrests, but expatriation, elimination of nationality, expropriation of assets of political prisoners... and also to try to find a sustained and integrated solution from different countries that over time commit to seeking a negotiated solution to advance towards democracy in Nicaragua. Being here together is an important step, but it should not be to ignore these very serious human rights violations, but rather to put more on the table and try to find solutions.

Q. What has been the response regarding the proposal of the group of friends of the people of Nicaragua?

A. In the case of Nicaragua, at least a glimmer of a greater consensus. Although there are different positions, I believe that one finds governments, both on the left and on the right, that recognize that what has happened in Nicaragua is already an open violation of the rule of law, of democracy and, of course, of human rights. We have had conversations with different foreign ministers, with different delegations, both European and Latin American, and there is interest. I believe that there is a consensus that solutions must be found, but we are still in talks with each of the delegations to try to activate this initiative, which is basically the starting point of saying yes, we all agree that this crisis exists, and we want to find some consensual and articulated and organized solution, and not to continue to think that what happened in Nicaragua is somehow a lost cause.

Q. In that region, Central America, we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism at different levels: we have the case of Bukele in El Salvador, with a state of exception that has lasted for more than a year, or the persecution of critical voices in Guatemala. But yesterday we saw that Josep Borrell signed very succinct memorandums of understanding with Honduras and El Salvador, in which they do not mention these concerns. Does it worry you that these rights violations are not being more forcefully condemned in Europe?

A. This relationship, which is important from a diplomatic point of view, should contribute not only to exposing different types of human rights violations, but also to seeking solutions. In the case of Guatemala, we are very concerned about the right to vote and political participation. Fortunately, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has reached the conclusion that it protects the right of the Semilla party not to suspend its legal status. This is a fundamental step, but the fact that the Public Ministry headed by Prosecutor [Consuelo] Porras can continue with a criminal investigation against who is today one of the presidential candidates headed to the second round, is a threat to the possibility that Guatemalan men and women freely choose whomever they want. Especially in a context where criminal proceedings are being used in Guatemala to persecute judges, prosecutors, journalists. There are precedents for the use of criminal law as a strategy to persecute those who have fought against impunity in the past and those who have exercised political participation. Establishing mechanisms for dialogue about what is happening in Guatemala is important not only to condemn this type of act, but above all to guarantee that there is a transparent electoral process.

In the case of El Salvador, we have been documenting the state of emergency, that there are more than 68,000 people deprived of their liberty, in hundreds of cases, people who, in addition, were not part of the gangs. We have documented cases of arbitrary arrests, torture, people who have died in prison, more than 1,600 cases of minors, not to mention the very serious violations of due process. Hearings of more than 500 virtual people without access to a lawyer, among others. And, of course, we acknowledge that the security crisis in El Salvador and in other Central American countries has been dramatic and has been a very severe scourge for civil society and the population in general, but the response to this security crisis cannot be one of greater repression and another violation of human rights. So, direct dialogue with El Salvador, yes, but to put these issues on the table and to find solutions. We believe that a dialogue that simply favors trade discussions and takes the discussion on human rights away from the spotlight would remove Europe’s center of gravity as a beacon in terms of the rule of law and the protection of human rights, as it has been historically.

Q. On Monday, in the parallel business round table, there was a lot of talk about not repeating the extractivist model. What should be done to avoid replicating these models that have not done the region any good?

A. I would say we have two factors regarding that point. The first thing is to have a process to strengthen trade relations between Europe and Latin America. It is important and, without a doubt, it is related to the social and economic well-being of our region. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore other sensitive topics. Last year, someone from the European External Action Service told me: “They can’t keep bringing us bad news about Latin America. We want to move towards a constructive relationship, a positive relationship in commercial terms.” Human rights should not be seen as bad news that must be avoided in order to address economic issues. As two regions, we should be capable of having adult, honest conversations that deal with both the strengthening of commercial relations and the guarantee of addressing the very serious human rights violations that take place and the crises that arise from these kinds of violations, which must be confronted directly and which have to stop if we want to have well-being.

That is one side of the equation. The other is a conversation about climate justice that involves recognizing that a sustainable development that makes and articulates processes of social, economic, and environmental development, has to understand that Latin America has immense potential in terms of its capacity to fight the climate crisis, particularly due to the ecosystem services provided by Latin America’s biodiversity. And preserving that biodiversity is essential to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to adapt to them. Achieving this requires conversations with Europe and with the rest of the world about what this biodiversity demands and how it must be protected, while advancing in the fight against poverty and inequality in Latin America.

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