• Alex

Does El Salvador respect all Human Rights?

#Analisis #HumanRights | In an international exchange on the protection of human right defenders in October 2019, one of my work colleagues, LJ, presented her analysis on the current human rights challenges in El Salvador’s “New Era” and solutions that are being discussed within the civil society sector. The following text is a translation of LJ's analysis - which I've updated with recent images. I hope it gives you a good overview of the challenges, but also some of the solutions.



El Salvador has had a change in government in June 2019, with the new president announcing a “New Era”. This has generated high hopes in the general population, particularly that he will create a safer state and more jobs.


The key challenges of/with the current government are structural violence, corruption and transparency issues, disregard of the right’s of minorities or marginalized peoples, poverty, and the climate and environmental crisis.

Although the government has not yet presented it's "Plan General del Gobierno" (still not the case in February 2020), the general lines of Nayib Bukele are along facilitating business, fighting violence with violence, talking about addressing corruption and cutting social programs.

We'll have a quick look at the different issues, and proposed solutions.


Violence and security issues

The human rights situation in EL Salvador is marked by the strong presence of structural violence and lack of security. In 2018 alone there were 3,340, of which 383 were women. This has led to high levels of forced displacement, both internal and across borders. Who are the perpetrators of this violence? Sure, criminal elements, but also 9 percent of displaced persons identified a state authority as the main aggressor and driver of their displacement.


Childrens’ and youths' rights have become particularly vulnerable: 17,512 Salvadoran minors have been captured on the border between Mexico and the United States. Every 16 hours a child is abandoned in El Salvador, with migration being one of the first three causes. At the same time, every 4 days a child or adolescent dies a violent death.


Furthermore, gangs are considered a "youth movement" with many young boys (and increasingly girls) being forced into gangs and then killed or imprisoned - many with reason, but also many without trials. Around 68% of the prison population is under the age of 35 - the highest rate in Central and Latin America (BID, 2019)

The plans of the New Era don't take into consideration the complex origins of violence and forced displacement. Instead, they focus on enforcing a U.S.-funded border to prevent people from leaving the country, which is a violation of the right to migrate. In view of the situation of violence and insecurity, a Plan for Territorial Control, based on the militarization of security and police, is being implemented.

The difference between military and police: The police is a civil force – meaning they are trained for social interactions; the military is “simply” an armed force (training before being active: 3 months). In a region with a rich history of military dictatorships and coups, it’s not surprising this is raising some alarm bells.

The effectiveness of this policy has been difficult to measure so far. The number of homicides has gone down - leading to some analysts saying that it has been the most successful policy sofar. However the number of disappeared people (and unofficial graves) as well as youth incarceration has increased. Further, deaths related to confrontations with security forces have been excluded from the homicide rate.


What does the civil society suggest:

Shift from criminal social justice (focus is on punishing the crime) to restorative social justice (focus is on reintegration).
The Government and the Legislative Assembly needs to learn more about the reality of internal and external forced displacement and facilitate access to protection mechanisms.
Reframe the work of the National Civil Police based on human rights.


Protecting civil and political rights of all?

If you are a (rural) woman, part of the LGBTIQ* community, and/or an indigenous population, chances are your right's wont' be defended by the new government.



There has been an increase in violence towards LGBTIQ* communities in recent years with some notable peaks. Between January and September 2019 there were 23 murders of LGBTIQ* people (for more information, see this fantastic report by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Central America: DiscrimiNaciones). LGBTIQ* activists are particularly targeted.


The criminalization of rural/poor women who have suffered obstetrical difficulties during pregnancy, resulting in the loss of their child, continues. While abortion is illegal (3-8 years in prison), many women are sentenced for homicide (30 years in prison) (currently 147 suspected cases) upon insistence of the .

At the same time, feminicides (homicide motivated by misogyny) are common. From January to May 2019, 134 women were murdered in what was considered feminicide.


The government hasn't addressed any of these issues in any way. It has cut various social programs, such as support to the elderly, temporary income support, program to strengthen women's health. The new government has eliminated the Secretariat for social inclusion and with it the Secretariat for Sexual Diversity. Thus, there is currently no institution in charge of protecting the rights of the LGBTIQ*+ community.


The civil society asks the government to join its efforts and:

Implement the comprehensive policies already created by the State to protect human rights defenders, including particularly targeted defenders, such as cisgender and transgender women.
Present a plan to eradicate gender discrimination.
Decriminalize abortion and reverse false sentences for women
Gender Identity Law that recognizes transgender people.
Incorporate hypotheses of prejudice in the investigations that will make hate crimes visible.
Reactivate the mechanism for eradicating discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Is the right to food, water, and a safe environment guaranteed?

The right to adequate food and the right to water have not been addressed by the new government yet, despite food insecurity being high (12% severe, 40% moderate) and several municipalities having experienced water shortages for multiple weeks within the first 100 days of the “New Era”.



There is no pronouncement on the General Water Law, which is under discussion since 2006, and which proposes a regulation of water use (currently anybody can use as much as they want).


At the environmental level, in order to attract economic growth, large private companies are being privileged, expediting environmental permits that can seriously impact our natural environment. Combined with the incentives for direct foreign investment, this opens the door to the dispossession of land – also known as land grabbing (Free Trade Agreements, Public-Private Partnership Law, Law on the Concession of Maritime and Land Public Domain Spaces).


The Law against Metallic Mining remains vulnerable and the promised steps (closing mines, retraining for traditional miners) have not been initiated.


Agricultural production is continuing to move towards monocultures, particularly sugar cane and palm oil, with strengthened ties to Beyer. The program for family farming has been cut.


What actions does the civil society suggest:

In the face of the ecological crisis, it is necessary to transform our economy and question neoliberalism
Betting on agroecology is a central element and the fight against the privatization of water.
Critically analyze public-private partnership because often, it is a form of privatization.
Pass the General Water Law
Strengthen the law that bans metallic mining


What rights do human rights defenders have?


Defenders of human rights are often targeted and criminalized. This was the case in the previous governments, and continues to be the case today.


Sign hanging at the entrance of ADES, in memory of the 3 HR defenders murdered in 2011.

This is a common thread throughout the Central American region, where human rights defenders and community leaders are targeted and killed.

The National Civil Police has recently illegally searched homes of human rights defenders, and there have also been reprisals and criminalization against environmentalists by the State. Some have been declared "Enemy of the state".


What can be done:

Approve the Law on the Right to Defend Rights that protects the work of defenders.
That the Attorney General's Office create a comprehensive criminal policy that allows protection mechanisms and avoids the criminalization of their work.
Strengthen the relationship between the Human Rights Procurator and human rights defenders.
Train public officers on human rights and in the recognition of the work of human rights defenders.
Create an independent agency in charge of assisting human rights defenders and journalists.
Unify human rights movements from different sectors, generate networks

Human-rights organisations: ORGANIZE!

The calls for action are not only for the governments ears. Human rights organisations need to continue to work on and strengthen their capacities in the following issues:


  • Overcome the decline in participation and organization of civil society organizations.

  • Continue to fight for sanctions and restitution when rights are violated.

  • Revive forms of civil organization that protect the interests of the poor, precarious and most unprotected people and transform societies.

  • Rebuild community structures as a form of resistance against oppression and exploitation.

  • Build powerful relationships and alliances against neoliberals and develop an alternative discourse that counterbalances the hegemonic and neoliberal discourse disguised as the New Eras. Work at a theoretical and street/field level.

  • Continue to develop our skills in policy anlisis, to know more about neoliberalism and to analyse the discourses in order to identify traps.

  • Revisit the concepts of oppression (exercised by the State) and exploitation (exercised by the capitalist system) and analyse the multiple oppressions and exploitations.


These might seem like many issues and requests by the civil society. But I'm pretty sure the statement no state respects all human rights" rings true, unfortunately. Aaaand that is why we have and need NGO's and educated and critical citizens. Thank you LJ for your analysis!



For our Swiss readers: No, we are not immune to human rights violations. There are interesting analyses on the state of human rights in Switzerland (humanrights.ch; Summary of the CECHR visit of 2017 in french). One satement from three years ago:


"Reinforcing the institutional and legal framework for safeguarding and promoting human rights and enhancing the protection of migrants and asylum seekers are the key recommendations addressed to the Swiss authorities by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, in a report published today following his visit to the country in May 2017."

One of the recommendations was to review the antidiscrimination laws (or the laws protecting people from discrimination) to include sexual diversity as a factor of discrimination. And I am so happy that the popular initiative passed on 09. February to extend protection to LGBTIQ* communities! Now we're only missing a few more rights... ;)

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