Concerned About Escalating Social Tension in Ecuador, IACHR and Its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Call for Urgent, Inclusive, and Effective Dialogue

June 24, 2022

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression note the demonstrations that are ongoing in the context of the general strike in Ecuador. The two institutions are concerned about escalating social tension. The IACHR calls for maximum effort to launch effective, inclusive, and intercultural dialogue to address the demands of historically vulnerable groups and ensure full respect for human rights.

These protests, which started on June 13 at the request of the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE, by its Spanish acronym), press for several demands including the need to protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights. These issues are being closely monitored by the IACHR's Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights, paying particular attention to the major challenges faced by the right to health in Ecuador. Demonstrators are also pressing for demands linked to social protection, the rising cost of living, increasing fuel prices, trade union and other labor rights, the right to education, and environmental rights, as well as for the collective rights of indigenous peoples. Organizations active in the protests denounced the lack of effective mechanisms for dialogue to obtain responses to their demands.

The State declared a state of emergency given the serious commotion in some provinces, first through Decree 455 of June 17 and later through Decree 459 of June 20, 2022, each of them in force for 30 days. Ecuador has the duty to ensure that all measures taken are proportionate and that any suspensions of rights and guarantees happen when there is no other way to address a situation using the regular attributes of State authorities. State action must also not lead to increased tension.

The IACHR is concerned about reports that say three people have been killed—two of them with firearms—in the context of these protests. Further, at least 124 demonstrators and 120 officers of the National Police have reportedly been injured. According to official figures, 110 people have been arrested. Civil society organizations have expressed their concern about arrests of social leaders including the head of the CONAIE, as well as about reports of an excessive use of force by the police. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression condemn all human rights violations committed in the context of social protests and urge the State to establish with due diligence the circumstances of all related killings.

The two institutions have also been informed by civil society organizations of at least 86 serious instances of violence against journalists covering the general strike. Reports mention, among others, physical assault—sometimes using whips and spears and the hurling of hot liquids—against journalists, as well as threats, harassment, the unlawful confiscation of equipment, and injuries caused by the impact of tear gas cans. These reports further note attacks on the websites of newspapers and civil society organizations who monitor and report on events linked to the general strike. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression note with concern that at least 61 attacks have allegedly been perpetrated by demonstrators and a further 15 by officers of the State's law enforcement agencies.

Protest leaders and officials holding public positions should never attack or stigmatize journalists. It is essential for these individuals to publicly acknowledge the fact that safe and free journalistic coverage of social protests is crucial for citizens to access information and opinions concerning demonstrators' demands from perspectives that reflect the plurality within Ecuadorian society. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression also stress that the media are important to report potential human rights violations. Lack of access to information may affect the voices of both institutions and civil society, make social understanding of the context more difficult, and delay any options for conflict resolution.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression also note the varied acts of violence reported by the State against its officers and property, including the destruction of police vehicles, public transportation vehicles, and school buses. There were also reports that 28 police officers were captured and then released, that the Tisaleo (Tungurahua) police substation was occupied and its officers detained, that facilities operated by the Public Prosecutor's Office were attacked, and that a water treatment plant was allegedly polluted.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression condemn all acts of violence committed in demonstration contexts. They call on the authorities to investigate allegations of crimes perpetrated during protests, and to try and punish anyone found responsible for them, ensuring due process. The State of Ecuador must assume that all protests are lawful manifestations of the rights to freedom of association, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly. The fact that some groups or individuals exercise violence during a demonstration does not per se make that whole protest violent or illegitimate—it does not warrant actions by public authorities to criminalize the protest or by the security forces to resort to the use of force or to carry out mass arrests.

The State's security forces play a crucial role to keep demonstrators safe with no direct repression or arbitrary arrests, as well as to generally preserve the safety of society as a whole, including both protestors and people who do not take part in demonstrations. In specific cases in application of the principles of legality, proportionality, and strict necessity, law enforcement forces have a duty to focus on containing violence. The State must investigate with due diligence all allegations of an excessive use of force. It must also ensure that law enforcement officers collect data that enables identification of the chain of command and of the execution of any orders.

In the current context, the Commission and its Special Rapporteurship stress the importance of dialogue, as a way to address and solve social conflict. Both institutions acknowledge and value of the various calls for talks that have been made so far by stakeholders including the Roman Catholic church, international organizations, and even the Ecuadorian president. At the same time, the Commission is worried that none of these calls have so far led to effective dialogue.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression are concerned about comments made by some individuals who directly refuse to engage in talks and who deny the role of public and democratically elected authorities to institutionally address all citizen demands. All political procedures that lead to revocation of a constitutional mandate must respect the principles of legality and constitutional due process.

The right to protest is often disruptive, and demonstrations play a crucial role to expose demands that need to be addressed and voices that need to be heard in a democratic society. When potential disruptions to everyday life in protest contexts extend over time and escalate in ways that seriously compromise the preservation of other rights—like the rights to life and the supply of food—the State's obligation to provide all necessary mechanisms for dialogue and to ensure the coexistence of all the rights that come in conflict becomes particularly important. The use of force must remain a last resort.

However, it is also worth noting that dispersing a demonstration may lead to an escalation of social tension and is only justified in very exceptional circumstances. It requires a clear, express order grounded on a serious risk for the lives or physical integrity of people (whether or not they are taking part in the protest) and needs to follow less harmful efforts. The authorities also need to give demonstrators an opportunity and enough time to comply with the order to disperse without the use of force by the police, which must only be a measure of last resort and must respect protocols, as well as the principles of legality, proportionality, and strict necessity.

In democratic institutional contexts, the State is responsible for protecting rights and directing people's complaints, so it must strengthen platforms to address petitions and demands. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression therefore urge the State to prevent all forms of abuse by its officers, in compliance with its human rights commitments. Both institutions further call for the end of violence and for social tensions to be addressed democratically, particularly through inclusive, intercultural, and effective dialogue that notes the causes of social unrest.

Finally, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship stress their commitment to cooperating with the State of Ecuador and their willingness to conduct a working visit to the country and to monitor the situation of human rights in the current context.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

The Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the IACHR to promote the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, considering the fundamental role that right plays in the consolidation and development of any democratic system.

No. 145/22

6:53 PM