During the 50th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) held last month, member states decided on the policies and actions that will guide the work of the multilateral forum for the coming year.
As we at Amnesty International have been saying, this Assembly offered an opportunity for member states to focus their actions on human rights and, among other things, strongly condemn the repressive measures that some countries in the Americas have been employing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The use of repressive measures on our continent is nothing new. In our open letter to mark the occasion of this General Assembly, which was accompanied by a multimedia projection onto the facade of the main OAS building, we denounced how the repressive measures implemented during the pandemic were simply a continuation of measures seen previously on the continent. Countries such as Chile and Nicaragua witnessed repressive measures that resulted in serious human rights violations, and even crimes under international law, aimed at silencing those demonstrating for social change.
During the first months of the pandemic, we saw repressive measures enforced in such countries as El Salvador, Paraguay and Venezuela under the pretext of fighting COVID-19. Amnesty International was able to verify that the outcome of these measures was bleak: tens of thousands of people confined to state-run quarantine facilities in police or military custody.
The people in these facilities were not told how long they would be held there, and nor did they have any guarantee of a judicial procedure that would allow them to establish the legality of their detention. It should be noted that such a situation could constitute presumed arbitrary detention by international human rights standards.
Unfortunately, the member states of the OAS have preferred to ignore and disregard their shared obligation to guarantee human rights without distinction across the continent
In addition, a number of these facilities did not enjoy the minimum infection prevention and control measures, nor the means to ensure adequate food, water and medical care. It is clear that such a situation offers the perfect recipe for promoting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in addition to being in violation of the right to health.
Unfortunately, the member states of the OAS have preferred to ignore and disregard their shared obligation to guarantee human rights without distinction across the continent. Faced with this situation, there was a resounding silence from this General Assembly, despite the main theme being to reflect on the challenges COVID-19 presents for our continent.
While an omnibus resolution was adopted on human rights within which a resolution entitled “Protecting human rights in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic” was passed, this merely highlighted the need to preserve a rights-based approach to the pandemic. Nowhere did it call for condemnation of the repressive measures taken in the context of the pandemic or for assurances that any such repetition would be avoided.
Human rights protection requires more than mere declarations such as those seen since the beginning of the pandemic within the OAS. Guaranteeing human rights necessarily requires action, condemnations of violations, and reparation, above all to avoid any repetition, particularly since the continent does not seem to be gaining any respite from the pandemic. The OAS and its member states clearly owe a debt to those of us living on the continent at this time.
The repressive measures implemented to combat the pandemic must never again be contemplated. This is why the international community and its highest regional body in the Americas must not only be vigilant but must also use all resources at their disposal to ensure that human rights violations are never again committed under the pretext of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic on our continent.
It is in this spirit that we at Amnesty International will continue to use the mechanisms set out in the OAS's own standards to ensure that this concert of nations not only analyses what happened but also establishes mechanisms and road maps to prevent such a situation from occurring again.
Faced with the inaction of this multilateral forum, those of us working for human rights have no choice but to continue to seek out relevant spaces, make our concerns known and monitor as appropriate.
This is nothing new for Amnesty International. It is just one tool which, alongside research, campaigning and mobilization actions, we use to support many of our demands that human rights be respected and guaranteed. In the coming days, we will therefore be sending a further letter to the OAS asking it to address the repressive measures implemented in the face of the pandemic.