Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Bolivia

Political context

In 2008, Bolivia was characterised by strong contrasts and tensions between, on the one hand, the working class, indigenous peoples and farmers, who are in majority in the Andean part of the country, in the west, and, on the other hand, the population that are mostly of mixed race living in the so-called "Media Luna", consisting of the wealthiest departments, Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, where powerful groups are present. These tensions led to a widespread racist discrimination against the indigenous peoples – although they constitute the majority of Bolivia's inhabitants – and against the populations in the west. Although these tensions are historical, it became more obvious after the election in December 2005 of President Evo Morales Ayma, candidate for the Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo – MAS), the country's first indigenous President and a coca growers' union leader.

Since then, the elites' trend to retreat at the regional level has grown even stronger, and they have been trying to block, at all cost, every measure undertaken by the Government, in particular the Constituent Assembly and the land registration by the National Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA)1 – although they were being implemented according to laws that were passed before President Morales came into power, and are in accordance with Bolivia's regional and international commitments,2 such as the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which also condemned the existence of servitude and slavery in parts of the country.3

In addition, the opposition Governors (the "Media Luna" Governors), strengthened by their new legitimacy4 and together with their allies in Chuquisaca and, until the August 10, 2008 recall referendum,5 the Cochabamba Governor, took local measures that are on the fringes of the law, such as organising autonomy referendums in May 2008.6 The attitude of the Governors threw the country into a deep political crisis during which acts of racism and discrimination burst in violently: the opposition, led by the Santa Cruz Governor, Mr. Rubén Costas, promoted separatism and ethnically and socially based hatred through the Civic Committees (Comités Civicos),7 in particular the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee and the Santa Cruz Youth Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista – UJC), the Committee's armed wing.

The year 2008 particularly witnessed important incidents: the humiliation of indigenous peoples in Sucre on May 24, 2008,8 the Pando massacre on September 11, 2008, the occupation of public institutions on September 9 and demonstrations of force to impede the registration of land in April. In addition to the racism and severe discrimination of some parts of the population, these events illustrate the current Government's inability to respond and to control the entire national territory.9 The Pando massacre in September was without doubt the most serious incident since Mr. Morales came into power. On September 11, 2008, farmers on their way to a regional rally in Cobija organised by the Unique Trade Union Federation of Rural Workers' of Pando (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Pando) were ambushed by opponents to Mr. Morales' Government in Tres Barracas and Porvenir, among them Pando Government civil servants. The incident was characterised by a "disproportionate use of non-conventional firearms in view of the farmers' defencelessness", as well as the subsequent repression of the persons who had escaped.10 At least 19 persons were killed and 53 were injured in the attack, and several dozen, mostly farmers, disappeared.

In the first days of September, after the President announced his intention of holding a referendum to approve the Constitution in December, the opposition, which was already discontent with the redistribution under the direct oil and gas tax (Impuesto Directo a los Hidrocarburos – IDH), proceeded to carry out violent takeovers of State institutions in Santa Cruz, Cobija, Tarija and Trinidad. More serious still, the vandalism and takeovers led to attacks on military personnel and threats by the opposition to take over army prisons. On September 21, 2008, the Bolivian National Congress approved the new project of constitution as well as the holding of a referendum so that the people might approve it on January 25, 2009.11

The new Constitution would provide better protection of and respect for human rights. Also, it reflects the State's willingness to be a "unitary, pluralistic and multi-ethnic State", and gives greater importance to economic, social and cultural rights, acknowledging these rights as fundamental. It includes several provisions aimed at ensuring equality, social justice and protection for indigenous peoples and the poor population. The conditions for human rights defenders would hopefully also be improved if they are able to work within a legal framework with more well-defined rights. Moreover, in December 2008, the President promulgated the National Human Rights Action Plan (Plan Nacional de Acción de Derechos Humanos). Promoted by the Vice-Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, it was elaborated in cooperation with human rights organisations, and could also contribute to improving the conditions for defenders, as it includes a chapter dedicated to supporting, protecting and facilitating their work, with an earmarked budget.

Attacks on defenders assimilated with political opponents, especially defenders of indigenous peoples' rights

In this context, human rights defenders were threatened and harassed by opponents to President Morales' Government. This is partly because the opposition considers everyone who belongs to or supports indigenous or farmer communities as de facto followers of Mr. Morales and his party, MAS. Therefore, human rights defenders who fight for these communities' rights, which is the case of almost every NGO in Bolivia, as they work for the majority of the population, but at the same time the most vulnerable one, were assimilated with MAS by the opposition and were victims of numerous attacks.

On April 13, 2008 for instance, Guaraní lawyer Ramiro Valle Mandepora, Counsellor to the Assembly of the Guaraní People (Asamblea del Pueblo Guaraní – APG), Ms. Tanimbu Guiraendy Estremadoiro Quiroz and Mr. Fernando Alexis Cola, both journalists working for the APG, who were making a documentary about the cleaning-up of Guaraní land and the living conditions of Guaraní captive communities for the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (Centro de Estudios Jurídicos e Investigación Social – CEJIS) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), were brutally assaulted. The van they were driving in was ambushed by hundreds of persons who attacked them, pulled them out of the vehicle, beat them and took their equipment, including their accreditation documents. Although Mr. Cola was able to escape, Ms. Estremadoiro was taken to various places, threatened, insulted, mistreated and tied to a pole in the rain. A man also tried to rape her. She was released the following day and handed over to the military, which protected her. According to the reports, the Cuevo municipal authorities themselves took part in these attacks and arrests.12

Likewise, on September 11, 2008, in the Santa Cruz department, the offices of the Indigenous Confederation of Eastern Bolivia (Confederación Indígena del Oriente Boliviano – CIDOB) and the Coordinating Committee of Ethnic Peoples of Santa Cruz (Coordinadora de Pueblos Étnicos de Santa Cruz – CPESC) were attacked and destroyed.13 On September 16, 2008, Mr. Mario Aguilera B., a civic leader, and Mr. Marcos Jáuregui, Vice-President of the Riberalta Regional Civic Committee (Comité Cívico Regional de Riberalta), accused the northern branch of the Centre for Research and Training of Peasant Farmers (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado – CIPCA), the Riberalta branch of the CEJIS and the Institute for Man, Agriculture and Ecology (Instituto Para el Hombre, Agricultura y Ecología – IPHAE) of having provided financial support to farmers and crop workers (zafreros) who had travelled from Riberalta to Pando in order to demonstrate and of having provoked the September 11 incident. In addition, they warned them that they should leave Riberalta within 24 hours, saying that the Civic Committee President could not guarantee what would happen if they failed to do so.

Urgent Intervention issued by The Observatory in 200814

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Members of the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS), Centre for Research and Training of Peasant Farmers (CIPCA) and Institute for Man, Agriculture and Ecology (IPHAE)Threats / Defamation / HarassmentUrgent Appeal BOL 001/0908/OBS 152September 18, 2008

1 This is because many landowners do not necessarily comply with the constitutional requirements of the economic and social function of land and not all properties have been legally registered.

2 The cleaning-up process is required, inter alia, through the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples' Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007 and made into a law by Congress in October 2008, and which grants indigenous peoples the right to land.

3 See IACHR Press Release No. 26/08, June 13, 2008.

4 In December 2005, Governors were for the first time elected rather than being appointed by the President. In addition, their election coincided with the presidential election.

5 On August 10, 2008, a national recall referendum (referéndum revocatorio) was held for the President, the Vice-President and eight of the nine Governors. Mr. Evo Morales remained in power with 67.41 % of the votes, but so did his most ardent adversaries, the Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija Governors, and the tension therefore did not diminish.

6 It should be emphasised that Santa Cruz' autonomous status, in addition to being unconstitutional and to go beyond of the decisions of the National Electoral Court (Corte Nacional Electoral), has "a racist character (...), which would be highly harmful for the indigenous peoples of the department", particularly in its Article 161, as underlined by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, Mr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, in his Press Release dated April 10, 2008.

7 The Civic Committees are citizen's groups.

8 See Bolivia Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Press Release, May 26, 2008.

9 See Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos – APDHB).

10 See Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), Informe Defensorial de los hechos de violencia suscitados en el mes de septiembre de 2008 en el departamento de Pando, November 27, 2008. A commission of the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas – UNASUR) also made a report after an investigation confirming the events, which was handed to the President on December 3.

11 Mediators and observers from the UN, the Organisation of American States, the UNASUR and the EU, as well as the Catholic and Protestant Churches of Bolivia, welcomed this progress. See, inter alia, Statement of the UN Secretary-General's Spokesperson, October 21, 2008.

12 See APDHB.

13 Idem.

14 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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