NicaNotes: The Human Rights Industry and Nicaragua

by John Perry

[This article was first published in Covert Action Magazine on February 6, 2024]

John Perry is based in Masaya, Nicaragua, and writes for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, London Review of Books, FAIR and other outlets.

Photo: Clarity Press

Why do United Nations human rights bodies focus on some countries, but not others? Why do organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International appear to ignore important evidence presented to them? And why do the media repeat stories of human rights abuses without questioning their veracity?

These issues and more are examined in one of 2023’s most remarkable books: The Human Rights Industry by Alfred de Zayas. It is remarkable for two reasons. One is that it brings together the insights of de Zayas and other experts into the ways in which “human rights” have been distorted to serve the interests of Western governments, principally those of the United States.

But it is also remarkable because it is not the view of an outsider, but that of someone who is perhaps more immersed than anyone of his generation in the whole field of human rights, bringing 50 years of experience to his analysis. His conclusions are damning, but de Zayas is far from pessimistic, offering a multi-point plan as to how questions of human rights could be better addressed globally, with the real interests of ordinary citizens paramount, not subservient to those of Washington, the European Union or other centers of power.

As a reader, one whose work is very briefly referenced, what struck me forcefully is how much of the book rings true for the country where I live, Nicaragua. It does not receive the same attention as countries like Venezuela or Syria, but almost all of the analysis in the de Zayas book applies to the abuse and manipulation of human rights issues in the Nicaraguan context.

This article identifies some of the key insights in The Human Rights Industry, and shows how they fit, in many cases remarkably closely, with experience in Nicaragua, focusing on the period before, during and after the coup attempt against the Sandinista government in 2018. The subject matter ranges from the macro-level of Nicaragua’s treatment by the United Nations and its human rights mechanism, through its treatment by regional bodies, by individual governments and by international human rights organizations, right down to the behavior of the handful of so-called human rights bodies in Nicaragua itself.

Nicaragua’s “Human Rights” Bodies

The base of the “human rights industry” consists of small, local organizations which, as de Zayas points out, may in some cases do excellent work. However, he qualifies this by saying: “There are few fields that are as penetrated and corrupted by intelligence services as the human rights NGOs.”

De Zayas estimates that perhaps 30% are so penetrated—a remarkable assertion that must be taken seriously given his knowledge of the sector. He goes on to warn specifically against those funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.

The NED’s website shows that, between 2016 and 2020, it spent almost $1.2 million in funding “human rights” bodies in Nicaragua, in addition to funding many other activities. In 2018, Nicaragua had three main “human rights” NGOs, known for their initials in Spanish as the CPDH, ANPDH and CENIDH, as well as several smaller organizations, most receiving foreign funding. Both CPDH and ANPDH were financed by the NED. CPDH also received more than $7 million from an offshoot of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The ANPDH was originally set up by the Reagan administration at the time of the Contra war in Nicaragua, to whitewash Contra atrocities (the funding of these bodies by the NED in the 1980s, through an intermediary called Prodemca, was reported at the time by The Washington Post). CENIDH is not known to have received NED funding but in the build-up to the coup attempt was awarded a staggering $23 million by various European institutions, some with government connections. Over $10 million of this was allocated for staff salaries alone, an astonishing amount in a low-income country.

De Zayas warns that human rights assessments by such bodies may be compromised and should be treated with skepticism. In Nicaragua’s case, their biased coverage and one-sided assessments, especially in terms of killings and other abuses during the 2018 coup attempt, have been documented in detail. The most extreme example is that of the ANPDH, which actively accompanied violent opposition activists and even attempted to cover up their worst atrocities.

As The Grayzone reported in 2019, when the ANPDH broke up in 2018 and its employees left for Costa Rica, the employees accused the former director, Álvaro Leiva, of appropriating funds from U.S. bodies such as the NED. Worse, they revealed that Leiva ordered them to inflate ANPDH’s casualty counts during the coup attempt, because he believed padding the death tolls would help secure extra U.S. funding.

One of the enduring myths of the coup attempt was that hundreds of people were killed by the police. Within ten days of the start of the violence, The New York Times was already reporting “…the deaths of dozens of people this month, many at the hands of the police, human rights groups say.” The Guardian later said that “At least 322 people have been killed and 2,000 others injured—mostly by the police and pro-government paramilitary groups.” According to ANPDH, the figure reached 561, although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said the “crackdown” led to 325 deaths. Detailed analysis by the Nicaraguan National Assembly’s Truth Commission put the real death toll at 270. Most importantly, a minority were protesters; most were bystanders or people trying to pass through opposition roadblocks, Sandinista supporters or police officers (22 of the latter were killed, and more than 400 injured).

A lawyer and analyst, Enrique Hendrix, showed in detail how the “human rights” NGOs inflated their figures. De Zayas concludes that “foreign-funded NGOs built up a completely distorted picture…in which all violence was blamed on the government.”

Not surprisingly, all three “human rights” bodies were closed down by the government after 2018, having exhausted its patience with their blatant propaganda activities. Similar bodies now operate from Costa Rica: For example, CENIDH was reborn as El Colectivo de Derechos Humanos Nicaragua Nunca Más; it gives no indication of its funding source on its website, but it received a “democracy award” from the NED in 2021. It continues to offer poorly evidenced reports, for example that, by the end of 2023, one in every nine Nicaraguans had been forced to leave the country.

ANPDH reopened in Costa Rica and received over $700,000 from USAID in 2020-2021. US agencies such as the NED and USAID are still actively working with many organizations linked to Nicaragua, and the Open Society Foundation has just contracted a prominent opponent of the Sandinista government to administer a $25 million fund to promote women’s political leadership.

The corrupt role of the OAS and IACHR 

“At international level,” Alfred de Zayas writes, referring specifically to Nicaragua, “numerous institutions relied on unverified reports to advance a caricature of a despotic regime that kills its citizens, white-washing opposition violence.” He goes on to name the OAS, the IACHR and even the United Nations as echoing “the same biased narratives.” All of these bodies fed on the information provided by local NGOs and still do so now that many are based abroad. Yet soon after the start of the violence, these bodies were all invited by the Nicaraguan government to visit and conduct their own appraisal of events.

This is where it went wrong. Various human rights experts such as the Chilean lawyer Antonia Urrejola (later foreign minister in Gabriel Boric’s government) came on such official missions, were presented with detailed evidence by the government and allowed to make a range of visits (e.g. to prisons). However, they then presented extremely biased reports which largely ignored the government’s evidence and omitted accounts by victims of opposition violence, in many cases having refused even to meet them. Understandably, after months of showing considerable patience, in December 2018 the government rescinded its agreement to allow delegations from these international bodies.

Here are two of the worst examples of IACHR bias. One was the result of a group of “experts” visiting the country with the government’s approval during a six-month mission. The GIEI-Nicaragua (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes) provided a 468-page report to the IACHR, focused particularly on deaths that occurred on May 30, 2018 when two large marches were held in Managua, one by the opposition and one by Sandinista supporters. The report examined deaths among government opponents, and only briefly referred to Sandinista deaths and injuries to police officers. Crucially, it was shown to have ignored and manipulated evidence from its own experts. It ignored evidence of use of firearms by the opposition, manipulated the analysis of its own weapons expert, and omitted any evidence that contradicted its findings. As a result of the report’s gross distortion of the May 30 events, a large number of organizations and individuals wrote to the IACHR and separately to the OAS, but received only a peremptory reply.

In another example from March 2021, the IACHR held an open session on Indigenous people’s rights in Nicaragua, to which no democratically elected representatives of Indigenous communities were invited, only spokespeople from two opposition-oriented NGOs. One was CEJUDHCAN, a recipient of USAID finance. The other, CALPI, has accused the Nicaraguan government of genocide. Four NGOs from outside Nicaragua also spoke, including the Oakland Institute in California, which is funded (inter alia) by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

The US-based Alliance for Global Justice, a supporter of the Nicaraguan revolution, made a submission to the IACHR before the hearing, but this was ignored and no one from AFGJ was called to give evidence. In fact, of several witnesses, the only support for the government’s excellent record in serving Indigenous communities came from Nicaragua’s attorney general. She successfully rebuffed the opposition arguments, and the IACHR pursued them no further, but of course it was the false accusations made at the hearing which received publicity.

Alfred de Zayas specifically notes the tendency for the IACHR to make “politically-sensitive petitions disappear.” At the IACHR, he remarks, “politically incorrect” victims have “little or no chance of being heard.” These are just two of the more egregious examples of the IACHR doing exactly that.

The bias shown by United Nations human rights institutions

De Zayas points out that UN bodies often “capriciously decide to target one country but not another”, especially picking on countries which “oppose the Western unipolar vision.” This can lead to “demonizing a particular country in furtherance of other countries’ foreign policies.” This has repeatedly happened with the OAS and IACHR in relation to Nicaragua, but is now also the regular practice of UN bodies. Typically, the Human Rights Council or the Human Rights Commissioner will issue a report based largely on “evidence” from opposition spokespeople or NGOs, many now based outside Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government will oppose the report, but their representations or those of pro-government bodies will be ignored.

Only a year ago, the UN Human Rights Council established a “Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua” (GHREN) which, in February 2023, published a highly biased report. It went so far as to claim that Nicaragua’s government had committed “crimes against humanity.” The “experts” even went beyond their mandate and recommended further economic sanctions. A ”collective” of small opposition NGOs had open access to the GHREN, and clearly had a strong influence on their work. The pro-revolutionary Nicaragua Solidarity Coalition quickly prepared a detailed critique of the report. For example, it showed how the GHREN’s chronology of events in the city of Masaya during the coup attempt omitted almost all opposition violence, including murders, torture and destruction of municipal buildings and Sandinista homes.

Alfred de Zayas joined other human rights specialists in condemning the report as being unprofessional, biased, incomplete and concocted to justify further coercive sanctions to damage Nicaragua’s economy (such unilateral coercive measures have been condemned by the UN General Assembly, most recently in Resolution 77/214 of December 2022 and by the Human Rights Council in Resolution 49/6). Yet when the Nicaragua Solidarity Coalition sent the lengthy petition and supporting evidence to the UN Human Rights Council and to the “group of experts”, there was no response. After multiple emails containing further evidence, only a single, one-line reply was received, pointing the Coalition to the material on the GHREN’s website.

In The Human Rights Industry, de Zayas makes the points that the real purpose behind such expert groups or commissions is “to denigrate and destabilize the targeted government to facilitate undemocratic ‘regime change’ as desired by one or more powerful countries.” They are part of the “hybrid war arsenal” which such countries employ. He goes on to refer specifically to the GHREN’s report on Nicaragua, labelling it a “political pamphlet” and saying that its accusations of crimes against humanity are undeserving of detailed comment.

Needless to say, the GHREN’s judgment was reported widely in the international media; none investigated the GHREN’s work or how its conclusions were reached.

Since the report was published, opposition figures have often been invited to address the UN. Felix Maradiaga, recipient of US funding via the NED and other bodies, spoke at a UN human rights summit in May 2023. Medardo Mairena, found guilty in Nicaragua of organizing an attack on a police station in 2018 which left five people dead, but released under a 2019 amnesty, spoke at a UN Human Rights Council event in December 2023, decrying Nicaragua’s “grave human rights violations”.

The role of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

Neither Human Rights Watch (HRW) nor Amnesty International (AI) escapes the attention of The Human Rights Industry. De Zayas points out that HRW can be “instrumentalized as an arm of US pressure against independent states” and that it often “discredits governments seeking socialist alternatives.” On Nicaragua (as on China and Venezuela) HRW “seems to follow the State Department line”, especially in its endorsement of sanctions (known more precisely as “unilateral coercive measures”) and has even taken credit for the new sanctions imposed by Trump in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

De Zayas is critical of AI’s dependence on sources of funding aligned with US foreign policy, its likely penetration by the US security services and its reliance on poorly sourced information from local NGOs. In fact, AI paid particular attention to Nicaragua during and immediately after the 2018 coup attempt, issuing two major reports that were based overwhelmingly on opposition sources – whether local NGOs or so-called “independent” media that were heavily funded by US agencies.

A group of activists working with the Alliance for Global Justice was so alarmed at the obvious bias in AI’s work that it prepared a detailed response to the second report, which AI had pejoratively titled Instilling Terror. AFGJ’s Dismissing the Truth showed in detail the bias, omissions and errors in AI’s Instilling Terror report. For example, it unraveled the story of a police officer who, according to AI, was killed by his fellow officers. This unlikely explanation had been offered by his estranged mother, an opposition supporter, via a local NGO. In reality there was convincing evidence, including from his partner (also a police officer) that he was killed by an opposition sniper.

Several attempts were made to engage with AI about their report, including a formal complaint via their published procedures and the offer to discuss it at their London headquarters. There was never anything more than a peremptory response.

“Human rights industry” reports are endorsed by corporate media

Alfred de Zayas says of the mainstream media that, when aggressive action is taken against countries like Nicaragua that have governments not favored by Washington, their response is to demonize the leaders of such countries. Nicaragua could hardly be a clearer example, with its elected leader Daniel Ortega regularly referred to as a “dictator” running an “authoritarian regime” and of course – as we saw earlier – committing “crimes against humanity” or even “genocide”.

Nicaragua has suffered from a succession of concocted stories, relating to its alleged “failure” to tackle Covid-19 to the accusation that Nicaraguan migrants are fleeing “repression”. One that originated from a local “human rights” group attempted to label US meat imports from Nicaragua as “conflict beef” because cattle ranches were allegedly displacing Indigenous people protecting Nicaragua’s forests. The story, shown by Reveal and PBS NewsHour and then picked up by other news outlets such as the BBC, was shown to have glaring gaps and falsehoods by FAIR (“Fairness and Accuracy in reporting”). The NGOs promoting the “conflict beef” story, including the journalists involved, were shown by Rick Sterling, writing in Covert Action, to be linked back to bodies such as USAID and Soros’s Open Society Foundation.

The government tightens up on foreign-funded NGOs

Having tolerated dozens of NGOs that received US money to promote “human rights” and “democracy” in the period before 2018, only to see them play key roles in the attempted coup, it was inevitable that the government would clamp down on their activities. It did so by passing legislation comparable to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which the US has had in place since the 1930s and has since strengthened on various occasions. De Zayas points out the irony: “When Nicaragua passed legislation comparable to FARA, when they started enforcing the law and some US allies and funding recipients… were punished, the US media sent out howls of outrage.”

Nicaragua was in the unusual position, for a small country with only seven million people, of having thousands of NGOs, many set up in the 1980s, of which a proportion were still active but many were not. As well as affecting the few dozen NGOs actively engaged in US regime-change activities, the result of applying the new law to all NGOs was that many closed, in some cases because they were already defunct, and in others because they could not meet the new, stringent requirements, or refused to do so. The media labelled this as a “crackdown” which was “laying waste to civic society”; the Washington Post said the country is “a dictatorship laid bare.” As I pointed out for FAIR, none of the media reports asked basic questions, such as what these nonprofits have done that led to the government taking this action, whether other countries follow similar practices, or what international requirements about the regulation of nonprofits Nicaragua is required to comply with.

Nicaragua’s reality is that it is the subject of continuing US aggression. The local “human rights” NGOs, rightly closed down after their role in the coup attempt, are like the hydra-headed monster, springing up afresh in Costa Rica and still fostered not only by Washington directly but also by its allies in the international “human rights” industry. If there is less space for dissent in Nicaragua than there was before 2018, this is evidently what Washington wants. Decrying “human rights” abuses, imposing unilateral coercive measures on a country with one of the lowest incomes per head in the continent, refusing to recognize a popularly supported election and expressing alarm about Nicaragua’s ties to Russia and China, all help to sustain the myth that (as claimed by Presidents Trump and Biden) the country is an “extraordinary threat” to US security.

Washington’s regime-change plans failed in 2018, but it hasn’t given up.


By Nan McCurdy 

Palestine President Expresses Great Affection for Nicaragua
On Feb. 24, Roberto Morales Hernandez presented to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, his credentials as Nicaragua’s new ambassador. Morales conveyed the fraternal greetings of President Daniel Ortega, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and all the Nicaraguan people. He also expressed the desire of President Ortega to continue strengthening relations of friendship and cooperation between the two nations.

For his part, Abbas expressed his great affection and admiration for the Nicaraguan people and highlighted the decades of friendship with Nicaragua and especially its support for the Palestinian cause. He also urged the continuation of work to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and to achieve the recognition of the State of Palestine as a sovereign state. See photos: (La Primerisima, 24 February 2024)

Native Languages are Part of National Pride
“They are native languages, true languages of great value.” This is how Johnny Hodgson, political secretary of the FSLN in the South Caribbean Autonomous Region, refers to the diversity of languages in the area, which were called dialects to belittle them during the Somoza dictatorship and neoliberal governments. Hodgson stated that, with the FSLN, development with identity is being achieved on the Caribbean Coast since the native languages and the diverse cultural expressions are now promoted.  Interculturalism and multilingualism are immersed in social, cultural and religious activity. The coastal leader said that they work with the premise that there is no superior culture, rather it is a national culture enriched by the Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, Misquito, Ulwa and Rama peoples and their customs. Hodgson stated that Indigenous, Afro-descendant and Mestizo peoples work in the construction of a unity in diversity, preserving their identity. “Intercultural bilingual education is strengthened in schools, so that children who speak Miskito in their community, at home, can go to school and find a teacher who speaks the language they speak,” said Hodgson. See photos: (La Primerisima, 25 February 2024)

Loan from Saudi Arabia for New Hospital on the Caribbean Coast
President Daniel Ortega authorized the Ministry of Finance to sign a loan agreement with the Saudi Fund for Development from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of the project to build and equip the Carlos Centeno-Las Minas Departmental Hospital in Siuna municipality, Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region. The US$103 million-dollar agreement will be used to build a 20,000 square meter hospital with capacity for 223 beds, 4 operating rooms, 27 clinics, attention in 23 specialties, emergency room, as well as a clinical and pathology laboratory benefiting the 266,000 inhabitants of the three municipalities in the mining triangle. (Nicaragua News, 22 February 2024)

Exports to China Going Strong
Nicaragua has exported US$22 million worth of goods to the People’s Republic of China (through Feb. 26), which represents an increase of 50% in value compared to the same period in 2023, an increase of about US$13 million. Nicaragua has exported shrimp, lobster, sugar, beef and more. The volume of exports is also growing. (La Primerisima, 27 February 2024)

Campaign Launched to Encourage Reading 
On Feb. 26 the Ministry of Education launched the National Library Plan. This project includes various strategies, such as the formation of book clubs and the promotion of digital platforms among students, in order to encourage the habit of reading. The Minister of Education, Mendy Araúz, explained that the main objective of the National Library Plan is to instill a culture of reading not only among teachers and students in schools, but also among families and communities that have municipal libraries. The initiative seeks to create a dynamic and natural environment in order to develop creativity, critical thinking and neurolinguistics in users. See photos:
(La Primerisima, 26 February 2024)

85% Approve Ortega’s Management Skills
The management capacity of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo is approved by 85.6% of the population, according to the latest survey released Feb. 28 by the firm M & R Consultores. President Ortega leads the ranking, leaving behind the presidents of El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Panama and Peru, among others. See more information and charts: (La Primerisima, 28 February 2024)

Campaign Launched for Prevention of Forest Fires
The Interinstitutional Commission for Fire Prevention and Control launched the 2024 National Plan for the prevention and control of forest, agricultural and brush fires. This plan, that has been implemented annually since 2007, seeks to prevent and reduce fires by strengthening monitoring by ecological brigades in the dry areas of the country; training the agricultural sector and the general population on the proper and safe handling of waste; periodic evaluations of early warning systems, evacuation, and rescue plans, as well as promoting tree planting and education on flora and fauna conservation. (Nicaragua News, 21 February 2024)

Ensuring Safety during Holy Week
The Ministry of Health (MINSA) announced that, as part of the 2024 Summer Plan, 325 medical brigades and mobile clinics will be established in tourism destinations of the country during Holy Week to attend medical emergencies. MINSA Secretary General, Carlos Sáenz stated, “We urge the population to continue implementing the measures established for the prevention of COVID-19 as well as for the prevention of dehydration and sun burns with special emphasis on the care of children and seniors.” The specialized brigades will also be visiting tourism service establishments, carrying out analysis of potable water and food to prevent illness. (Nicaragua News, 23 February 2024)