Nicanotes: A Very Strange Nomination from an Irish Human Rights Group

The Irish human rights organization, Front Line Defenders, has named Nicaraguan indigenous anti-canal activist Francisca Ramirez Torres as one of its five finalists for the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. She joins four other finalists from Ukraine, Vietnam, South Africa and Kuwait as a finalist for the award from among 142 nominees in 56 countries.

It would be beyond ironic if Front Line Defenders were to award its annual “at Risk” award to someone from a country that has zero political prisoners, no record in the past 37 years of State sponsored political violence, no media censorship, and which has a woman-led police force that is studied by other countries of the world for its revolutionary advances in community policing.
Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice certainly supports the right of Ramirez to organize opposition to the proposed inter-oceanic canal within Nicaraguan law. As a US-based organization, we have not taken a position for or against the canal. We believe it is an internal issue to be resolved by Nicaraguans without interference from outside forces.

It is difficult to figure out from Front Line Defender’s press release and web page just what led to Ramirez being elevated to one of the five most at-risk human rights defenders in the world. Apparently her house was searched by police at one point and an adult son was attacked while traveling. “Ambushed” is the word used on the Front Line Defenders webpage. However, there is no further information or even allegations about who did the ambushing and whether her son was injured, robbed or whatever.

This seems like pretty thin gruel on which to nominate a human rights defender representing the entire Western Hemisphere. Ramirez doesn’t face risk to her physical integrity or liberty. There is no comparison at all with the risks to life and liberty that the 2016 Front Line Defenders Award winner, Honduran Ana Mirian Romero, continues to face every day. Why, for instance, wasn’t the nominee Miriam Elizabeth Rodríguez Martínez, the Mexican advocate for parents of missing children who was assassinated on Mexican Mother’s Day less than two weeks ago? A Front Line Defenders nomination might have saved her life. The same goes for courageous human rights defenders in post-peace accord Colombia where the military and paramilitaries are slaughtering Left political activists, or equally at-risk indigenous rights activists in Peru and Argentina.

My point is not to disparage Ramirez or the political struggle in which she is a grassroots leader. It is rather to wonder aloud what possible criteria Front Line Defenders could have used that would have raised Ramirez to the top of the pile of human rights defenders in this very violent hemisphere.

A few years ago I had a good meeting with a staff person from Front Line Defenders in my Tucson office. Front Line Defenders was, at the time, looking into compiling threats to human rights defenders in the US – a move I strongly applauded. I learned that Front Line Defenders claimed the ability in Europe to generate a few thousand letters on behalf of human rights defenders at imminent risk. I also learned that they seemed to be pretty well funded and that they could provide funds in some cases to remove human rights defenders from their community when the death threats got too serious. They could even help human rights defenders just get away for some mental health rest and relaxation that would help them to be more effective when they returned to the struggle.

I came away from that meeting with a very positive impression. I did subsequently pass on some information about at-risk defenders in Honduras. I’m not sure if anything was done or not, and the person I met with is no longer with the organization, so I don’t really know what the organization is up to now besides what it says on its web page. I wasn’t aware of their nomination last year of Ana Mirian Romero despite the fact that I do more Honduras solidarity work than Nicaragua solidarity work these days.

In the case of the Ramirez nomination, since her life and liberty are not at risk, the only thing I can think of that makes sense is that Front Line Defenders is making a statement about its position on the proposed canal. That seems to me to be real “mission drift” and a failure to protect the human rights defenders in the Americas who are under real threat to life and liberty.

The Nicaragua canal is certainly an issue on which we have learned that reasonable people can differ – passionately! One reason that we have not, as an organization, taken a position on the canal other than it falls within Nicaragua’s sovereignty and the right of self-determination, is that we’re not wise or knowledgeable enough to choose among the conflicting claims. That, and the fact that it looks to us like this canal plan isn’t going to be realized any more than any of the proposals going back to the 1500s.

That conclusion is based on the effects of the 2008 Global Great Recession and the slow-down in the Chinese economy that wiped out much of the paper wealth of the Chinese tycoon whose company, HKND, won the concession to build the canal after conducting rigorous environmental impact studies. Since 2008, global capital does not seem eager to invest in mega-infrastructure projects, and in the meantime, Panama upgraded its canal.

Another measure might be that the canal doesn’t even seem to rate a question anymore on fairly frequent polling in Nicaragua. I admit I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but the most recent poll I could find was a CID-Gallup poll from way back in January 2016 which appeared to show that a large minority of Nicaraguans had lost faith in the canal with 34% of them expressing that the canal was “nothing but propaganda.” Six months earlier, an M&R Consultants poll showed 78.5% in favor of construction due to the anticipated economic benefits the canal would bring. That’s a pretty big change in attitude over a short period of time, so I hesitate to read too much into those two polls. The point is that there doesn’t seem to be more recent data and no indication that construction is to start any time soon.

Even if it did look like things were moving forward, there are mutually exclusive narratives about what the effects would be.

On the positive side, the route of the canal, which has been adjusted due to environmental impact findings and to affect the fewest number of residents, is through already environmentally degraded land due to farming and ranching which is only continuing to get worse. Keeping water in the canal would require a healthy watershed which would mean the need for massive reforestation as had to be done in Panama. And since Nicaragua has significantly more economic equality than most countries and a government committed to ending poverty, we would expect the economic gains that the canal would produce to benefit the general population, not just the elite which would be the case in so many other parts of the world.

On the negative side, the canal goes through Lake Cocibolca, the largest lake between Lake Titicaca in Bolivia/Peru and the US Great Lakes. Lake Cocibolca is too shallow, so they are somehow going to have to dig it deeper through bedrock, and the company claims it is not going to use explosives. It is hard to see just what they can do that doesn’t threaten a major environmental disaster
Also on the negative side is that the canal route partially goes through indigenous territory. Nicaragua has the best autonomy law in the world, and the Ortega government deserves a lot of credit for demarcation of indigenous land and the granting of communal property titles. But there seems to be no international agreement on what it takes to fulfill International Labor Organization Convention169. The Nicaraguan government has more than met the consultative provisions of the convention and any land taken under eminent domain will be compensated at above market rates plus communities will be relocated, so the government can’t really be faulted on the process.

But, what is supposed to happen when there are indigenous bodies that don’t offer their informed consent after all the consultative provisions have been met? Evidence from other nations such as Canada and the US would indicate that that the indigenous people’s interests almost always come in second. I don’t think there is any country that is very good at balancing the land and cultural rights of indigenous peoples against the economic rights of the population as a whole.

The remainder of the information about Nicaragua on the Front Line Defenders’ website could have come directly from the right-wing political opposition, including former Sandinistas, or from the congressional office of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It seems to be a standard failing of US and European human rights groups that when they go into a country, they talk mainly to the middle class, educated, English-speaking groups whose interests are often not the same as those of grassroots economic rights activists. I think a case could be made for this with Front Line Defenders vis a vis Nicaragua. I wish Ms. Ramirez all the best as she organizes for what she believes in in Nicaragua. I do hope that Front Line Defenders will not devalue their “at Risk” award by claiming that her situation makes Ramirez the most at-risk human rights defender in the whole world.


  • Touting the drop in infant mortality under the Ortega government, Vice-President Rosario Murillo told the press, “In 2006, 18 infants died before they lived 28 days for every 1,000 births. In 2008, it was 10 per thousand. In 2016 it was nine. When we arrived in office [2007] we found maternal mortality at 4 per 1,000 births. From 2011-2016 we have maintained a maternal mortality rate of 1.8 per 1,000 births. We will continue to work on maternal mortality, infant mortality, neonatal mortality, and death from diarrhea to improve these numbers more, because we know how to recognize everything we are missing. Not just where we are advancing, but, it is important to promote awareness of all that we lack.” (Informe Pastran, May 17)


  • The Organization of American States (OAS) published a study that ranks Nicaragua as the hemispheric leader in female participation in politics and public offices. In remarks during the presentation of the study, Marcia Ramírez, Minister of Family Affairs said in Nicaragua women hold 58% of the seats in the National Assembly and 50% of all positions in municipal governments. She also noted that the Supreme Court, the National Police, the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the Attorney General are led by women. (Nicaragua News, May 18)


  • The President of the Nicaragua Farmers and Cattle Growers Association (UNAG) in Estelí Department, Justo Mendoza, announced that his organization is working with an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) technical delegation to install weather stations that will strengthen capabilities to deal with the effects of climate change. “This week two weather stations were installed in Estelí and Madriz departments and we believe this project will have a very positive impact on agricultural production this year,” Mendoza said. (Nicaragua News, May 18)


  • The OAS announced that the Chief of Staff of the Secretary General, Gonzalo Koncke will be leading a mission to Nicaragua next week. The purpose of the two-day mission is to follow up on implementation of the agreement between the OAS Secretary General and the Nicaraguan government, to work on the strengthening of democracy and improvement of electoral processes in the country. (Nicaragua News, May 17)


  • The Ministry of Health announced at a malaria conference in Managua that in the first 18 weeks of the year, 43.9% more cases of malaria were diagnosed than during the same period of 2016. This is actually a victory in the fight to eliminate the disease because more cases are being diagnosed and treated than in the past. There were no cases diagnosed in 138 municipalities out of 154, but Caribbean Coast communities still showed high levels of infection. According to government doctors, fewer than 100 people die each year from the disease. (El Nuevo Diario, May 17)