Human Rights in the Americas. Review of 2019 - Chile [AMR 01/1353/2020]


Chile closed 2019 with the worst human rights crisis since General Augusto Pinochet´s regime. Massive demonstrations began in mid-October in response to an increase on public transport fares. Given the context of the high levels of inequality in the country, the protests (most of them peaceful) expanded to include demands for a more just society in which the state guarantees rights such as health, water, education and social security. Nevertheless, demonstrations were faced with severe levels of repression by state forces that attempted to justify their use of violence against protesters by claiming that these measures were necessary to protect infrastructure and private property from being damaged or vandalised.

As a reaction to protests, all political parties in Congress reached an agreement to draft a new constitution. As part of this agreement, a preliminary referendum will be held in April to vote on the need for the new document and the mechanism necessary for its ratification.

No substantive progress was made on other long-standing concerns such as the criminalization of abortion, the impunity for the crimes of past, the criminalization of the Mapuche People and the lack of advancement in environmental rights.

Social protest and state repression

In early 2019, the government increased police control mostly to deal with student protests. Among the measures were identity checks on children from age 14. During this period, several cases of excessive use of force were reported, with secondary school students and Indigenous Mapuche people as the main victims.

After the social outburst, President Sebastián Piñera declared on October 18 a state of emergency in some areas of the country. For ten days, certain rights and freedoms were suspended, and the army was deployed on the streets to carry out citizen control and public security. During this period the state abuses drastically increased, and 31 people lost their lives, at least four of whom at the hands of state forces. By the end of 2019, protests continued and the number of victims of human rights violations, mainly by National Police (Carabineros), reached into the thousands.

According to the Ministry of Health, more than 13,000 people were injured during the first two months of protests and the Attorney General´s Office registered more than 2,500 complaints for human rights violations, of which more than 1,500 referred to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as more than 100 to crimes of sexual nature committed by public officials. According to Carabineros, none of its officials died, but more than 2,000 were injured.

During protests the army was often observed using lethal weapons against protesters. At least three in four of the deaths caused by the security forces were at the hands of army officers and one by a member of the Carabineros. One was the result of military grade weaponry and dozens were injured with live ammunition.

Additionally, Carabineros made constant and inappropriate use of less lethal weapons, firing on several occasions potentially lethal ammunition in an unjustified, widespread and indiscriminate manner and in many cases aiming at people’s heads. By December, the National Human Rights Institution (INDH) counted more than 350 cases of eye trauma mainly as a result of shotgun pellets.

On multiple events Carabineros used tear gas excessively and unnecessarily launching this chemical at hospitals, universities, homes and even schools, seriously affecting children and people with disabilities.

These attacks also affected members of the public without justification and for no apparent reason, as well as journalists and bystanders documenting the events. Violence was also used against people who had already been detained and some officers used vehicles to run over or attempt to run over protesters. One of the deaths at hands of security forces was due to police beatings and a second one was by a soldier who run over a demonstrator.[1]

As part of the reparation measures agreed upon the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in relation to the killing of a young Mapuche man, Alex Lemún, by the police in 2002, the government put together and published protocols for policing demonstrations on March 2019. However, these protocols were poorly implemented, a fact that came to light with the crisis that began in October where law enforcement officials committed crimes under international law and serious human rights violations.

The trial for Camilo Catrillanca’s death, a young Mapuche killed by a policeman in November 2018, was scheduled for November 2019, but was postponed due to security concerns.

Impunity for crimes of the past

The government revised the National Human Rights Plan, to free itself of the commitment to “promote the inapplicability” of the 1978 Amnesty Decree Law (which allows amnesty for crimes against humanity committed between 1973 and 1978). It also removed a commitment to create a permanent commission to assess cases of victims of political torture. Various proposals against impunity for crimes of the past remained stalled in Congress at the end of the year.

Unfair trials

The authorities continued to use a controversial anti-terrorism law against the Mapuche People and Congress continued discussing its reform unsuccessfully.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict made by a national court in the Norin Catrimán case (where eight Mapuche people were condemned for terrorism in 2002). In so doing the Supreme Court complied with the 2014 Inter-American Court for Human Right ´s ruling that stated that the Chilean state had violated the right to due process, presumption of innocence, and equality and non-discrimination, amongst others.

The investigation on Carabineros tampering evidence to accuse eight Mapuche people of terrorism charges (known as “Operación Huracán”) is still open.

Indigenous Peoples and environmental rights

Development projects continued to go ahead without the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous peoples and the so-called "sacrifice zone" communities continued to face environmental devastation due to industrial activity. The government proposed reforms to the Indigenous Law and initiated a process of consultation with Indigenous peoples throughout Chile. Nevertheless, this process was criticized for not being conducted in good faith or respecting Indigenous cultures, which led to a suspension of the process.

Despite pressure from environmentalists, the government refused to sign the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, and then cancelled the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), scheduled to take place in Chile in December, due to the internal social crisis.[2]

Human rights defenders

Alberto Curamil, a Mapuche leader (lonko), who has worked to defend his community's access to water, was awarded the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for his environmental activism while in prison. He had been accused by an anonymous witness of involvement in an armed robbery and was acquitted in December after being held in pre-trial detention for over a year.

During the social crisis, human rights defenders were beaten or shot with pellets and injured while they were providing first aid, as well as activists and defenders were threatened for carrying out their work. On several occasions the authorities hindered the work of lawyers, and medical personnel, preventing them from accessing police stations, hospitals and medical centres.

Sexual and reproductive rights

The 2017 law permitting three grounds for legal abortion (where the woman's life is at risk, where the foetus is not viable and where pregnancy is a result of rape) was poorly implemented and information available to the public on sexual and reproductive rights remained scarce. Additionally, the government extended the right to "conscientious objection" to abortion of both individuals and institutions, posing a further barrier to access to safe abortions. A bill to fully decriminalise abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was filed in Congress but was not discussed.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

The Gender Identity Law entered into force allowing people aged 18 and over to change their registered names and gender through administrative processes; those aged 14 to 17 can do so through the courts. Congress discussed bills on marriage, adoption and parenting for same-sex couples, but none passed into law during the year.

Rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers

Triggered by the entrance of a significant number of migrants and refugees the government implemented an “extraordinary regularization” process, ending in October 2019, to facilitate the acquisition of a residence visa for people with irregular migration status. The process was criticized because of lack of clarity of the information provided and the fact that it resulted in some expulsions.

Chilean immigration officials arbitrarily carried out pre-screening interviews with asylum seekers and later denied them access to lodge a request for asylum, a practice which has been questioned by national Courts and likely undermines the principle of non-refoulement.

[1] Chile: Deliberate policy to injure protesters points to responsibility of those in command (News story, 21 November)

[2] Chile: Decision to cancel APEC and COP25 will not divert the international community's attention from human rights violations (News story, 31 October)