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  • Writer's pictureMohamed Soltan

Empowering Civil Society in Latin America to Promote and Protect Human Rights

Since the mid-1980s, democracy has been on the rise in the Latin American subcontinent. It has made significant strides in terms human rights as well as offering free and fair elections. Widely recognized as the most democratic emerging-market region in the world, more than 80 percent of people in Latin American enjoys democracy, a ratio of that is surpassed only by North America and Western Europe.

Nevertheless, what is considered a democracy varies considerably among Latin American countries. While Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica are currently the freest and most democratic nations in the region, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua still have progress to make. Here’s what you need to know about how civil society organizations are promoting human rights throughout the region, despite setbacks:

Civil Society Defined

The concept of civil society first emerged in 1820. It is a Western concept that considers an advanced society one in which the individual perceives itself as an independent agent, apart from the state. The development of civil society is part and parcel of the development of a market economy.

It comprises a range of organic, organized groups, including NGOs, social movements, trade unions, faith groups, online communities and networks, and grassroots organizations. Roles available to individuals in civil society include advocates and campaigners, public service providers, and watchdog groups.

Civil society as a concept was largely restricted to the West until the start of the third wave of democratization. Today in Latin America, civil society organizations play an active role in peacefully resolving conflicts. They are particularly ubiquitous in societies with high levels of social inequity, where they help people on a low-income to access the legal system. Access to justice varies significantly, both across Latin American countries, and over time.

Democracy in Danger

Despite significant progress having been made in several nations, experts from the European Parliament believe that the tide could be turning against a successful “third democratic wave” in Latin America. This indicates that some countries may be experiencing democratic attrition, or even backsliding. A continuing decline of democratic indicators across the region has been aggravated by factors such as rampant corruption and the self-interest of the ruling elite in some countries.

This problem may have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was used to justify the implementation of freedom-restricting measures, facilitating human rights abuses. In Latin America and the Caribbean today, civil liberties organizations warn that the human rights situation has deteriorated generally. There has been an increase in poverty, violence, inequality, and rising migration in the worst affected countries.

Varieties of Democracy Project

The Varieties of Democracy Project was staged in 2000 and 2022 for countries across South America. The Index of Access to Justice, which ranges from 0 to 1, measured whether citizens could pursue justice without endangering themselves. It also assessed whether individuals have redress against misconduct by public authorities; whether trials were fair; and whether citizens’ access to legal counsel and appeal were guaranteed. Countries fell into three main groups: those that stayed largely at a similar level between 2000 and 2022; countries that generally saw positive change; and those that saw a decline in access to justice.

While Cuba and Suriname remained mostly unchanged, with Mexico, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic changing just slightly for the worse. Haiti, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Venezuela declined significantly. Meanwhile, Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Panama, Jamaica, Peru, and Honduras improved quite a bit. The Index of Access to Justice revealed positive change in Colombia in particular. It attributed this to the founding of strong civil society organizations capable of supporting the movements for increased social, economic, and political rights.

Other Data on Civil Society Organizations in Latin America

A review of the Index of Access to Justice that was published by the Wilson Center concluded that without support for civil society organizations, as in other countries, the rights enshrined in Colombia’s constitution were just words on paper. The Wilson Center report points out that conflicts are sometimes resolved through violence because access to justice necessitates not only the capacity to recognize a violation of rights, but also access to legal help to bring disputes to trial and navigate court proceedings, which can take a long time and be difficult to understand.

In its World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch warned that Latin America faced the gravest challenges to human rights in decades. It asserted that even democratically elected leaders were attacking the free press, judicial independence, and independent civil society. The report warned that millions of people had been forced to leave their homes and their countries, highlighting the devastating impact of the pandemic on economies and society.

The Human Rights Watch report reflected on government abuses against artists and critics in Cuba. It also highlighted arbitrary arrests on opponent candidates by Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua. Meanwhile in Venezuela, the International Criminal Court prosecutor recently opened an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by Nicolás Maduro’s government.

Civil Society Organizations Remain Vital

Against the backdrop of rising political and social conflict, the role of civil society organizations in promoting access to justice is more important than ever. It teaches citizens that they can resolve disputes peacefully and defends their economic, political, and social rights.

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