Expanded Inter-American expert group to investigate human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis

The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Bolivia, a five-person team of human rights experts named by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), has been formally cleared to begin the work of investigating all human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 political crisis (prior coverage|Wikipedia) and expects to start work in the country on October 2, 2020. The Group was authorized by agreement between the Commission and the Bolivian government on December 2 of last year, following a dramatic visit by IACHR members to the country in the wake of the Sacaba and Senkata massacres. While the IACHR quickly appointed four members of the Group back in January, its work has yet to start and the interim government Jeanine Áñez has raised objections to both its membership and methods.

On April 28, however, the IACHR and the Foreign Ministry announced their agreement to a full investigation of last year’s often-violent events. The IACHR describes the Group as

[my English translation:] an international investigation mechanism on the acts of violence that occurred in the country … with guarantees of autonomy and independence, to secure the right to the truth and to duly identify those responsible for human rights violations.

un mecanismo de investigación internacional sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos en el país, específicamente un Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), con garantías de autonomía e independencia, para asegurar el derecho a la verdad e identificar debidamente a los responsables de violaciones de los derechos humanos.

http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2020/091.asp

The agreement between the Bolivian state and the IACHR guarantees the Group the right to conduct an elaborate investigation with full access to the files and records of the government. Its designated powers are reminiscent of a truth commission:

The Group will develop its working methodology in an independent manner and will rely on whatsoever sources for it considers relevant for its investigation, as well those of its State counterparts and of Bolivian civil society organizations. It will have, among others, the following areas of responsibility: to elaborate plans to investigate acts of violence committed against individuals, organizations, and authorities in Bolivia during the course of the sociopolitical tensions, protests, and social mobilizations in the country; to realize an technical analysis of the lines of investigation already pursued, to carry out the recommendations that arise [from that analysis], and to act as a catalyst in further investigations, so as to ensure their adequacy, exhaustiveness, and coherence with applicable international human rights standards; to propose the adoption of measures to guarantee the safety of those participating in the investigations; and to realize a technical analysis, and to make recommendations if appropriate, for a plan of comprehensive care for the victims of the acts it investigates.

For the carrying out of these tasks, and by virtue of the agreement, the Plurinational State of Bolivia will guarantee to the experts full access to the files of the investigations and criminal cases begun regarding the acts [under investigation], access to public governmental information related to the acts, and access to the installations, infrastructure, resources, and means necessary to carry out their work, as well as the security measures required to carry out their work, all in conformity with current Bolivian laws and norms.

El GIEI desarrollará su metodología de trabajo de manera independiente y recurrirá a cualquier fuente de investigación que considere relevante, además de las contrapartes en el Estado y a las organizaciones de la sociedad civil boliviana. Tendrá, entre otras, las siguientes atribuciones: elaborar planes de investigación de los actos de violencia cometidos contra personas, organizaciones y autoridades en Bolivia, en el curso de las tensiones sociopolíticas, protestas y movilizaciones sociales ocurridas en el país; realizar un análisis técnico de las líneas de investigación desarrolladas, efectuar las recomendaciones a las que haya lugar, y actuar como coadyuvante en las investigaciones, para así asegurar su adecuación, exhaustividad y coherencia con los estándares internacionales de derechos humanos aplicables; proponer la adopción de medidas para garantizar la seguridad de quienes participen en las investigaciones; y realizar un análisis técnico, con recomendaciones si es del caso, de un plan de atención integral a las víctimas de los hechos investigados.

Para el desarrollo de estas labores, y en virtud del acuerdo, el Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia garantizará a los expertos y expertas el pleno acceso a los expedientes de las investigaciones y causas penales iniciados con motivo de los hechos, el acceso a la información pública gubernamental relativa a los hechos, y el acceso a las instalaciones, infraestructura, recursos y medios necesarios para cumplir su tarea, así como las medidas de seguridad requeridas para desarrollar su trabajo, todo ello de conformidad con la normatividad boliviana vigente.

On paper, the only seeming impediment to this sweeping mandate is the relatively late starting date for the investigation: October 2 of this year. By delaying the investigation until late 2020 and any results until 2021, the government has effective excluded the Group’s results from having any direct impact on the pending elections in the country, which are now scheduled to have their first round of voting by August 2.

In practice, it will matter a great deal what interim or elected government is actually in power in Bolivia when the Group does its work. Prior to this effort, direct accountability for serious human rights violations in Bolivia has been the exception rather than the rule. The most significant example, the prosecution of government officials and military commanders (some of them in absentia) for the suppression of the “Gas War” protests in September and October 2003, was a case of an arriving government holding its predecessors to account. If allowed to carry out its work, the Group’s investigation of the 2019 crisis would hold accountable both civilian and military political actors, including non-state perpetrators of violence from both sides of the political spectrum. Such a reckoning would represent something fundamentally new in Bolivian human rights processes.

As I’ve reported here previously, the thirty days following the October 20, 2019, election were the bloodiest such period in the country since 2003. Thirty seven people were killed overall; 32 of them after the ouster of President Evo Morales. State security forces bear responsibility for at least 25 and as many as 28 of the latter deaths. Both pro- and anti-Morales non-state actors were responsible for the five deaths inflicted during Morales’ presidency and between four and seven deaths after. Numerous other violent attacks on protesters, journalists and media offices, government officials and their homes, police stations, public infrastructure, and other installations took place during the crisis.

A November–December visit to Bolivia by the Inter-American Commission seems to have been vital in precipitating the de-escalation of violence following the crisis. The Commission’s preliminary report (es) offered a strong condemnation of the November massacres at Sacaba and Senkata (my English translation). In their agreement, the IACHR and Bolivian government have agreed that this report will not be the starting point for the Group’s investigation. Instead, we can hope for a full accounting of Bolivia’s tragic 2019.

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