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The International Community’s Struggle with Nicaragua: Human Rights and the Status of the Security Council

On April 18, 2018, deadly protests erupted in Nicaragua.[1] This unrest originated as a response to changes in the country’s social security system but soon came to reflect broader discontent with President Daniel Ortega’s repressive administration.[2] Ortega has had political influence in Nicaragua since the Sandinistas political party seized power in 1979. He served as president from 1985-1990; his current term began in 2007, when he was elected again to serve as President. Since then, Ortega has consolidated his power over state institutions and all branches of government.[3] In April, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in over ten cities; as protests intensified, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets to maintain order, and the number of deaths and injuries rose.[4] Amid the chaos, dozens of journalists were beaten by government supporters and transmission of local news coverage was suppressed.[5] Less than a week later, President Ortega revoked the controversial social security reform, but the unrest has persisted.[6]

The protestors’ demands include justice for those killed, institutional democratic reforms, and Ortega’s resignation as President.[7] As of mid-July, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) reported at least 280 people had died in the crackdown with an additional 2,000 injured.[8]

The international community has condemned President Ortega and his administration or committing major human rights violations while responding to the protests. The United States imposed unilateral sanctions on three top Nicaraguan officials in July after the violent crackdown.[9]  The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres believes that, "the use of lethal force is not only unacceptable but is also in itself an obstacle to obtaining a political solution to the current crisis.” The administration has been denounced for kidnapping, illegal detentions, torture, and sexual violence. as well as for repression of the independent press.[10] Following a United Nations report published in late August, President Ortega expelled the regional U.N. human rights team from the country due to its critical analysis of the government’s role in the unrest.[11] To date, these international pressures have not affected President Ortega. He denies all allegations and association with the paramilitary groups (that have contributed to inciting the violent response to the protests) and remains steadfast in his refusal to step down or call for early elections.[12]

The U.N. Security Council is the most recent international body looking to address Nicaragua’s political climate. At the urging of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and then Council president, Nikki Haley, the Council met for the first time to debate the situation early in September.[13] Disagreement was palpable as Russia, China, and Bolivia fought the initial inclusion of Nicaragua on the agenda, believing that the country is undergoing a domestic crisis that poses no threat to international peace and security. Therefore, they contend that the issue is outside the Council’s scope and that external meddling would violate the U.N. Charter.[14] The United States, United Kingdom, France, and other members all supported debate and action due to the glaring human rights violations, which has led to the conflict spreading beyond Nicaragua’s borders in the refugee crisis now unfolding in the region.[15]

The Security Council is made up of fifteen member states, ten elected members for two-year periods and five permanent members. The five permanent members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, each with the power to veto any proposed action. The veto power stems from the fear that a global conflict may ensue if the Security Council were to take an action with which one of the superpowers disagrees. However, Nicaragua is a key example of how difficult it is for the Security Council to act. The veto power can block any measure, and there is no mechanism to circumvent such an impasse. Underlying the two opposing views of the Nicaragua situation is a history of antagonistic alliances among the relevant state actors. The United States and Ortega have long been at odds, dating back to the Soviet Union’s support for him during the Cold War.[16] Russia seized upon this history and voiced its strong disapproval of even discussing Nicaragua’s situation by denouncing Haley and the United States for returning to its “subversive politics.”[17]

It remains to be seen whether the U.N. Security Council can develop a plan to address the crisis, particularly with China, Russia, and Bolivia likely to continue resisting any U.N. intervention. Unless greater unrest begins to unfold throughout Central America as a direct result of Nicaragua’s situation, it is unlikely that the Security Council will act. Until then, countries opposed to Ortega’s violations should continue to impose targeted sanctions on Ortega and the inner circle he rules with in hopes that he will succumb to early election demands.

In the meantime, protesters are finding ways to get their voice heard, with a recent group of activists having come to the United States in September for a series of educational lectures.[18] As a result of such activities, Nicaragua will continue to draw attention as this pivotal moment in the country unfolds.  

Eileen Gaffney is a staff member of Fordham International Law Journal Volume XLII

This post is a student blog post and in no way represents the views of the Fordham International Law Journal.

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[1] Kirk Semple, Nicaragua Roiled by Protests Over Social Security Benefits, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/world/americas/nicaragua-protests-ortega.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Nicaragua: Ortega allowed to run for third successive term, BBC (Jan. 29,  2014), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25937292; Tim Rogers, The Unraveling of Nicaragua, The Atlantic (June 6, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/nicaragua-ortega-protests/562094/.

[4] Oswaldo Rivas, Nicaraguans take to streets, Reuters (April 19, 2018, 8:46 PM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nicaragua-protests/nicaraguans-take-to-streets-in-protest-over-social-security-changes-idUSKBN1HR02A; Spencer Feingold, Nicaragua scraps controversial security reforms, CNN (April 22, 2018, 6:45 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/22/americas/nicaragua-scraps-controversial-social-security-reforms/index.html.

[5] Yader Luna, Nicaragua: Government Repression and Censorship in Response to Protests, Havana Times (April 20, 2018), https://havanatimes.org/?p=132228.

[6] Feingold, CNN supra note 4.

[7] Nicaragua: Daniel Ortega Rejects Demands to Step Down, BBC (July 24, 201), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-44933402.

[8] Nicaragua Unrest: What you should know, Al Jazeera (July 17, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/05/nicaragua-protests-180530130717018.html.

[9] Catie Edmondson, U.S. Imposes Sanctions on 3 Top Nicaraguan Officials After Violent Crackdown, N.Y. Times (July 5, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/us/politics/us-nicaragua-sanctions.html.

[10] Shannon Van Sant, Nicaragua Expels United Nations Team After Report Critical Of The Government, NPR (Sept. 1, 2018, 4:33 PM), https://www.npr.org/2018/09/01/643982702/nicaragua-expels-united-nations-team-after-report-critical-of-the-government

[11] Id.

[12] Id.; Natalie Gallón, Eliza Mackintosh, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega calls unrest ‘terrorism,’ refuses to step down, CNN (July 24, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/24/americas/nicaragua-ortega-refuses-to-step-down-intl/index.html.

[13] Richard Roth, Nikki Haley gets UN Meeting on Nicaragua, CNN (Sept. 5, 2018, 4:40 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/05/us/nikki-haley-un-security-council-nicaragua/index.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Joshua Partlow, From Rebel to Strongman: How Daniel Ortega Became the Thing He Fought Against, The Washington Post (August 24, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/from-rebel-to-strongman-how-daniel-ortega-became-the-thing-he-fought-against/2018/08/24/117d000a-97fe-11e8-818b-e9b7348cd87d_story.html?utm_term=.6a47321e5713.

[17] Franco Ordoñez, Russia accuses Nikki Haley and Trump of Colonialism in Nicaragua, McClatchy DC Bureau (September 5, 2018, 4:45 PM), https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article217861565.html.

[18] Brian Niemietz, Protesters against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega take their case to the United States, N.Y. Daily News (Sept. 27, 2018, 6:00 AM), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/ny-news-ortega-nicaragua-20180926-story.html#