A UN expert today expressed grave concern for the lives of indigenous human rights defenders being attacked in Costa Rica, saying that impunity and lack of accountability are fuelling a continuation of violence against defenders in the country despite some positive steps by the Government.
Costa Rica has experienced an upsurge in attacks on indigenous leaders since the March 2019 killing of indigenous Bribri leader Sergio Rojas, who worked for decades defending the rights of indigenous peoples against the illegal occupation of their territories.
“Now, over 14 months later, it is still not clear whether the authorities are any closer to identifying the perpetrators,” said Mary Lawlor, the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
The expert said other attacks against human rights defenders had gone fully or partially unpunished, and “until there are proper investigations and accountability for these crimes, we may witness further intimidation, injury and death”.
A change in Costa Rican law in 1977 established a legal framework for the redistribution of ancestral indigenous land occupied by non-indigenous persons but the law’s implementation has been slow, and indigenous leaders have carried out peaceful requisitions of lands back to indigenous peoples. This has caused significant violent backlash from non-indigenous illegal land occupants.
While the Costa Rican Government has increased police presence in affected communities, police investigations have been inadequate or inconclusive. As a result, both the victims and their family members continue to be threatened by the suspected perpetrators.
Since the February killing of indigenous leader Yehry Rivera, for example, his family has been repeatedly threatened and intimidated by the family of the perpetrator, who regularly passes close to their land holding a machete.
Pablo Sibar, a human rights defender of the same Broran tribe as Rivera has also been intimidated and subjected to arson attacks that have still not been investigated.
Minor Ortíz Delgado, an indigenous land defender from the same Bribri community as Rojas, was shot in the leg in March. The perpetrator, who was released and handed down restraining measures, has since sent death threats to Ortíz and his family.
“It seems that perpetrators of intimidations, threats, shootings and killings often walk free when their victims are indigenous human rights defenders,” the Special Rapporteur said. Impunity increases the impact of human rights violations committed against human rights defenders, as it conveys a lack of recognition for their role in society and constitutes an invitation to continue violating their rights, she said.
The expert’s call has been endorsed by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Cali Tzay.
The experts are in a dialogue with Costa Rican authorities and will continue to closely monitor the situation.