On October 2, 2019, the government of Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno promulgated “Decree 833,” which put in place a series of fiscal adjustment measures that included the elimination of fuel subsidies, the reduction of salaries of temporary contract workers, and the reduction of vacations of public functionaries. Another significant measure was the partial removal of the tax on currency leaving the country, which would have led to a marked transfer of income from the most vulnerable classes to the wealthiest classes. In exchange, the State was to receive a loan of USD 4.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The social response to these shock policies was immediate and massive. Transportation workers, the United Workers’ Front, the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationals of Ecuador) and other Indigenous federations, as well as students and urban middle class sectors, all took to the streets. The government was cornered and temporarily moved the capital to Guayaquil, an unprecedented move in Ecuadorian history. In response, the state declared an emergency, imposed a curfew, and deployed armed forces on the streets. The result of the repressive actions was the death of at least seven people. Over 900 were injured, 1,550 detained, and 9 media platforms were censored or restricted by State authorities.
To understand the extent of this violence, we spoke to Juan Carlos Solines, lawyer, politician, and member of the Special Commission for Truth and Justice (CEVJ) which was created by the Ombudsman of Ecuador. After one year of work, the CEVJ presented a detailed 272-page report which identifies the crimes against humanity committed by the state security forces during the 14-day social uprising.
Lautaro & Zoe: What are the principal human rights violations described in the report of the Special Commission for Truth and Justice?
Juan Carlos Solines: First of all, it is necessary to clarify that the commission cannot determine whether there were violations to human rights or any other kind of crime, because we are not a judicial body. The commission is tasked with investigating what happened and submitting its conclusions. These conclusions point to the fact that there could have been crimes committed. From the testimonies and the information, we have identified some crimes that could have been committed and it is the justice system that will have to investigate if they happened or not.
For example, we investigated the use of force which was so excessive it could cause the death of the person. We saw this in several cases that may be considered extra-judicial executions. There were also violations of physical integrity, freedom of mobility, the exercise of the right to social protest, and incidents of sexual harassment and violence.
LZ: Has there been any intervention by international bodies?
JCS: The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights also carried out a preliminary investigation and they reached conclusions that are very similar to what the Truth Commission has arrived at. We, as a commission, used as supporting documents, details from certain investigations that were already conducted.
LZ: Why is the response by the state and security forces last October classified as crimes against humanity?
JCS: The CEVJ report mentions some aspects which could be classified as crimes against humanity as per the Ecuadorian penal code. The most important is that of ‘attack on the population.’ When there is an excessive or disproportionate use of force, it can be interpreted as an attack on the population that is not justified and does not correspond to the threat that a mobilization presents, even if it becomes violent. The second element, according to the international doctrine, is when this excessive use of the force is systematic or generalized.
However, both in the definition itself and even in the case of other truth commissions – such as the one which addressed apartheid in South Africa, or in Rwanda – it is difficult to determine the elements that lead to the characterization of this use of force as “generalized.” This is why the commission decided to only mention the discoveries – the number of attacks or of victims that were reported within the testimonies. This is so that the justice system could determine if this can be considered a generalized attack on the population.
LZ: It has been three weeks since the report was presented. Has the Attorney General taken action?
JCS: We do not know whether the Attorney General’s office has launched an internal investigation. What we know is that the Ombudsman gave them the full report [of the commission].
LZ: During the protests in October, a video went viral that showed a sniper from the State security forces shooting and killing a protester who was holding a makeshift cardboard shield. This along with other videos of brutal repression provoked widespread indignation. But how did the population react to the emergency measures imposed by the state such as the curfew and deployment of the Armed Forces?
JCS: The Constitutional Court already made a declaration with respect to the precautions and limits of a state of emergency. The state of emergency should not be abused and evidently, the right to social protest and the right to resistance are also fundamental rights that should not be violated with other agenda which alter the protests.
LZ: Another scandal was the use of expired tear gas canisters to repress protesters. This cost former Minister María Paulo Romo her position (she was dismissed by the National Assembly on November 24.) She herself wrote a book which contains the “official version” of what happened. What is your opinion on this?
JCS: In my presentation in the report, I address this issue, saying that even though books have been published by actors involved in the protests, they can have certain blind spots as they are implicated.
With regard to the expired tear gas canisters, there is still no consensus on the technical criteria regarding this claim. However, our recommendation as a commission is that a lot of caution should be taken with the use of chemical agents. Science has not reached any conclusions on the gravity or the real impact of such agents on human beings, and so security forces should obviously take great care to not use such expired elements.
LZ: The sexual crimes, loss of eyesight, and the attack on the press seem part of a pattern and were witnessed during protests in other countries too, such as Colombia and Chile. Do you think that there is an international pattern behind these actions?
JCS: I think there are patterns on both sides. For instance, with regard to social protests, we see them not only in the region but throughout the world. These protests are an expression against the system itself – a system known as democracy which is supposedly the most perfect that we have seen, but is not able to resolve the deep inequities and inequalities that exist in the world such as marginalization, poverty and underdevelopment. The new generation has been slowly and steadily protesting more and more, and these become more violent due to the unease and frustration at a system that does not care about your basic needs.
On the other hand, with security forces, we see patterns too. For example, non-lethal arms are used in a lethal fashion. This has nothing to do with resources or the lack of specific weapons to combat the protest. A tear gas shell or a stun grenade shot from a very short distance and at a critical area of the body like the chest or the head can kill someone even if the weapon is not lethal.
What is lacking from the side of the State is clear norms and standards on the use of force. Some of these norms already exist but are not adopted. Another important element is the training of police and the military in human rights and international humanitarian law. This should not take place in an isolated, casual way, but in a systematic, permanent way.
In this sense, this will hopefully mark the avoidance of the use of excessive force and the tragedies that we came to know of from the testimonies that we heard. On hearing their testimonies of the victims, we realized that we have a lot of work left to ensure that these kinds of things never happen again so that national reconciliation can be achieved.
Published in Spanish at ARG Medios.