Humanitarian crisis of migrants in the Darien Gap repeatedly raised by the Committee in dialogue with Panama

Published on 22 Mar 2023, 04:51 PM

The Human Rights Committee considered the fourth periodic report of Panama during its 137th session

Panama delegation at the Human Rights Committee in Geneva

On March 9, 10, and 13, the Human Rights Committee reviewed the fourth periodic report of Panama with the State delegation. The dialogue had three parts and took place in a hybrid form, with part of the delegation in Geneva and another part in Ciudad de Panama. The review was highly expected since the last dialogue between the Committee and the delegation was in 2008.

During the dialogue, among all the topic raised the most salient ones were the humanitarian crisis of migrants and refugees in the Darien Gap, the impact of mining and hydroelectric projects on indigenous communities, and legislation against LGTBIQ+ community.

Migrants and refugees in the Darien region

The Darién Gap, a region of thick jungle known for the dramatic situation that migrants and refugees encounter when crossing it, was recurrently mentioned. Migrants mainly come from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, and other parts of North Central America, and they are trying to get to North America. They are exposed to dangers of physical violence, homicides, sexual violence, and trafficking by criminal groups in the region. They are also frequently held in camps with deplorable and inhumane conditions without access to medical care, without any rights such as those that come with the deprivation of liberty.

In response, the delegation said that they have demonstrated comprehensive humanitarian assistance to people in international mobility and that transitory migrant reception stations are not detention centers. According to it, this was confirmed last year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the resolution of the Vélez Loor v. Panama case. The delegation also mentioned that there are more than 13 international and civil society organizations working in the area making sure there is a humanitarian approach to the crisis.

Indigenous communities and mining and hydroelectric projects

The Committee also asked Panama about the severe impact of hydroelectric and mining projects on the lands of indigenous communities, like the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam or the Cuarta Línea de Transmisión Eléctrica, and the fragile right to consultation of indigenous peoples. During protests in October 2021 against the Barro Blanco project, the Ngäbe community suffered repression and excessive use of violence by the police. Accused protesters have no adequate legal representation and defendants have to travel long distances to appear before the public prosecutor's office or tribunals.

To this, the delegation said that water and land pollution, logging, or hunting are of significant importance in sanctuaries for biodiversity. Regarding the Barro Blanco protest, some occupants of a building intervened with violent acts by throwing stones, bottles, and bombs, and so the police were forced to react with limited use of force and non-lethal ammunition to control the situation. Three investigation files were opened in the Public Prosecutor's Office, two were closed, and the third is still open.

Legislation against LGTBIQ+ community

Another issue raised by the Committee was the Supreme Court decision of last month to not allow gay marriage in the State, which is against the ICCPR and interamerican biding anti-discrimination norms, though the full text of the decision is not public yet. There is also a 2020 law that prohibits adoption to same-sex couples, and there is no specific legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The delegation did not provide a substantive reply on the issue, simply stating that any person who considers their rights, life, or personal integrity affected may resort to all the agencies of the Public Prosecutor's Office to file a complaint.

Watch again the dialogue with the Committee here (part one), here (part two), and here (part three). 

Recommendations of the Human Rights Committee

Concluding Observations on Panama sixth periodic report were released on March 24, 2023.

The State party is requested to provide, by 24 March 2026, information on the implementation of the following  recommendations:

Violence against women

The State party should: 

  • (a) Allocate the necessary financial, technical and human resources for the prevention, protection, punishment and reparation of violence against women, including for the implementation of the measures established in Law No. 82 and its regulations, such as the creation of shelters in each province and specialized courts on the subject, and the introduction of the electronic bracelet;
  • (b) Ensure that cases of violence against women, including against migrant women, are promptly and effectively investigated, that those responsible are punished and that victims obtain full reparations, and have access to means of protection, including sufficient shelters and counseling and assistance centers; 
  • (c) Eliminate the use of plea bargaining in cases of gender-based violence against women; 
  • (d) Continue its efforts to train the staff of judicial institutions, the police and forensic medicine on women's rights and gender-based violence; 
  • (e) Redouble its efforts to prevent and combat all forms of violence against migrant women in the Darien Gap and provide adequate protection to victims; and, in this regard, is encouraged to implement the recommendations made in February 2022 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. 

Freedom of expression and violence against human rights defenders

The State party should take the necessary measures in order to ensure the full enjoyment of freedom of expression for all persons, taking into account the Committee's General Comment No. 34 (2011) on freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. In particular, the State party should: 

  • (a) Redouble its efforts to prevent acts of harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders and journalists, as well as ensure that they are able to carry out their work in appropriate conditions, including through special legislative measures for their protection; 
  • (b) Ensure that all allegations of acts of harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders and journalists are promptly, thoroughly, independently and impartially investigated, that the perpetrators are brought to justice and duly punished, and that the victims receive full reparation; 
  • (c) Ensure that the rules relating to libel and slander do not serve in practice as a mechanism of intimidation and threat against the media and journalists, and consider the possibility of eliminating the penalty of imprisonment for these crimes, bearing in mind that this type of penalty is never an adequate punishment in such cases.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

The State party should: 

  • (a) Adopt the necessary protective measures to guarantee the life and safety of migrants crossing the Darién Gap and to effectively prevent and combat all forms of violence against these persons;
  • (b) Redouble its efforts to investigate allegations of murders, disappearances, kidnappings, sexual violence, trafficking, assaults, robberies, intimidation and threats against migrants; prosecute and punish those responsible; and provide comprehensive reparations to victims and their families;
  • (c) Fully respect the human rights of migrants housed in migrant reception centers, in particular the right not to be deprived of their liberty, and guarantee them effective remedies against any violation of their rights;
  • (d) Increase efforts to improve living conditions in migrant reception centers and ensure access to basic services; and, in this regard, is encouraged to implement the recommendations made in February 2023 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; 14
  • (e) Guarantee in practice the protection of asylum and refugee claimants, in accordance with the Covenant and international standards, and strengthen the capacity of the National Office for the Attention of Refugees, providing it with adequate financial and human resources, so that it can respond in a timely manner to refugee applications.

Here you can find all the recommendations given by the Committee in the Concluding Observations.

The follow-up report of Panama on the implementation of the recommendations is due in 2026. The next list of issues will be adopted in 2029, and the next periodic report is due in 2030.

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