U.N. High Commissioner: 'Excessive Use of Force' in Latin America Amid Coronavirus

The United Nations' top rights official warned on Wednesday of "excessive use of force" against people seeking access to basic human rights in some Latin American countries amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Appearing during an online event hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted examples in Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela of recent social protests against food, water and medicine shortages being met with violence. The high commissioner, a former president of Chile, said her office has received reports of arrests and detentions in response to "heavy enforcement of quarantine measures." She said there have been approximately 11,000 such arrests or detentions in Guatemala, 35,000 in the Dominican Republic and 50,000 in Peru.

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In El Salvador, Bachelet noted, many people found in breach of home quarantine measures have been arrested and detained "in often overcrowded conditions for extended periods, ignoring repeated rulings of the Supreme Court against such measures."

"This is a time when, more than ever, government needs to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect," Bachelet said.

Earlier this week an official from Bachelet's office noted that troubling reports of abuse against civilians have come from about 15 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are three Latin American countries that have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis, with at least 73,000, 31,000 and 24,000 cases, respectively, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Chile, Colombia and Panama also have thousands of cases.

Bachelet did say that she does not have a problem with the military being part of the response to the pandemic in these countries, but only "if the roles are clear." She said, for example, that she "would never put the militaries in the streets." But she noted that the military played a role in distributing food and water and evacuating people in danger after the major wildfires in Chile in 2017.

"The problem is when you use them as police forces because they're not prepared for police forces. They are prepared for the war," Bachelet added. "So the tactics and the mechanisms they use are different."

Bachelet said she hopes Latin American countries learn from this crisis, highlighting the inadequate health systems and the importance of investing in human capital and education.

"Even in the most powerful countries, we have seen that no one was prepared," she said. " ... I hope also after this pandemic, also in Latin America, they realize that investing in health is so necessary, because inequality of access to health is one of the biggest inequalities in our region."

"When we overcome the pandemic, as we will, we must seize the opportunity of a lifetime: to build back better. And I'm confident that is possible if we're mindful of our interdependence, of our equality, of our equal rights."

Elliott Davis is a graduate of University of Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism and is a yearlong News intern.