Abuse of Emergency Powers Threaten Human Rights in Northern Triangle

Demonstrators in San Salvador protest against President Nayib Bukele’s abuse of power on February 9, 2021. (Photo by Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images)

Grantee Spotlight: Fundación Cristosal

During the Covid-19 crisis, each of the Northern Triangle governments–Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador–have abused emergency powers to suppress fundamental human rights, limit democratic oversight, and deepen the role of security forces in public life. In response to this worrying trend, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) grantee Fundación Cristosal continues to monitor human rights, conduct legal advocacy, and keep citizens informed about the impacts of disproportionate and illegal use of emergency powers on democracy.

“The democratic experiment in El Salvador is barely three decades old,” explains Cristosal’s executive director Noah Bullock. “Most Salvadorans have never experienced the full benefits of a free and fair society in which all citizens are equal before the law. The change promised by a strongman [El Salvador president since 2019 Nayib Bukele] is a seductive proposal for a society exhausted by the chaos posed by structural inequalities, direct violence, and impunity.” [Read more about NED’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean.]

Based in El Salvador since its establishment in 2000, Cristosal works in all three Northern Triangle countries to assist victims of arbitrary detention, compile data on extrajudicial killings, and document other human rights issues during the pandemic lockdowns. The organization pursues legal actions to ensure those responsible for any human rights violations or abuses of power it identifies are held accountable. Media monitoring and comprehensive research helps legal advocacy and communications strategies to keep citizens informed.

The results of the largely credible and fair February legislative elections in El Salvador further consolidated power for president Bukele and increased the need for Cristosal’s important work. Critics have accused Bukele of authoritarian behavior–given his clashes with journalists, use of the army to enforce quarantine, and tough prison enforcement measures.

“Cristosal and other civil society organizations challenge abuses of power and defend human rights at a critical time for El Salvador, Central America, and more broadly the Latin America region, where human rights and fundamental freedoms are being rolled back,” explains Miriam Kornblith, regional expert and senior director for Latin America and the Caribbean at NED. “Civil society has an indispensable role to counterbalance concentrations of power and to advocate for democratic solutions to the region’s most pressing problems.”

During times of emergency, populations are most willing to sacrifice rights and freedoms that have taken centuries to secure. “Fear of migrants and refugees, political opposition, security and terror threats and now a global health pandemic [help] modern day autocrats to dismantle free democratic governance globally,” explains Bullock. “Salvadorans have many reasons to feel like they live in a never-ending emergency, stuck in a cycle of social, political and security crisis. What must be demonstrated is how human rights and democratic governance are not obstacles to security, but rather the only reliable means to transform crises and produce lasting peace.”

Watch Cristosal director Noah Bullock explain the importance of international aid in the fight against corruption in El Salvador: 

(Video courtesy of Facebook, filmed by Audiovisuales UCA)