There was high drama in June when Julian Assange made his dramatic flight to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The Wikileaks founder sought asylum given his imminent extradition to Sweden where he faces allegations of rape and sexual assault. His choice of safe haven had many reaching for their world atlases as they tried to identify the precise location of the South American country.
Those of us who follow events in the Americas particularly relating to human rights know that Ecuador is far from a safe haven, especially for the most marginalised in society.
Amnesty International this week published a report entitled "So that no one can demand anything — Criminalising the right to protest in Ecuador" — and there’s a lot more than Assange’s story going on in Ecuador.
Ecuador is the fifth largest producer of crude oil in Latin America, making this a major source of income for the country. The industry took off in the 70s and 80s and today, oil revenues make up a quarter of Ecuador’s total gross national product, and account for 40 per cent of the state budget.
Governments over the last decades, including today’s President Rafael Correa, know how important natural resources are. But the exploitation of natural resources has led to conflict over control of land and natural resources. Recent proposals to bring large-scale mining to the country have reignited many of these conflicts.
Imagine that the government of your country announces that it will be using your backyard, where your family has lived for centuries, to drill for oil, without ever consulting you.
This is just what happened to one of the Indigenous peoples, the Sarayaku community.
They found out that the government had plans to drill their territory when they heard helicopters landing in their land full of equipment at the beginning of this century. As a result 1.4 tonnes of explosives remain buried on Sarayaku land to this date.
Ten years later and the Ecuadorian authorities still do not consult communities prior to deciding to exploit natural resources. No wonder then that tensions have erupted into public protests and protests into repression in the last few years.
Mining and oil may be key for Ecuador but economic development cannot be pursued at the expense of human rights.
While many may argue that extractives are beneficial to local communities, it is vital that any decisions are made respecting their right to be consulted. A consultation that has to be carried out in good faith, not after important decisions about a development project have been made in cabinet meetings.
As the Amnesty report shows, Ecuador’s government has responded to the complaints around the lack of consultation raised by indigenous and campesino leaders by arresting protesters without legitimate reasons, imposing trumped up charges and issuing strict bail conditions in what appears to be a strategy to stop them talking.
The report tells the stories of 24 leaders who between them have faced a total of 20 charges of terrorism, 10 of sabotage, four of blocking roads, and one of homicide — all of which are related to protests that took place in 2009 and 2010.
In many instances, charges and arrests have been dismissed by judges as baseless. Eight of the 24 are still under investigation, caught up in court proceedings or subject to bail restrictions.
Even though none are currently imprisoned, the fact that they have been targeted demonstrates a worrying pattern, which is having a chilling effect on entire communities that now not unreasonably think twice before voicing legitimate concerns against measures that affect them.
Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue and properly consulting with the communities whose livelihoods will be affected by government proposed laws and policies, authorities are using any tool in the box to discourage people from voicing dissent.
A clear example is that of indigenous leaders Marlon Santi and Delfin Tenesaca, who in June 2010 were accused of terrorism after participating in a protest in the context of the "Summit of The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America".
An investigation was opened. According to reports, the only evidence against the activists were a pair of missing handcuffs that a police officer reported he had lost.
President Correa has the right and duty to ensure public order in his country and to propose development projects. However, using the judicial system as a way to dissuade people from voicing disapproval is not a solution. Moreover, continuing to push through changes without adequate consultation with those affected risks setting Ecuador on a course of continuing social conflict.
Julian Assange clearly views Ecuador as a safe haven but for many who live there, justice remains a distant reality. I hope those whose eyes have been turned to this country by Assange will hold their gaze long enough to see the whole picture.
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