A.       The facts of the controversy


          1.          Part Two of this report will set forth the events which have affected a part of the Nicaraguan population of Miskito origin from December of 1981 to September of 1983, i.e., until a few days prior to the adoption of this Report.


          2.          These events have been analyzed in the light of the norms of the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Nicaragua is a party, especially those that guarantee the following rights: to life, to personal liberty, to personal security, to due process, to residence and movement, and to property.


          3.          The Commission will also study the complaints put forward by a group of Indian leaders with respect to the special rights of the ethnic groups that inhabit the Atlantic coast region of Nicaragua.


4.          With respect to the right to life, the Commission, while not unaware of other accusations made against the Government of Nicaragua with respect to this right, will concentrate chiefly on the events that took place in December of 1981 in the Miskito villages of San Carlos, and in particular, of Leimus, to determine whether the actions taken by the Sandinista Army constitute a violation of the right to life.


          5.          Given the interrelation between the rights to personal liberty, personal security and due process, they will be considered jointly in the light of the following facts: a) the detention of Miskitos in San Carlos in December of 1981 and other detentions and restrictions of personal liberty that took place in 1982, and the first half of 1983; b) the imprisonment of Miskitos in Puerto Cabezas and Managua; c) the charges brought against the detained Miskitos; d) the release of Miskitos; and e) the disappearances of Miskitos.


          6.          With respect to the right to residence and movement, three major situations have concerned the Commission: a) the compulsory relocation of approximately 8,500 Miskitos from their villages in the Coco River region to five settlements located in the interior of the Zelaya Department, known as Tasba Pri; b) the compulsory relocation of approximately 4,000 Miskitos from their villages in the region of the Coco River and the Bokay River, to the Department of Jinotega, to new settlements in the interior of that Department; and c) the repatriation of Miskitos of Nicaraguan origin who are currently refugees in Honduras.


          7.          Finally, with respect to the right to property, the Commission will study two different complaints which have been submitted. The first refers to the destruction of the houses, personal belongings and crops of the Miskitos, as well as the slaughter of their animals, while the Miskitos were being relocated; the other complaint has to do with ancestral lands which, according to certain Indian institutions, belong to the Miskitos as a people.


          8.          The IACHR is certainly not unaware that the facts indicated above represent but one demonstration, and a partial one, of the general situation which is broader and more complex. Nevertheless, the Commission has limited its study to these events and to their relation to the norms of the American Convention on Human Rights, since they alone comprise the matter on which the Commission may give an opinion, in accordance with the legal norms that govern its activity.


B.          Special protection of the Miskitos as an ethnic group


          1.          There are a number of international instruments that uphold special rights for certain ethnic and racial groups.


          Nevertheless, the American Convention on Human Rights only guarantees individual rights, “…without any discrimination for reasons of race, color, sex, language, status, birth, or any other social condition” (Article 1). However, the same Convention indicates that the provisions of the Convention cannot be interpreted as “restricting the enjoyment or exercise of any right or freedom recognized by virtue of the laws of any State party or by virtue of another convention to which one of the said states is a party” (Article 29, subparagraph b).


          Nicaragua, in addition to being a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which expressly sets forth certain rights with respect to ethnic groups. In effect, Article 27 of the Covenant states:


                   In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.


3.          That article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reaffirmed the need to protect ethnic groups, since it was important to establish additional protection for them beyond that granted to the nationals of a state, in order to bring about true equality among the nationals of that state.


          4.          In a UN debate on Article 27 of the Covenant, the difference between the concepts of “equality and nondiscrimination” and “protection of minorities,”1 was emphasized, and the following distinction was made:


                   The prevention of discrimination means impeding any conduct which denies or restricts the right of a person to equality.


                   The protection of minorities, on the other hand, although also based on the principles of equal treatment of all peoples, requires a positive action: a concrete service is offered to a minority group, such as the establishment of schools in which education is given in the native language of the members of the group. Such measures, clearly, are also based on the principle of equality: for example, if a child is educated in a language which is not his native language, this can mean that the child is treated on an equal basis with other children who are educated in their native language. The protection of minorities, therefore, requires affirmative action to safeguard the rights of minorities whenever the people in question (the parents in the case of minors) wish to maintain their distinction of language and culture.


          At this time, Article 27 is interpreted to mean that the States Parties are obligated to allow persons who belong to those groups to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language.


          5.          In addition to the above-mentioned Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, other UN General Assembly resolutions2 and other international instruments3 have also granted special protection to ethnic groups.


          6.          With specific reference to Indian populations, on the other hand, the codification and progressive development of international law has been relatively scant.4


          7.          It should also be considered whether or not ethnic groups also have additional rights, particularly the rights to self-determination or political autonomy.


          8.          In his presentation to the Commission, Mr. Armstrong Wiggins stated that the Indian peoples of Nicaragua had the right to full self-determination. In part of his statement, Mr. Wiggins stated the following:


                   The right to self-determination applies to all peoples, including the Indian population of Nicaragua, which possesses territory with defined borders, a permanent population, a government and the capacity to establish external relations.


          Mr. Armstrong Wiggins also stated this viewpoint in his article titled “Nicaragua: A Perspective” (Akwesasne Notes, Spring, 1982). A similar view was set forth by the Coordinator General of Misurasata, Mr. Brooklyn Rivera, in a document of April 8, 1982, submitted to the Commission, although Mr. Rivera expressly denies a secessionist intent on the part of the Indian peoples of the Atlantic region of Nicaragua.


          Messrs. Wiggins and Rivera claim that if the territorial and political autonomy of the Indian population is not recognized, their traditional way of life and their cultural identity would be destroyed, since the exercise and enjoyment of the right to a language, culture and religion are meaningless without the right to self-determination.


          9.          The present status of international law does recognize observance of the principle of self-determination of peoples, which it considers to be the right of a people to independently choose their form of political organization and to freely establish the means it deems appropriate to bring about their economic, social and cultural development. This does not mean, however, that it recognizes the right to self-determination of any ethnic group as such.


          10.          In the debates of the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations on the scope of the right to self-determination, some delegates argued that the broadest interpretation should be adopted to prevent domination of weak peoples by powerful nations.


          However, the Delegate of New Zealand reflected the majority viewpoint when he indicated that the principle of self-determination was:


                   Opposed to the idea of colonialism, and related to the wishes of the majority occupying an area or territory, and should not be confused with the rights of minorities scattered within a territory who could be seeking equal treatment with the majority, but not political separation. The Convention on Human Rights would, without doubt, be interested in establishing equal treatment for each person included in those minorities, but this should not be confused with the broader issue of political separation, which involves serious political, constitutional, economic, social and financial considerations, in sum, the capacity for self-government.5


          Several states held the opinion that recognition of the right to self-determination of minorities would promote subversion and would finally lead to separation. Consequently, it was agreed that self-determination should be harmonized with the other principles of equality under the law, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence that are set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.


          The Delegate of Iran expressed the prevailing viewpoint that national sovereignty and territorial integrity could not be undermined under the pretext of exercise of the right to self-determination:


                   If self-determination is abused and considered as an absolute right, the only result is anarchy. The right can only be considered within the limits of national sovereignty. It cannot be used to undermine the sovereignty of a state over its territory or natural resources; recourse to the right of self-determination to incite dissident minorities to rise up against the state or to endanger its stability would be as contrary to the true spirit of the right of self-determination as aggression or subversion itself. Nevertheless, as history has shown, groups with subversive and aggressive objectives have been used by foreign powers to overthrow the governments of countries whose territory they with to occupy. Many independent countries have been the victims of irresponsible groups that have been incited to destroy the national unity of their own country. Moreover, the right to self-determination should never be confused with the right to secession. Secession is not the result of respect for the right to self-determination, but rather the disregard for fundamental human rights in the absence of free consent of peoples to the exercise of the right of self-determination… [no] country represented on the Committee would exist if every national, religious or linguistic group had the absolute and unlimited right to self-determination.6


          With the adoption in 1960 of Resolution 1514 (XV) on the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the principle of self-determination was identified by the United Nations with the liberation struggles of colonial peoples in non-metropolitan territories.


          Resolution 2625 (XXV), titled Declaration on the Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, developed the principle of equal rights and the self-determination of peoples, and stated:


                   That the establishment of a sovereign and independent state, free association or integration with an independent state or acquisition of any other freely chosen political status by a people constitutes that people’s means of exercising the right to self-determination.


          At the same time, the above-mentioned statement expressly affirmed that the right to self-determination could never be interpreted… in the sense of authorizing or encouraging any action aimed at breaking up or undermining, totally or partially, the territorial integrity of sovereign and independent states that conduct themselves in conformity with the principle of equal rights and the self-determination of peoples described above, and which are, therefore, possessed of a government that represents the entire people to whom the territory belongs, without discrimination by race, creed or color.


                   Every state shall abstain from any action aimed at the partial or total breaking up of the national unit and the territorial integrity of any other state or country.


          11.          The above does not mean, in this case, that the absence of a right to political autonomy or self-determination on the part of the Miskitos, Sumos and Ramas of the Atlantic coast grants the Government of Nicaragua an unrestricted right to impose complete assimilation on those Indians.


          12.          The Government of Nicaragua itself initially followed a policy of preservation of the cultural values of the Indian populations. In effect, the Declaration of the Principles of the Sandinista Peoples’ Revolution on Indian communities of the Atlantic coast, of August 12, 1981, established in operative paragraph 3:


                   The Government of National Reconstruction supports the preservation of different cultural forms, and grants the Miskito, Criollo, Sumo and Rama communities of the Atlantic coast the necessary means to promote their own cultures, including the preservation of their language.


          Furthermore, in April 1980, as stated earlier, a position was assigned on the Council of State to the Indian organizations of Misurasata.


          13.          Nevertheless, as was also explained, serious difficulties soon began to arise between the Indian population and the Government, which first took the form of detention of the Misurasata leaders, and then the dissolution of that organization, culminating in the disintegration of the Miskito communities that inhabited the Coco River region.


          14.          In the view of the Commission, for an ethnic group to be able to preserve its cultural values, it is fundamental that its members be allowed to enjoy all of the rights set forth by the American Convention on Human Rights, since this guarantees their effective functioning as a group, which includes preservation of their own cultural identity. Particularly relevant are the rights to protection of honor and dignity; freedom of though and expression; the right of assembly and of association; the right to residence and movement and the right to elect their authorities.


          15.          Although the current status of international law does not allow the view that the ethnic groups of the Atlantic zone of Nicaragua have a right to political autonomy and self-determination, special legal protection is recognized for the use of their language, the observance of their religion, and in general, all those aspects related to the preservation of their cultural identity. To this should be added the aspects linked to productive organization, which includes, among other things, the issue of the ancestral and communal lands. Non-observance of those rights and cultural values leads to a forced assimilation with results that can be disastrous. For that reason, the Commission considers that it is fundamental to establish new conditions for coexistence between the ethnic minorities and the Government of Nicaragua, in order to settle historic antagonisms and the serious difficulties present today. In the opinion of the IACHR, the need to preserve and guarantee the observance of these principles in practice entails the need to establish an adequate institutional order as part of the structure of the Nicaraguan state. Such an institutional organization can only effectively carry out its designed purposes to the extent that it is designed in the context of broad consultation, and carried out with the direct participation of the ethnic minorities of Nicaragua, through their freely chosen representatives.


C.       The Right to Life


          1.          With respect to the right to life, which the American Convention guarantees in Article 4,7 the Commission will refer to this section to the events that took place in December, 1981, in the villages of San Carlos and Leimus, on the banks of the Coco River, and which led to an undetermined number of deaths.


          2.          The fact that the IACHR gives special attention to these events does not mean that they are the only ones that have been found to conflict with the observance of the right to life; it is due to the fact that in one case, certain facts denounced as violations of this right were studied by the IACHR, which reached the conclusion that such violations did not take place. With respect to the other incidents, the Commission has not had sufficiently persuasive information to reach a final decision. Finally, two situations in which there were or may have been losses of human lives have been considered by the IACHR with respect to rights other than the right to life, for reasons that will be set forth below.


          3.          One of the communications that the IACHR received at the beginning of this matter alleged that during the compulsory relocation of the Miskitos to the Tasba Pri settlements, a considerable number of people died.8 The Commission inquired about these facts with the refugee Miskitos in Mocorón, who, unlike their description of what took place in San Carlos and Leimus, could not give a precise description of the events. Furthermore, the Commission privately spoke on two occasions with dozens of inhabitants of the Tasba Pri settlements who had participated in the relocation. Although several of them had severely criticized the Government, none stated any knowledge of any deaths during the course of the relocation.9 This testimony and other information available to the IACHR, failed to confirm the charges that there had been deaths in the course of the relocation of the Miskitos to the Tasba Pri settlements, although that relocation was not carried out in a peaceful, orderly and uneventful fashion, as was claimed by some Nicaraguan officials.


          4.          After adopting its report on June 26, 1982, the Commission received information that a number of violent actions had been committed in the second half of 1982 and the first half of 1983 in several villages of the northern part of the Zelaya department, leaving dozens of Miskitos dead. According to this information, those acts of violence took place in the following villages populated by Miskitos: Karata, Landing, Yulu, Dakban, Sandy Bay (which includes 14 closely situated villages some 30 miles north of Puerto Cabezas), Limbaiken, Alamikamba, Seven Benk, Tilba, Musawas, Kuabal, Tasbapaúni and Holoover.


          The Government has not denied that there were acts of violence committed in those villages as a result of which some Miskito inhabitants died, as did soldiers of the Sandinista Army, but it has stated that all of them died in the course of the fighting which took place in that zone.


          The members of the Commission’s Secretariat who visited the zone in June 1983 sought unsuccessfully to discover what took place in those villages. Thus, interviews held with the inhabitants produced no results, as was the case in the town of Yulu, despite the fact that these interviews were held in the presence only of Moravian pastors who served as interpreters. Under these circumstances, the Commission does not find itself in a position to affirm, or to deny, that these deaths are attributable to governmental authorities in violation of Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights.


          5.          The Commission cannot omit the fact that on December 9, 1982, 75 Miskito children and nine of their mothers died when the helicopter in which they were being evacuated to San José de Bokay from their homes in the border zone with Honduras, near the Coco River and the Bokay River, in the Department of Jinotega, caught fire. Although the Commission finds it a regrettable accident, this does not mean that the Government of Nicaragua is exempt from responsibility, as will be seen when the right to residence and movement is discussed.10


          6.          Finally, the IACHR has decided to consider the alleged disappearances of Miskitos, which supposedly took place in recent months, in the section on the right to liberty and personal security, and not in this section on the right to life. The Commission made this decision because it believes that those disappearances are not the result of a Government policy of exterminating dissidents, as has occurred in other countries.


          7.          Having stated the above clarifications, the Commission will now consider the events that took place in the Indian communities of San Carlos and Leimus, in which the Government of Nicaragua does have serious responsibility.


          8.          In the last days of December, 1981, events took place in those Indian communities and in others located in the north of the Zelaya Department which, according to complaints and testimonies submitted to the Commission, constituted acts of violence perpetrated by the army of Nicaragua against the Miskito population, and which included the capture and summary execution of their inhabitants.


          9.          For its part, the Government of Nicaragua gave its official version of the events on February 3, 1982, and alleges that it discovered a counterrevolutionary plot, which it called “Red Christmas” because it was to be carried out during Christmas week of 1981, and which was organized and led by members of the former National Guard of Nicaragua in alliance with members of the Miskito community.


          10.          With reference to the above-mentioned events, the Commission received the complaint of Misurasata and a statement made by Mr. Steadman Fagoth. In addition, on several occasions it received testimony from former residents of the zone who said they had witnessed these events.


          11.          In its first communication, the Misurasata organization, after accusing the FSLN of having carried out a policy of “racial hatred”, “internal colonialism”, “racial discrimination”, “assassination and social repression”, “remilitarization, hunger and deceit”, in the Atlantic zone of Nicaragua, alleged that the following events constituted genocide:


a.      On December 23, the Sandinista Air Force used helicopters and Push and Pull airplanes to bombard the Indian communities of Asang and San Carlos, located on the banks of the Coco River, with bombs, thus killing 60 Indians.


b.       On December 22, 80 Indians were captured in Leimus near Waspan, from the communities of Asang, San Carlos, Waspuk, Krasa, etc. … And the following night, (December 23), the soldiers killed 35 people and buried them all in a mass grave: Norman, Rogelio and Simeón Castro, Joselin and Asel Mercado, Cristina and Mayra Lacayo, Víctor and Carlos Pérez, Justo Martínez, Villanor Pantín, Roseno Gómez, Luis Fajardo, Efraín Poveda, Celso Flores, Ramiro Damasio, etc. are the names of some of the victims.


         Twelve more Indians were killed on December 24, and their corpses thrown into the Coco River.


          On the 26th, four Indians were buried alive near Leimus, while the whereabouts of the other 84 Indian prisoners are unknown.


c.      The Indian members of the Sandinista Army from the communities of the Raudales (Raiti, Aniwas, Walakitan, Bokay, etc.) are thrown into the river with their hands and feet tied for refusing to participate in the killing of their brothers, and many of their corpses can be found in the communities of Siksayari and Andistara.



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1            UN Secretary General: The Main Types and Causes of Discrimination, UN Publ. 49.XIV.3, paragraphs 6-7.

2            The UN General Assembly has adopted some resolutions on minorities or ethnic groups, such as Resolution 217 C of the General Assembly (III), of December 10, 1948, in which the United Nations declared that it “cannot remain indifferent to the fate of minorities” and that “it is difficult to adopt a uniform solution to this complex and delicate issue, which presents special aspects in each state where it arises”; and resolution 532 B (VI) of February 4, 1952, in which the General Assembly stated its opinion that “the prevention of discrimination and the protection of minorities constitute two of the most important aspects of the positive work undertaken by the United Nations.”

3            The Convention on Combating Discrimination in Education (UNESCO) of 1960, in Article 5, recognizes “the right of all members of national minorities to carry out educational activities of their own, among them, that of establishing and maintaining schools, and according to the policy of each state on education, to use their own language.”

4            In this respect, the only significant instrument is Convention Nº 107 of the International Labor Organization on the protection and integration of Indian populations and other tribal and semi-tribal populations in independent countries, which establishes that “it shall be the obligation chiefly of governments to carry out coordinated and systematic programs to protect the populations in question and progressively integrate them into the lives of their respective countries”, and it states that until this occurs, “special measures should be adopted to protect the institutions, persons, property and labor of the populations in question, as long as their social, economic, and cultural status prevents them from benefiting from the general legislation of the country of which they are nationals.” However, there has not been a significant number of ratifications of that agreement, and Nicaragua has not ratified it.

5            UN Doc. GAOR, 3rd Committee, page 321. (1952).

6            UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.888, 13 GAOR 3rd Committee, page 257 (1888 Session. 1958).

7            Article 4 of the Convention establishes: 1. Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. 2. In countries that have not abolished the death penalty, it may be imposed only for the most serious crimes and pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court and in accordance with a law establishing such punishment, enacted prior to the commission of the crime. The application of such punishment shall not be extended to crimes to which it does not presently apply. 3. The death penalty shall not be reestablished in states that have abolished it. 4. In no case shall capital punishment be inflicted for political offenses or related common crimes. 5. Capital punishment shall not be imposed upon persons who, at the time the crime was committed, were under 18 years of age or over 70 years of age; nor shall it be applied to pregnant women. 6. Every person condemned to death shall have the right to apply for amnesty, pardon, or commutation of sentence, which may be granted in all cases. Capital punishment shall not be imposed while such a petition is pending decision by the competent authority.

8            In his statement to the Commission, Mr. Steadman Fagoth stated that “at least 393 Miskitos were killed” in the course of the relocation.

9            The testimony of one of those inhabitants with respect to this matter is transcribed on page 92.

10            See Section E of this Chapter, Subsection b) “New evacuation of Miskitos from the Coco River and the Bokey River to settlements in Jinotega.”