The term “impunity” is often used in reports about human rights violations in Latin America, but it should also be more commonly part of our political vocabulary in North America.
The word itself has Latin origins (im poena — not punished) and has been defined as “Exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.”
Impunity can refer to organized crime, government officials, the police and military, and corporations committing crimes and offences without being held accountable or brought to justice for them.
Their human rights violations can include criminalization and intimidation, threats, torture, disappearances, forcible displacement, political imprisonment and killings.
For example, Reuters has reported, “Activists and United Nations investigators have accused Mexican security forces of crimes. including murder, torture and disappearances. since the military was sent to tackle its powerful drug cartels in 2007.”
Peace Brigades International-UK has highlighted, “PBI has provided protection to at-risk human rights defenders in [Mexico] since 2000, an experience that has shown us that in the federal states where a security strategy based on militarisation has been implemented, attacks against activists have increased significantly.”
In November 2017, The Guardian reported, “The vast majority of human rights abuses allegedly committed by soldiers waging Mexico’s war on drug gangs go unsolved and unpunished despite reforms letting civilian authorities investigate and prosecute such crimes, [says a study by the Washington Office on Latin America].”
And on January 29, Amnesty International stated, “The Guatemalan Congress will shortly discuss a draft law (Law 5377) which seeks to grant amnesty for serious human rights violations perpetrated during the internal armed conflict” between the military dictatorship and leftist rebel groups supported by the Maya indigenous people.
If passed, they say it would lead to the immediate release of dozens of people convicted of genocide, torture and enforced disappearance, among other crimes.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, says, “The Guatemalan Congress must refrain from continuing discussion of a law that seeks to guarantee impunity for the perpetrators of these atrocities and that violates Guatemala’s international obligations to investigate, prosecute and punish such crimes.”
A major technical report on impunity published in 2017 concluded that, “Impunity worsens when there is no respect of the basic rules for social coexistence and where there are large impunity and corruption pacts in the political and economic elites.”
That report ranked countries on their levels of impunity.
It found that, for example, Croatia had a very low level of impunity (measured at 36.01 points), that Guatemala had an intermediate level of impunity (at 62.40 points), and that Mexico had a very high level of impunity (at 69.21 points).
Canada was ranked as “intermediate,” with a measurement of 55.27 points.
In January, APTN reported that the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability had found that Indigenous women accounted for 36 per cent of the estimated 148 women killed in 2018 even though they make up just 4.9 per cent of the population.
Myrna Dawson, the director of the Guelph, Ontario-based centre, commented that, “There is growing recognition of impunity for perpetrators particularly for some victims and in Canada those are indigenous women and girls.”
Furthermore, there are concerns about the level of impunity particularly with respect to police violence against Indigenous peoples and people of colour.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario is “a civilian law enforcement agency which investigates incidents involving police officers where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.” Its reports do not include race-based statistics.
In 2014-15, the SIU opened 266 cases. But Toronto-based writer Andray Domise has highlighted in Maclean’s magazine that, “In the 2014-15 reporting year, 94.9 per cent of officers investigated by the SIU were cleared.”
In 2015, Rodney Diverlus, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, told The Toronto Star, “For us to not have [race-based] data is a crucial piece of the puzzle that’s missing to actually hold police accountable and to actually have meaningful discussions about how police can better serve and protect our racialized communities.”
And notably there are concerns about the criminalization of Indigenous peoples and environmentalists by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
A January 2014 RCMP intelligence assessment report concludes, “There is a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
The Globe and Mail has noted, “The report extolls the value of the oil and gas sector to the Canadian economy, and adds that many environmentalists ‘claim’ that climate change is the most serious global environmental threat…”
This gives some context for the RCMP actions against the Wet’suwet’en peoples and their support for Coastal GasLink (CGL) in the initial construction activities of the fracked gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Wet’suwet’en have not given their free, prior and informed consent for the project that crosses their territory as required under the international legal norms outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In Canada Hates Indigenous People, the Unist’ot’en Camp website highlights, “We see daily how RCMP permits CGL to break Canadian laws, while we are threatened with arrest for exercising our rights and title.”
This Unist’ot’en Camp video provides just one example of what they are experiencing.
This ongoing impunity must be challenged.