UN rights chief warns Bolivia crisis could 'spin out of control'

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet (pictured September 2019) received reports that at least 17 people had been killed in connection with the protests that have rocked Bolivia (AFP Photo/FABRICE COFFRINI)

Geneva (AFP) - The UN rights chief voiced alarm Saturday at the deadly crisis in Bolivia, warning that excessive force by police was "an extremely dangerous development" and could see the situation could spin out of control.

Michelle Bachelet's comments came after she received reports that at least 17 people -- two more than the toll reported by the media -- had been killed in connection with the protests that have rocked Bolivia in recent weeks, including 14 in the six days since the now exiled ex-president Evo Morales resigned on November 10.

"While the earlier deaths were mostly the result of violent confrontations between rival protesters, the most recent ones appear to be the result of unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by the police and army," she said in a statement.

"This is an extremely dangerous development as, far from quelling the violence, it is likely to make it much worse," she said.

"I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms and standards governing the use of force, and with full respect for human rights."

Morales resigned and fled to Mexico after losing the support of Bolivia's security forces following weeks of protests over his disputed October 20 re-election.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued her statement after five supporters of Morales were killed Friday in violent clashes between protesters and security forces outside Cochabamba.

She stressed that Bolivia was "split and people on both sides of the political divide are extremely angry."

"In a situation like this, repressive actions by the authorities will simply stoke that anger even further and are likely to jeopardise any possible avenue for dialogue," she said.

Bachelet also warned that in addition to the deaths and hundreds of injuries suffered in recent weeks, "the situation is being inflamed by widespread arrests and detentions."

She said that more than 600 people had been detained since October 21, "many of them during the past few days".

The UN rights chief urged Bolivian authorities to make data available on the number of people arrested, injured and killed during the protests.

She called for "prompt, impartial, transparent and (thorough) investigations into them to ensure full accountability," and also urged Bogota to refrain from using the army during protests.

"This situation is not going to be resolved by force and repression," she insisted.

"All sectors have the right to make their voice heard –- this is the basis for democracy," she said, urging "all actors, including protestors, to renounce violence in order to pave the way towards a peaceful solution to the current crisis."