Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala

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Commissioners: Rosa María Ortiz, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Dinah Shelton

Petitioners Listed: Asociación Refugio de la Niñez / Centro para el Análisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA) / Centro Internacional para las Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos (CIIDH) / Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH) / Centro de Acción Ambiental Legal y Social de Guatemala (CALAS) / Equipo Comunitario de Apoyo Psicosocial (ECAP) / Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala (ICCPG) / Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (ODHAG) / Seguridad en Democracia (SEDEM) / Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) / Unión de Mujeres de Guatemala (UNAMG) / Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL)  (LISTED)

Petitioners actually participating: Seguridad en Democracia: Iduvina Hernandez Batres; Unidad de Proteccion a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humnos – Guatemala: Claudia Virginia Samayoa Pineda; Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional: Marcia Aguiluz; Centro para el Analisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas: Maria Eugenia Carrera Chavez; Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala Jessenia Ovalle

Photo Credit: Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos

Focusing on current media coverage in Guatemala of human rights defenders, petitioners alleged that not only does the situation constitute a hate campaign against human rights defenders in Guatemala, but that the government’s of response constitutes at best a failure to work, and worst clear complicity in the campaign against human rights defenders, violating the governments obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR).  At the hearing on Monday, October 28th, 2013 in Washington DC, petitioners representing multiple non-governmental organizations (NGOs) detailed the increased level of attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala, and requested that the Commission look further into the situation, and clearly articulate the state’s duty to stop such hate speech.

Petitioners noted the 40% rise in attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala since 2012, amount to over 600 attacks in 2013 so far. The petitioners also alerted the commissioners to pervasive type of coverage in traditional media and social media outlets of the work of human rights defenders. Petitioners noted the stigmatization of human rights defenders on Facebook where they are often called ‘lowlifes,’ ‘terrorists,’ and ‘parasites,’ a stigmatization that the petitioners claim rises to the level of incitement to violence against human rights defenders. In more traditional media sources, not only are human rights defenders repeatedly abused and compared to communists, but petitioners indicated that government officials have made statements after the deaths of human rights defenders, saying that the defenders “got what they deserved.”

Petitioners also noted that human rights defenders have few options for recourse as the state selects members of the judiciary through an opaque system, and additionally new laws required that all organizations register through the government. This leads, according to petitioners, leads to a lack of judicial impartiality that could have protected human rights defenders, and additionally the essentially complete bar of human rights defenders from membership in the judiciary since the state does not provide sufficient transparency in the selection process. To support this claim, petitioners noted how despite the increased number of attacks against defenders, few state-appointed prosecutors have looked into, or tried any of the cases, even where attacks against defenders led to the death of children.

In conclusion, the petitioners asked for increased transparency and oversight in the selection of judiciary candidates, and statements from the government in support of human rights defenders from high-level officials, widely diffused to the public to help protect defenders and increase public support of human rights defenders.

Guatemala, represented by members of the Guatemalan delegation to Organization of American States including the Director of the Human Rights Unit of the government and a member from the Ministry for the Interior, responded to the petitioners’ accusations, focusing primarily on the fundamental importance of freedom of speech in the ACHR.  State representatives asserted that the government’s behavior fulfilled its obligations under the ACHR, and partook in no behavior that kept human rights defenders from exercising their rights. The state further noted that not only does Guatemala place a high value on free speech, but additionally, high-level members of the government meet on a regulate basis to asses the attacks on human rights offenders, and protects those defenders through necessary investigations, while maintaining a high respect for free thought, interpreting it in the broadest term possible.

State Representatives explained to the commissioners that the commission for protecting human rights defenders in Guatemala reported to the U.N. in 2012, analyzing the attacks against defenders, and additionally undertakes risk studies where necessary to protect human rights defenders. These risk studies, as detailed by representatives, form a key part of the systematic, ongoing process that seeks to ascertain patterns of attacks against defenders, a process that includes specialized teams that provide preventative protection and coordinate criminal investigations. These actions are supervised by the Ministry of Security which has, as explained by representatives, a fast-deployment team and hotline for immediate circumstances. Guatemala representatives concluded with a reiteration of the importance of free speech and expression, and noted that media sources should always be free to present multiple sides of the story, particularly allegations of corruption within human rights organizations.

Commissioner Dinah Shelton, began by noting the high value placed on freedom of expression, noting her reluctance to call for a limitation of free speech.  That said, she noted a difference between speech and hate speech, which Article 13(3) of the ACHR prohibits. She further noted her concern over Guatemala’s abstention of action regarding the hate speech in Guatemalan media and noted that article 13(5) expressly requires states to criminalize incitement to violence. She requested petitioners to elaborate on whether or not they had attempted to use their right of reply to attempt to respond to some of the statements in the media.

Commissioner José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders noted concern over the increased attacked against human rights defenders. He reminded Guatemala of its obligation to support the work of defenders. This support, Commissioner Henríquez explained, can be most effective when it comes from high level government ministers because such messages can make clear the obligations on lower levels their obligations to protect defenders. Finally, Commissioner Henríquez called on Guatemala to strengthen procedures that protect human rights defenders, and to create more transparency within the appointment of justices of the court.

Commsioner Rosa María Ortiz concluded the commissioners’ comments by calling on the state to effectively protect defenders, articulating that a theory of protection does not fulfill their obligations when there have been hundreds of attacks against defenders. Finally, she called on the government to curb the hate speech as it clearly led to increased risk to these defenders.

Petitioners and Guatemalan representatives both thanked the commissioners, and noted that both sides would submit additional reports on the matter.

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