In mid-January, thousands of indigenous Guatemalan citizens took to the streets to protest the country’s recent actions to remove human rights protections for the indigenous community. Over the past year, Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, made tactical efforts to discredit the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Such efforts can be attributed to the UN-backed international institution’s investigations against President Morales and his family for suspected corruption. On January 7 2019, President Morales expelled CICIG, a move that garnered international attention for the potential negative effect on the capacity  of Guatemala’s judicial system to pursue justice for violations of indigenous human rights. On January 17, 2019, soon after Morales expelled CICIG, the Guatemalan Congress announced an amendment to The National Reconciliation Law. If approved, this law would grant amnesty to those convicted of crimes against humanity in connection with Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war, the victims of which predominantly belonged to the indigenous community. These recent moves by the Guatemalan government have come after 200 attacks against indigenous human rights defenders were reported in 2018, a number that is likely to be higher in 2019 given these new changes to institutional protections for rule of law. Both the expulsion of CICIG and the amendment to the National Reconciliation Law pose significant risks to the country’s obligations to protect indigenous peoples from impunity.


Guatemala’s thirty-six -year civil war, which occurred from 1960-1996, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, the majority of whom belonged to the country’s indigenous Mayan community. The war began as a conflict between a military-controlled government against a left-wing insurgency and largely occurred in the Guatemalan countryside and mountainous areas, where the population was primarily Mayan. As a result, the government brutally attacked and burnt down many Mayan villages entirely to avoid the guerilla insurgency from gaining more traction. In 1999, a United Nations (“UN”) truth commission set up as part of Guatemala’s supervised peace accords released a monumental report. The report revealed that the Guatemalan government was culpable for more than ninety percent of the 42,000 human rights violations that occurred during the civil war.  The report further concluded that the Mayan community suffered the most from the civil war, and that the war consisted of “aggressive, racist, and extremely cruel violations that resulted in the massive extermination of defenseless Mayan communities.”


Following the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala enacted The National Reconciliation Law. In its original form, this law was used by Guatemalan national courts to prosecute and convict leaders of the Guatemalan government who partook in the violence during the civil war that resulted in near-genocide of the Mayan community. The National Reconciliation Law, until recently, had been heralded by the international community as a legal model of how to fight institutional impunity for serious human rights violations. In 2013, Guatemala became the first country to convict a former dictator of genocide when The National Reconciliation Law was used to convict Efrain Rios Montt. Rios Montt took control of Guatemala through leading a military coup in 1982 and directed and oversaw the killings, kidnappings, torture, and disappearance of hundreds of thousands, mainly Mayan, Guatemalan citizens. During his trial, he was found responsible for, among other acts, the massacres in 15 Ixil Mayan villages, which resulted in the killing of over 1,771 unarmed women, men, and children. In November 2018, The National Reconciliation Law was used to prosecute and convict Santos Lopez Alonso, a former Guatemalan soldier. He was convicted for his involvement in the Dos Erres Massacre of 1982, in which 200 people were killed in the primarily Mayan village of Dos Erres.


Now, the amendment to The National Reconciliation Law, if adopted, would conflict with international obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights, which limits adoption of amnesty for crimes against humanity. The amendment would within twenty-four hours result in the release and amnesty of dozens of former governmental officials and military leaders, who were convicted for forced disappearances, mass executions, rape, and genocide. The amendment would also immediately halt the ongoing investigations into the abuse and violence that occurred during the civil war. Michele Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has referred to the possible consequence of this amendment as “complete impunity for all those involved in truly horrendous violations, including crimes against humanity.” This amendment to a law that fights impunity for human rights violations has the potential to cause retaliation against victims, witnesses, judges, organizations, and lawyers who helped convict the former government and military officials. However, as noted by High Commissioner Bachelet, international standards limit the adoption of amnesty for crimes against humanity, most notably the American Convention on Human Rights, which was ratified by Guatemala in 1978.


Efforts to restrict the ability of Guatemalan institutions such as CICIG to fight impunity have received international criticism from the UN for violating the state’s international obligation to protect the human rights of all citizens. The amendment to The National Reconciliation Law can be viewed as part of the Guatemalan government’s latest efforts to restrict the power of Guatemala’s institutions against corruption and impunity. One of these institutions is the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), which President Morales expelled from the country on January 7, 2019. CICIG was created and backed by the UN and the European Union and can be defined as a hybrid anti-corruption body that uses international investigators and national prosecutors to identify and prosecute criminal networks and corrupt government officials from the civil war. In November 2018, CICIG reported that it had worked with Guatemala’s Attorney General to prosecute more than 680 people and to gain convictions for 310 cases involving influence peddling and illegal campaign financing. Although President Morales was elected in part because of his anti-corruption platform with the campaign slogan “Neither corrupt nor thief,” he stopped supporting CICIG’s anti-corruption efforts beginning in 2017 when CICIG implicated him and his political part for campaign finance violations. Most recently, CICIG opened an investigation into President Morales and his brother on corruption charges, leading President Morales to banish CICIG’s commissioner from Guatemala, refuse to renew CICIG’s mandate, and expel CICIG in its entirety in January.


Some have referred to President Morales’ expulsion of CICIG as part of his slow-motion coup to gain a military stronghold in the country similar to that which existed during the civil war. However, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court has limited President Morales’ power and has issued a provisional injunction reversing CICIG’s expulsion for unconstitutionality since the creation of CICIG was ratified by Guatemala’s congress. Additionally, the UN deemed the expulsion impermissible and confirmed that CICIG would continue its work in Guatemala.


By expelling CICIG and proposing an amendment to The National Reconciliation Law, the Guatemalan government, led by President Morales, is allowing the state to fall back on its obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights to protect all citizens – including indigenous peoples – from impunity and violence. If President Morales continues to attack CICIG and the amnesty legislation passes congress, the indigenous community in Guatemala will face a heightened risk of violence reminiscent of the early years of the horrific civil war.  To avoid the country falling into state-led violence again, the international community, including the UN and the Organization of American States should continue to monitor the constitutionality of President Morales’ actions and continue to support the efforts and existence of the Truth Commission and CICIG in the country.