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24 August 2006

Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, made the following statement to the media at the end of a visit to Guatemala:
“I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Guatemala for having invited me and for having done everything possible to facilitate my visit. Guatemala’s openness and cooperation in relation to the role of the international community has been exemplary. I have been especially impressed by the clear commitment of the President to ensuring respect for human rights.
“Guatemala has achieved an enormous amount in the past ten years. The transformation of its institutions and the move from civil war to civil democracy is a singular achievement. The Republic stands today, however, at a crossroads of the utmost importance. The human rights challenge ahead is almost as daunting as that which lies behind it.
“The facts are well known. There are now more killings per day than there were during the dark days of the civil conflict. The killing of women, the execution of selected individuals by elements within the police and military, gang and crime-related killings, social cleansing, and other acts of random violence have created a widespread sense of insecurity among the population. Official estimates of 5,000 or more extrajudicial executions per year certainly understate the real death toll. And the death toll is only the beginning of the cost, for a society that lives in fear of killing is unable to get on with its life and business in the ways that it wants. The rich can protect themselves, up to a point, but the rest of the society lives with the fear that a random killing could affect them or their loved ones at any moment. In this respect my findings will come as no surprise to anyone in Guatemala.
“The crucial issue confronting all those who care about the future of Guatemala is how to respond to this insecurity. Much of the public debate, and many of the suggestions made by international mechanisms, focus on institutional reform. A new institution is needed here, a reform is needed there, and more money and expertise are needed somewhere else. There is an underlying assumption that a magic wand can somehow be found which will cure the cancer of widespread extrajudicial executions. I do not wish to underestimate the importance of institutional reform and I will make a handful of recommendations of my own. But I want to suggest that this cannot be the starting point.
“The real answer lies in an accurate diagnosis and in deciding what kind of society the people of Guatemala really want for themselves. The universally agreed challenge is to end impunity – the fact that those who kill can get away with it and have no reason not to continue and even escalate their murderous ways.
“Impunity is facilitated in important ways by a lack of statistical information and a shortage of in-depth systematic analysis of the problems. The consequence of this lack of information is that the void is filled by anecdotal, sometimes distorted, and often inaccurate accounts of what is going on. The tendency to attribute the great majority of the social ills to the maras, or alternatively to organized crime, is systematic.
“In essence, the society has two options. The first, which seems to enjoy considerable support is to use a mano dura or a velvet fist in order to crack down on undesirable elements. This solution ignores the fact that many of the executions that are taking place are committed by exactly those actors which would be further empowered by any such approach. It also overlooks the fact that the rhetoric bears an almost uncanny resemblance to that of the ‘national security’ doctrine which was implemented in many Latin American states in the 1970s and early 80s and brought unqualified disaster.
“The second option is one reflected in the Peace Accords and which is based upon the development of a working justice system aimed at ensuring the rule of law. Almost all of the formal rhetoric of the political parties endorses this approach. The tragic reality, however, is that almost every component part of such a system is either radically under-funded or dysfunctional or both. The Congress bears an enormous responsibility for this state of affairs but so too does civil society and especially the private sector”.24 August 2006