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Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the end of his mission to Guatemala


19 November, 2017

I would like to thank the Guatemalan Government and people for the opportunity to visit their amazing, diverse country. I appreciate the continued support for the UN Human Rights Office in Guatemala, which has been in the country since 2005, including the recent renewal of the Office’s mandate. I am also grateful to the Government for its readiness to engage with all the UN and regional human rights mechanisms.

During my visit, I was able to meet senior figures from the three branches of government, including President Jimmy Morales, the President of Congress, members of the Constitutional Court, the head of the Presidential Human Rights Coordinating Commission, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice and also the Ombudsman. In addition, I had meetings with civil society representatives, indigenous leaders and communities, including women, as well as businesspeople, judges, journalists, victims and other UN agencies.

I was deeply moved when I met a mother of one of the victims of a fire that broke out in March at a government-run children’s centre, the Virgin de la Asuncion Safe Home, or Hogar Seguro. This horrific fire killed 41 girls and injured 11 others, as they were locked in a classroom and unable to escape. The mother told me that she had received no response, no visit, not even a phone call, from the authorities, just a coffin to bury her 14-year-old daughter. The apparent abandonment of the Hogar Seguro victims and their families by the Government and the lack of psychological, economic, and legal support for them are deeply concerning.

This tragedy also encapsulates what many said to me during this visit – that there are two realities in Guatemala. For a small minority, Guatemala is a functioning, modern country where economic and political power is concentrated; for the rest of the population, in particular for women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants and persons with disabilities, it is a country in which they have faced a lifetime of discrimination, marginalization, and the pernicious effects of corruption and impunity.

The statistics reflect this sobering reality – some 60% of the Guatemalan population live in absolute poverty, 23% in extreme poverty; 46.5% of children under five suffer chronic malnutrition, affecting not only their physical health but their life chances; more than 20% of the population does not know how to read or write, and among indigenous women this figure rises to 43%. The State only allocates 3.15% of its GDP to the health sector, in a country where chronic diseases are on the rise, including HIV infections, which have increased 167% since 2010.

These stark – and often shocking - figures suggest that the Government’s commitment to realizing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, as highlighted by the President in my meeting with him, faces major challenges, and will not happen without massive investment, particularly in communities long ignored or abandoned by the State.

In 2012, when my predecessor, Navi Pillay, visited Guatemala, she noted that the country was at a crossroads – facing the choice between forging ahead with the necessary reforms to create a modern democratic state, based on the rule of law and guided by human rights principles, or remaining with the old unjust system where the few profit at the expense of the majority.

Five years on, I found Guatemala stalled at that crossroads but the stakes are even higher. The wrong choices now risk setting the country back years and the transformation begun by Guatemala’s impressive, vibrant civil society could be halted.

This is why the appointment of the next Attorney General in May 2018 is so important. The current Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, has pursued high-profile cases related to the abuses and violations committed during the country’s long civil war. Her office has also, in collaboration with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) led by Ivan Velasquez, unveiled criminal and corruption networks involving officials within all three branches of the State, as well as businesspeople. Their work has been crucial to advance investigations and prosecutions of high-profile cases of corruption.

Given this, it is essential that the selection process for the next Attorney General is transparent. Yet this alone is not enough. The candidates’ proven record should be taken fully into account as part of efforts to guarantee the independence of the Attorney General’s Office and I will follow developments regarding this closely in the coming months.

My Office and I would also like to express our full support to the Human Rights Ombudsman, whose role is crucial to guaranteeing the defence, protection and promotion of human rights and the constitutional rule of law.

On Sunday, I was in the city of Solola some 140 kilometres from Guatemala City for a public meeting with Maya, Xinca and Garifuna authorities, indigenous organizations, including indigenous women’s and  youth organizations, from across the country. I had an amazing and moving reception, and public expressions I heard from them were filled with pain, frustration and anger at the continued discrimination and exclusion.

In this event, representatives stressed how they are not opposed to development but against those who exploit their land under the pretext of development.

In this context, they asserted strongly that their free, prior and informed consent was often not sought by the authorities or businesses, nor given.

I urge the Guatemalan State to guarantee the full enjoyment of the rights of indigenous peoples, and uphold its obligation to ensure they are fully consulted and able to participate in any decision affecting them. In this context, I am concerned at the discussion of a draft law on the consultation with indigenous peoples which does not comply with international human rights standards, and which is not supported by Guatemala’s indigenous communities.

I am also extremely concerned that forced evictions of indigenous people, not in compliance with human rights standards, have led to multiple further violations of rights. Women and children are often the most exposed when security forces, be they public or private, move in to clear them away from their homes. For some communities, it is a bitter repetition of the evictions and internal displacement they suffered during the armed conflict. 

In my meetings with different groups from the private sector, I called on them to take the necessary measures to ensure that activities related to the exploitation of natural resources do not negatively affect human and environmental rights, and that they exercise due diligence in all their actions, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business. In my meetings with businesspeople, it was encouraging to hear that one group in particular is emerging as an advocate for human rights for all Guatemalans.

I was concerned to learn that judges in a number of high-profile cases are facing threats, smear campaigns and harassment. The State has a duty to protect its judges and ensure they are able to do their job. If there is to be full realisation of human rights for all Guatemalans, judges have to be able to work free from undue pressure – and my Office will continue to monitor this carefully.

Likewise, we are monitoring reports of attacks on journalists – attacks which I find very troubling. I was able to meet a group of journalists, many of whom have investigated corruption cases, particularly at the local level. They informed me in detail about the threats they have faced, including on social media.

I am also deeply concerned at how violence affects Guatemalan society, visible not only in the high number of violent deaths affecting young people in particular, but in the entrenched sexual and gender-based violence committed against women and girls. It is the State’s obligation to act to prevent and prosecute violent crimes.

During my visit, I launched the Free and Equal Campaign in Guatemala to raise awareness across the country of the need to defend the rights of LGBTI persons.

I was very encouraged how, over the course of the last two years, social movements bringing together many sectors of Guatemalan society have emerged to stand up to corruption and impunity, past and present.

While Guatemala faces many profound problems, these social movements give hope that the country can surmount its many challenges. My Office and I fully support the Guatemalan people in their efforts as they work to transform their society. I urge the Government, for its part, to meet its human rights obligations, work with all groups and peoples, and play its essential role in making non-discrimination and equality a reality for all Guatemalans.


In Geneva: Liz Throssell +41 22 917 9466 / +41 79 752 0488 / ethrossell@ohchr.org
In Guatemala: Estela Morales (502) 5632-2261 / emorales@ohchr.org

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