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Guatemala: Rise in attacks on human rights defenders is deeply concerning – say UN experts


09 August 2018


GENEVA (9 August 2018) - UN human rights experts* have raised alarm over the increase in killings, attacks and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders in Guatemala, amid restrictive legislative and political attempts to curtail their work.

Between 9 May and 27 July 2018, 11 defenders** who were working to protect various indigenous communities’ rights in the context of safe and healthy environment, including access to land and to basic services, were killed. These defenders, the majority indigenous, sought to protect their communities from development and business-related human rights abuses***. The attacks were of an unusually violent nature- four suffered fatal cuts by bladed weapons, including cuts to their ears and throat.

“We are concerned that the frequency and severity of these attacks could have ripple effects throughout the population, sending a message that there are dangerous consequences for defending human rights, especially given that these crimes often go unpunished”, the UN experts said.

“In Guatemala, there is a broader environment of stigmatization of human rights defenders, including on social media, which undermines the legitimacy of their work, and could provoke attacks against them”, stressed the experts.

“Human rights defenders have also been subjected to poorly founded criminal accusations and legal processes in which their due process guarantees are not always ensured - acts that are carried out directly by State agents and have the effect of disrupting and sanctioning of the work of human rights defenders”, noted the experts.

The recent closing of space for dialogue to discuss the protection of human rights defenders with government and civil society could also contribute to their heightened situations of insecurity.

“It is important for the State to meet with civil society organizations to listen to their concerns with the aim of re-establishing civic space and strengthening protection measures for human rights defenders”, said the UN experts. 

“Further, the wave of attacks is taking place amid what appears to be an attempt to tighten legislative restrictions on civil society. In recent months, Congress has been considering draft bills in key areas*** that could restrict the work of civil society and stymie the promotion and defence of human rights, and the fight against corruption and impunity”, the UN experts said.

They called on the Guatemalan authorities to investigate the killings and attacks in an objective, transparent and independent manner and bring those responsible to justice. “It is fundamental that due examination be given to the role of the potential masterminds of such attacks, including those whose interests may be affected by the work of human rights defenders”, said the UN experts.

“We further urge the Guatemalan authorities to publically recognize the important work of human rights defenders, which is an essential factor for their protection, and call upon the State to prevent harm against them and refrain from measures that restrict their work. Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional lands and resources and to participate in decisions regarding its use and development, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” the UN experts said. 

They also called on companies to consult with and engage collaboratively with defenders - treating them as key partners in ensuring that business activities respect the rights and dignity of people who are impacted by their operations, as set forth by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The experts have been in contact with the Government of Guatemala regarding the issues highlighted.


* The experts: Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Clément Nyaletsossi Voulé, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; John H. Knox, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; The Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises: Mr. Surya Deva, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce and Ms. Anita Ramasastry.

** Human rights defenders killed:  Mr. Luis Arturo Marroquín Gómez, Mr. Alejandro Hernández García, Mr. Florencio Nájera, Mr. Francisco Munguía, Mr. José Can Xol, Mr. Mateo Chamán Pauu, Mr. Ramón Choc Sacrab y Mr. Luis Armando Maldonado; Ms. Juana Raymundo; Mr. Angel Estuardo Quevado and Mr. Adolofo Chon Pacay.

*** The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, upon concluding her official visit to Guatemala on May 10, 2018, indicated her serious concern about the murders of indigenous leaders that occurred during her visit and about the attacks, intimidation and Abuse of criminal proceedings against indigenous people defending their lands and resources. The official report of the country visit of the Special Rapporteur will be presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.

**** Law no. 5257 provides for the approval of reforms to Decree No. 02-2003 of the Congress on the Law of Non-Governmental Organizations for Development; Bill no. 5266 to reform the Criminal Code of Guatemala (Decree 17-73 of the Congress of the Republic), as well as the Bill no. 5239 against terrorist acts; and Bill no. 5416, to regulate a consultation procedure for indigenous peoples.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Guatemala

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Marion Mondain (+41 (0) 22 91 79 540 / [email protected])

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This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: