GENEVA/ WASHINGTON D.C. (1 July 2021) – Guatemala’s controversial new law targeting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) violates international human rights standards and could criminalize human rights defenders and civil society in general, UN and Organization of American States (OAS) experts* said today.
“The changes introduced by this law risk choking the vital work of civil society,” the experts said. “We are particularly alarmed at provisions that give the Government wide scope to control NGOs, monitor their funding and in some circumstances even dissolve them.
“These provisions open the door to arbitrary limits on NGOs’ activities, and could potentially be used to criminalise human rights defenders and civil society in general.”
The law, first introduced in February 2020, came into effect on 21 June 2021 after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court struck down challenges to it.
According to the experts, the changes to the law are inconsistent with international human rights norms and standards, particularly the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of expression, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.
Under the new law, the executive branch of the State gains wide discretionary powers to dissolve NGOs if their activities might “alter the public order,” and to prosecute their directors.
“This is just the latest step in the erosion of civic space and the rule of law in the country, and has the potential to reverse the legal advances made regarding freedom of expression. It comes against a backdrop of increasing attacks and stigmatizing statements against civil society organizations, human rights defenders and journalists,” the experts said.
“We remind Guatemalan authorities of the invaluable role that civil society organizations, human rights defenders and journalists play in a democratic society, and of their duty to create the conditions for them to freely exercise their work,” they said.
“We urge authorities to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of expression, given the fundamental and instrumental role they play in democracies, and to refrain from using the NGO Law to restrict democratic space and limit the work of civil society and human rights defenders,” the experts concluded.
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.