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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

A critical period in Guatemala's history - Navi Pillay Press conference by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 15 march 2012

Pillay in Guatemala

15 March 2012

Thank you all very much for attending this press conference. It has been a great pleasure to visit Guatemala at this critical period in its history. Some important strides have been made in the fight against impunity and in many reforms targeted at improving human rights promotion and protection for all Guatemalans – but tremendous challenges remain.

Guatemala must decide whether it wants to break with the past and transform itself into a modern State firmly based upon democracy, human rights and the rule of law, or if it wants more of the same old broken system which has only benefitted a few. I have seen encouraging signs that it is making the right choice, and hope here to highlight some of the key outstanding issues.

Most importantly, the critical situation in Guatemala today, 15 years after the Peace Accords were signed, stems directly from the fact that these Accords have not been complied with and the structural problems remain unresolved.  I want to emphasize that these Accords are still valid, and contain the agenda which Guatemala needs to follow to achieve lasting peace, development and reconciliation within a framework of the rule of law and respect for the rights of all Guatemalans.  I have met with President Otto Perez Molina and he has reaffirmed his commitment to implement the Accords. I very much hope, for the sake of all Guatemalans, that this promise is fulfilled.  

During my visit I also held meetings with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Interior and Defence as well as with the President and Vice-President of Congress and the Chairmen of the commissions on human rights and constitutional affairs. I also held discussions with the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, the Secretary for Peace and the Head of the National Reparations Programme.

I met the Attorney General, the President of the Supreme Court and the President and members of the Constitutional Court, the International Commissioner against Impunity in Guatemala, and representatives of the UN Country team and the diplomatic corps. And, importantly, I met on various occasions with civil society, indigenous authorities and leaders and representatives of the private sector.

I wish to thank the Government for their hospitality and for their open and frank dialogue. I also wish to thank each and every one of those, in the State and civil society alike, who generously gave me their time and effort so that I would better understand this wonderful and complex country. I wish to thank the Ancestral Authorities of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapan for their warm welcome and to the Attorney General for the organization of a very important event on impunity. A special thank you to Oliviero Toscani for the most beautiful photos reflecting the richness of this country’s diversity, including indigenous, white, Asian and Afro-descendant populations.

During my time here, I have talked with many people and listened to their stories - stories of abuse and violations but also of perseverance and optimism, of hopes and dreams. My Office in Guatemala just last week presented my annual report containing a detailed analysis of the human rights situation in the country, so I won’t repeat that analysis here. I will concentrate on some of my main conclusions as I approach the end of my visit to Guatemala.  

As I mentioned earlier, I have seen many encouraging signs concerning the direction Guatemala is taking forward to address staggering impunity: I commend Guatemala’s ratification of the Rome Statute, which sends a clear message that impunity for serious crimes - past, present or future - will not be tolerated. It is also heartening that in the past two years, for the first time, cases of past human rights violations have been brought to justice, such as the convictions for the Dos Erres massacre, and ongoing prosecutions on genocide charges in the Ixil region, including the indictment of a former de facto president. I must stress that this has only been possible because of the relentless efforts of the families of victims, civil society organizations, and the strong leadership and commitment of the Attorney-General. Important coordination between the Public Ministry, the judiciary, the Ministry of the Interior and the Police, with support from CICIG, has also contributed to this success.

I visited La Verbena cemetery on Tuesday, and I was touched at being able to see first-hand the enormous efforts to search for the disappeared, and to restore identity and dignity to those buried as “XX.” They also had their hopes and dreams, and they must not be forgotten.

Despite successes, urgent substantive reforms are pending in Congress to enable the justice system to overcome structural obstacles and become truly independent, impartial, and accessible to all. This is no easy task, but it is possible – it only requires sufficient political will to become reality.

I also welcome recent successes in the fight against organized crime. When past crimes are left unpunished, impunity encourages further crimes, from grave human rights violations to other illegal activities. Efforts to fight past impunity will bear fruit in improving the current and future security and stability of Guatemala – but the challenges are immense.

Insecurity and violence
Insecurity, violence and crime are key concerns for all Guatemalans these days. There are more violent deaths in the country annually nowadays than there were during the civil war, and we are seeing high levels of homicide and violence against women.

While I unequivocally condemn the brutal actions and methods used by organized criminal syndicates, I must stress that this is not an excuse for the State to operate outside the rule of law. Fighting breaches of law and order by neglecting the rule of law is certainly not a sustainable, advisable or logical approach.

To fight insecurity, violence and crime, we must first look at their root causes, and then adopt a comprehensive strategy, encompassing prevention of violence, control and sanction, rehabilitation and protection of groups at risk, firmly based on the human rights of everyone. I reiterate that in order to be successful, security policies need to be focused on preventive measures, and tend to the needs of those groups most vulnerable to both becoming victims and falling prey to crime, especially the youth. Repressive measures often increase the risk of stigmatization, and can inadvertently end up criminalizing legal activities and the exercise of civil liberties. I trust that the recently approved fiscal reform will provide adequate resources and effective measures to combat crime and violence as well as inequality, social exclusion and poverty and hunger, especially addressing the situation the youth are facing.  

The issue of insecurity is complex and multidimensional. In addition to what I have mentioned, there is a need to reform and strengthen the Civilian Police, and enact effective arms control and oversight of private security companies. I stress here that the State cannot outsource its obligation to guarantee the security of all its people without discrimination. It is imperative to prioritise the reform of the police to ensure the establishment of a professional and adequately resourced civilian police force.

I am also concerned about reports of an increased use of the military in law-enforcement functions. I wish to stress that any participation by the military must be in a police support capacity and without diverting resources from the police; under clear pre-established protocols, limited in time and scope; and subject to civilian direction and control, in order to ensure accountability. I welcome the reassurance by the President that any participation of the military in law-enforcement functions is indeed temporary.

Indigenous peoples
Another main challenge in Guatemala continues to be how to overcome racism and structural discrimination. Everywhere I went, I was made aware of increased divisions, and I see possibilities for dialogue and rapprochement growing fainter and fainter as time goes by.

Although indigenous peoples constitute the majority of the population, they continue to be subject to exclusion and denial of their human rights. During my meeting with indigenous ancestral authorities in Totonicapan last Tuesday, I was struck by the unanimous voices describing exclusion in all spheres, including access to basic services, land ownership, access to justice, participation in public decision-making processes and bodies, as well as the criminalization of indigenous leaders who are using their right to dissent.

Right to consultation
I am particularly concerned at the impact of economic investment projects on the rights of indigenous peoples. Guatemala was a key promoter of  the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, and one of its first signatories. The Declaration underscores that indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, but indigenous representatives tell me that this is not happening. The Declaration establishes that “States shall consult with indigenous peoples with a view to obtain free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands, territories and resources”. I have met with private sector representatives, who expressed their concern about consultations.  My answer to them was the need to apply the specific provisions contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  

Although the Constitution grants general protection for indigenous peoples’ lands and territories, there are no laws that recognize the traditional practices of land tenure, possession and collective ownership by indigenous communities. I wish to highlight the need for the State to conduct an extensive revision of existing laws and policies related to indigenous lands, mining and environment, in particular the reform of the Mining Law, in line with international standards, so as to avoid the escalating number of evictions the office has documented.

As my office has observed in Alta Verapaz and El Petén, in a context of legal insecurity of land tenure, forced evictions have constituted a multiple violation of rights, including the right to life, personal integrity, food and adequate housing. I have urged the authorities to follow the example of the Attorney General to establish a protocol in order to prevent abuses and guarantee the right to defense and due process.

Human Rights Defenders
In Totonicapan I also heard of legal proceedings against individuals protesting legitimately in defence of their rights. I would like to underscore the substantive role that human rights defenders play in Guatemala – indeed, I met with civil society and learned of the daily difficulties defenders face in working on issues of justice and impunity, security, migrants, economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights, the rights of people with disabilities and LGBTI rights. I have urged the Government to publicly recognize their contribution to justice and democracy as well as to adopt and implement an effective protection mechanism for those who are at risk or face threats, attacks, intimidation and criminalization for their human rights work. I have also encouraged the Government to make use of civil society’s knowledge, commitment and expertise to develop policies in a wide variety of sectors.  

Human Rights Ombudsman
I understand that Congress will soon elect a new human rights Ombudsman. During my meeting with Congress I was told of the election procedures of this key institution. I want to reiterate the importance of this selection process and I hope that it will be done based on the principles of transparency, objectivity, publicity and participation. I exhort civil society -including the media - to actively monitor the selection process in order to enssure compliance with the principles I mentioned before. My office will observe closely this process.  

The new Government has stated its willingness to address all these human rights issues and concerns and I welcome their commitment.

To end, I must stress again that a clear, well-thought-out agenda, agreed with the participation of all sectors of Guatemalan society, to overcome the most pressing human rights issues has been pending for 15 years: it is contained in the Peace Accords. Today the President briefed me on the three covenants he wants to enact to advance their implementation – on peace, justice and security; zero hunger and fiscal reform. My office, as well as the United Nations System, stands ready to contribute to these endeavours, and will closely follow all developments, to ensure the full enjoyment of all rights of all Guatemalans.


For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Guatemala:
Estela Morales: (502) 5632-2261 / [email protected] 
In Geneva:
Rupert Colville: +41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]
Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9310 / [email protected] 

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