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Towards an in-depth justice reform in Guatemala

29 July 2016

One year after Guatemala was rocked by mass protests demanding the end to deep-rooted impunity and corruption, the country has embarked upon an unprecedented and comprehensive reform of the justice system.

The National dialogue towards justice reform in Guatemala, launched last April, seeks to promote the discussion, approval and implementation of specific reforms of the Constitution and ordinary laws, in order to guarantee judicial independence, access to justice and institutional strengthening. These reforms would ultimately contribute to the fight against impunity and corruption in the country.

All three branches of the State have agreed to promote the reforms with the support of a Technical Secretariat, comprised of the Office of the Attorney General, the Human Rights Ombudsman and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), with the support of the UN Human Rights Office and the Office of the Resident Coordinator.

“For the first time, the presidents of the three branches of the State presented a proposal to reform the justice sector,” said Jimmy Morales, President of Guatemala, during the launching of the national dialogue. “This proposal will represent a consensus and unity of criteria, but above all, the will and political maturity of Guatemala to foster significant changes for the benefit of society,” he added.

In his speech during the opening of the last session of the Human Rights Council in June, High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, welcomed the launch of the national dialogue. “I hope this will be a decisive turning point in the fight against impunity and corruption and that it will result in a comprehensive reform to guarantee a fully independent and effective judiciary,” he said. 

“Strengthening the judicial framework is essential to guarantee an impartial and transparent justice system, as recommended by the High Commissioner in his annual reports on Guatemala,” said Alberto Brunori, Representative of OHCHR in Guatemala. “OHCHR will continue providing technical assistance to the State in this process to harmonize the proposed reforms with international human rights standards,” he concluded.

Areas of reform

The proposal of reforms include, among others, amendments to the selection process of magistrates, judges and the general prosecutor; the separation of administrative and jurisdictional functions within the Supreme Court of Justice; strengthening the career system of the judiciary;  the scope of impeachment; changes to the conformation of the Constitutional Court; and the implementation of free legal aid.

The expressed recognition of indigenous jurisdiction is another key component of the reforms. This would allow indigenous authorities to apply justice in accordance with their norms, proceedings, uses and traditions, in harmony with the rights protected by the Constitution and the international human rights instruments. This is especially relevant in a country where indigenous peoples constitute 60% of the population, and often face obstacles in accessing the official justice system.

“If approved, this reform would represent a milestone in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, in line with the State’s obligations under ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples,” Brunori said. 

In order to promote the right to participation, information and consultation with indigenous peoples, the UN Human Rights Office serves as a liaison point between the authorities and representatives of the indigenous communities. The Office has undertaken meetings with indigenous authorities to inform them of the proposed reforms and foster their participation in the national dialogue.

The process

The National Dialogue has been organized into three phases: regional dialogues, working groups, and consideration by Congress. During the first phase, discussion groups were organized in eight departments of the country to analyze and debate the proposed constitutional reform through a wide and participative process that included academics, indigenous authorities, State institutions, social organizations, the private sector, and youth and women organizations, among others. Over 3,200 people took part in these discussion groups, and 246 written proposals of reforms were received. 

The second phase currently being implemented involves weekly working group meetings among the different sectors of society to discuss the proposals, with the objective of reaching consensus for each of the proposed reforms. The results of these discussions will be compiled in a final proposal, which is expected to be released in September 2016.

The third phase will involve the final proposal for the constitutional reform being considered and agreed to by the three branches of the State, with the endorsement of civil society. This will then be voted first by the Congress and then in a popular referendum.  

CICIG’s Commissioner, Mr. Iván Velásquez, stressed that the fight against impunity and corruption will not be sustainable without the reforms proposed in the national dialogue.  “We must advance on the premise that the constitutional reform in matters of justice is possible and in terms that substantially benefit all Guatemalans,” he said. 

Approval of the reforms would represent a long-waited answer to the demands for justice and transparency raised by Guatemalans, not only during last year’s mass demonstrations, but also from the peace agreements, signed two decades ago.

29 July 2016