This situation of instability and uncertainty in this area has severely impacted processes of defending human rights in the country, with increased risks for the people who defend them, especially those working on issues of land and territory.
According to the EPU Coalition of Guatemala: All of the acts of violence and intolerance we are currently experiencing continue to be the result of the reassertion of the sectors that hold power, with a resurgence and reconstitution of the forces acting against the people of Guatemala. This means that any one opposing this resurgence of power and its institutionalization is seen as the internal enemy. The intolerance expressed by certain government officials is clear evidence of the systematic strategy to attack human rights defenders and anyone who denounces the abuses of the current administration, the corruption, the impunity, the privileges, the lack of separation of powers and the appropriation of the State.
Between January and September of 2018, the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA) recorded 302 attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala. UDEFEGUA says these statistics confirm a resurgence of attacks on defenders that started in 2017, when the government introduced a series of restrictive and regressive measures related to human rights, which were noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a visit in November 2017.
Confirming the trend of the past few years, almost half of all attacks reported by UDEFEGUA in the first half of 2018 have been cases of criminalization (defamation, prosecution, arbitrary and illegal detention). According to UDEFEGUA, criminalization has increased with no effective actions taken by the courts or the public prosecutor’s office to prevent or stop it. In the courts, judges have only taken actions that prolong the proceedings, order pre-trial detention – even when the charges do not warrant this – and extend the time the human rights defender spends in jail.
There has also been a rise in the number of murders, 22 until September of 2018, with 16 of them occurring from May on. The human rights defenders who are most often targeted in these cases, according to UDEFEGUA’s records, continue to be those defending land, territory and natural resources and the collective rights of indigenous peoples. PBI issued an Alert in May 2018 on this issue, with updates in June and October.
Finally, UDEFEGUA points out that a quarter of the attacks were against human rights defenders playing an important role in transforming attitudes about their own diverse realities. In addition to the men, women human rights defenders are frequently targeted by smear campaigns and efforts to stigmatize them. This also involves the filing of unfounded legal complaints, as well as illegal and arbitrary detention. This situation creates an extra burden for women in most cases, because they have the additional responsibilities of supporting and caring for the family, the organization and the community.
Regarding the role of the State, in May 2018 the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) approved a Protocol for the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders, which, according to UDEFEGUA and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), recognizes the important role that defenders play in strengthening democracy and the rule of law. The protocol establishes the obligation to consider in the investigation whether the objective of an attack on defenders is to hinder their work, and to assess the setting in which the victim works. Likewise, it establishes specific parameters of investigation according to the type of defender, for example, considering gender diversity, sexual orientation, inter-culturalism, among others; and incorporates comprehensive standards of reparation and an evaluation of the law.
Even acknowledging the positive aspects of the aforementioned initiative, overall the Guatemalan government continues to play a weak role in protecting human rights defenders. According to UDEFEGUA, although the creation of the Office for the Analysis of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders has been approved by a Ministerial Resolution, there have been a lot of irregularities to the point of altering its very purpose. For the past year, the Office has treated the police as officers of the court and therefore aggrieved parties, and now is including mayors. The number of cases involving aggrieved police officers far exceeds that of human rights defenders, which distracts from attention to the latter, except when intense political pressure exerted. In addition, the Court will no longer be accepting complaints or calls for help via the instant messaging service Whatsapp, and any request for investigative or security measures must be made with an official letter to the Minister of the Interior. This not only restricts the possibility of taking action in high-risk cases but also establishes controls over the investigative process.
The government’s Public Policy for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, was developed by the Ministry of the Interior. In early 2018, the Ministry stressed the need to distinguish between human rights defenders and conflictive individuals. These remarks not only indicate a return to the stigmatization of human rights defenders but they also confirm the government’s policy of criminalizing human rights work. Although the design of this policy remains in flux, human rights defenders have lost confidence in the process.
The situation described above, along with the complicated socio-political scenario in the country, make it essential to continue the international presence and observation activities.