No. 30/02






The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) concluded today a visit to the Republic of Guatemala, which took place from July 23 to 26, 2002.  The purpose of the visit was that of assessing the situation of human rights defenders in Guatemala.


The IACHR is a principal organ of the Organization of American States, composed of seven members elected in their personal capacity by the OAS General Assembly.  The Commission’s mandate is to promote the observance of human rights in the Hemisphere according to parameters established in the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Guatemala has been party since 1978.  The delegation included Mrs. Susana Villarán, Commissioner and Rapporteur for Guatemala; Dr. Santiago A. Canton, Executive Secretary; Mrs. María Claudia Pulido, attorney for the Commission in charge of Guatemalan affairs; and Mrs. Andrea Galindo, attorney for the Commission and member of the Unit for Human Rights Defenders.


During its visit, the IACHR delegation met with the President of the Republic, Dr. Alfonso Portillo; the Vice President of the Republic, Dr. Francisco Reyes; and other members of the Security Cabinet; the President of the Supreme Court, Dr. Carlos Alfonso Álvarez Lobos; the Human Rights Ombudsman, Dr. Julio Arango Escobar; the elected Human Rights Ombudsman, Dr. Sergio Morales; the Attorney General of the Nation, Dr. Carlos David de León Argueta; and the Special Prosecutor on Human Rights Defenders, Dr. Tatiana Morales.


Likewise, the delegation met with members of the National Human Rights Movement, with organizations working for the rights of women and children, with forensic anthropologists, with representatives of social organizations belonging to peasant and union movements, and with members of the Mayan Consultative Commission.  The IACHR delegation also participated in the Second Regional Consultation on Human Rights Defenders and the National Workshop on Human Rights Defenders.


The Commission is grateful for the cooperation and the facilities extended by the Government of Guatemala during the visit, as well as the information provided by Government officials, human rights organizations, and social movements.


The situation of the human rights defenders is one of the main concerns of the IACHR.  The Unit for Human Rights Defenders was created in December 2001, for the purpose of strengthening the mechanisms provided by the inter-American system to protect human rights defenders in the region.  Further, in OAS General Assembly resolutions AG/RES. 1818 (XXXI-O/01) and AG/RES. 1842 (XXXII-O/02), the governments of the Hemisphere expressed their concern over the situation of the defenders and asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to “continue to pay due attention to the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas and to consider preparing a comprehensive study on the matter.”


The Commission wishes to underscore the original Government of Guatemala with regard to various cases and precautionary measures pending before the Commission. As a result of friendly settlement procedures, progress has also been made in dealing with victims of armed conflict and the inter-American system has been strengthened.


As part of the collaboration that exists between the Government of Guatemala and the IACHR and for the purpose of contributing to a better protection of the fundamental rights of Guatemalan citizens, the Commission, in accordance with General Assembly resolutions and with the functions and powers under Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights, wishes to bring to public attention the following preliminary observations.


First, the Commission highlights the importance of the democratic system and the observance of the rule of law for the effective protection of human rights. In a democratic society, rights and freedoms inherent to the individual, his guarantees, and the rule of law make up a triad, each component of which is defined, completed, and interpreted in terms of the others.


Democracy and the rule of law are prerequisites for achieving the enjoyment and observance of human rights in a society.  One of the main threats to the observance of the rule of law is impunity. In its reports on Guatemala, the Commission has repeatedly drawn attention to the existence of a structural impunity in the country’s justice system, which seriously affects the presence of the rule of law.  During this visit, the Commission has found that no significant progress has been made in the investigation and punishment of those responsible for human rights violations.  This constitutes one of the most important reasons for the persistence of impunity in Guatemalan society.


The Commission urges the State to give priority attention and demonstrate the political will to overcome the situation of impunity, and to that end it considers that it is vitally important to strengthen mechanisms for investigation.  In this regard, human and material resources must be given to the Human Rights Ombudsmen, the Attorney General, and especially the recently established Special Prosecutor on Human Rights.  The fact that these three officials assumed their posts less than two months ago or are about to assume them is an opportunity that should be seized immediately in order to initiate a process aimed at bringing to an end the impunity that now exists.


In particular, the Commission wishes to express its deepest concern over the significant increase in systematic attacks that, directly or indirectly, obstruct or interfere with the work of human rights defenders.  In recent months, the Commission received considerable information demonstrating a pattern of intimidation against human rights defenders.  Indeed, during this visit, the Commission was informed of more than 100 recorded attacks and acts of intimidation against legal defenders, individuals that work for the justice system, witnesses, and social leaders in 2002.  Among those attacks were illicit searches of the offices of human rights organizations, the theft of equipment and information, death threats made by telephone and in writing, physical assault, the surveillance of individuals, kidnappings, and in some cases murder.  According to the information received by the Commission, none of the perpetrators of these attacks has been brought to justice yet.


Moreover, the Commission expresses its deep concern over the reorganization of groups of former members of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC) and the existence of clandestine structures linked to the State or to economic or other types of interest, who operate with the participation or tolerance of State agents.


One of the crucial commitments of the Global Human Rights Accord is that the State should combat any sign of illegal security forces or parallel power structures and should have greater control over the possession and use of firearms.  The monopoly of power must be exclusively in the hands of those with a constitutional mandate, and responsible officials must apply due diligence in investigating, prosecuting, and punishing the members of so-called “clandestine groups.”


The Commission expresses its concern over the lack of dialogue between the Government and civil society organizations, in particular human rights defenders. After 36 years of armed conflict, which took a toll on hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, society is fully aware of the grave consequences of polarization and the lack of dialogue. The Commission urges all sectors to put aside existing distrust and to initiate dialogue making it possible to find concrete solutions to the problems affecting not only the most vulnerable sectors but also the society as a whole.


Impunity, the weakness of monitoring bodies, the mobilization of the PACs, the existence of clandestine groups, and in particular cases of intimidation against human rights defenders reflect a disturbing deterioration of conditions conducive to the defense of human rights, which seriously affects Guatemalan society.


In conclusion, the Commission wishes to note that human rights defenders have a key role to play in the process leading to the full attainment of the rule of law.  The action of the defenders, through the defense of individuals and groups who are victims of human rights violations, public disclosure of injustices affecting large sectors of society, and the necessary control they exercise on public officials and democratic institutions, among other activities, makes them an indispensable building block in the construction of a strong and lasting democratic society.


When human rights defenders are silenced by intimidation and fear, thousands of people are deprived of the opportunity to find answers to the violations and injustices besetting vast sectors of society.  The Commission would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the human right defenders who are working tirelessly and selflessly to bring about a more equitable society.


The Commission will continue to monitor very closely the situation of human rights defenders and will prepare a report that it will issue in due course.  The visit ending today is the best possible opportunity to achieve this objective and to intensify the dialogue that, within its sphere of competence, the Commission maintains with Guatemalan officials and society.  The Commission reiterates its offer to cooperate in helping to strengthen the defense and protection of human rights in a legal, democratic context.




Guatemala, July 26, 2002