UN WebTV: Stacy Velásquez, Director of OTRANS, addresses UN Human Rights Council during the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review of Guatemala, July 2023.

Latin America & Caribbean

Guatemala at critical juncture, urged to re-engage meaningfully with UN rights bodies

The Guatemalan government rejects 40% of recommendations at crucial UN human rights review. Amidst a delicate electoral context, NGOs urge the government to cooperate in good faith with UN bodies and implement key recommendations to address attacks against human rights defenders, justice officials, and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, women, and LGBTIQ+ persons.

In January 2023, Guatemala underwent its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a human rights inter-governmental peer review process hosted under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council. The Guatemalan State received 207 recommendations, accepting 127 and rejecting 80 – marked as ‘noted’ in diplomatic jargon –, a striking rejection rate of 40%, in stark contrast with the expectations that governments engage in good faith in the UPR process.

Rejected recommendations overwhelmingly relate to issues on which UN experts have voiced serious concerns: judicial independence and attacks against justice officials, the protection of human rights defenders, a shrinking civic space and a ‘choking’ NGO law, LGBTI rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights and the decriminalisation of abortion, and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and to free, prior and informed consent.

Rights of LGBTIQ+ persons at risk

On 7 July 2023, the government defended its position during the Human Rights Council’s adoption of Guatemala’s UPR report. Ramiro Alejandro Contreras Escobar, Director of the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH), addressed some of the rejected recommendations, explaining that ‘their implementation is being discussed and does not enjoy national consensus’. Contreras asserted Guatemala’s Constitution ‘establishes the independence of the judiciary’, yet he did not address the documented harassment and persecution against judges and prosecutors. Both Contreras and the representative of Guatemala’s Ombudsman (Procuradoría de los Derechos Humanos) failed to address rejected recommendations on human rights defenders, LGBTI rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

Following the report’s adoption, Stacy Velásquez, director of Guatemalan trans rights organisation OTRANS, addressed the Human Rights Council on behalf of ISHR and Coalición EPU, an alliance of over 100 Guatemalan civil society organisations. See the full statement here in English and Spanish.

While welcoming Guatemala’s acceptance of three UPR recommendations from Chile, Norway and Australia to combat discrimination and violence against women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ persons, Velásquez deplored the rejection of recommendations to ban so-called ‘conversion therapies’ (Colombia), to guarantee transgender persons’ gender identity (Argentina, Iceland), and to establish a regulatory framework for LGBTIQ+ persons (Mexico, Spain).

Despite our efforts in Congress and the Constitutional Court, the government still has a democratic debt to trans women. Without the recognition of our gender identity, trans persons do not have democracy.
Stacy Velásquez, OTRANS Executive Director

Transgender persons in Guatemala face high levels of violence and intersecting forms of discrimination, fuelled by the absence of laws and policies to protect LGBTIQ+ individuals and to guarantee legal gender recognition based on self-identification. 

UN human rights treaty bodies have issued the Guatemalan State with similar recommendations related to the rights of transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual and intersex individuals. These recommendations have come from the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In October, CEDAW will review Guatemala’s actions to uphold the rights of women in all their diversity.

Over 3,500 attacks against human rights defenders in 2022

Over the past years, UN bodies and civil society have documented a generalised practice of criminalisation and harassment against human rights defenders, with some currently imprisoned or forced into exile. 

According to the Guatemalan human rights observatory Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (UDEFEGUA), the number of attacks against defenders in 2022 rose to more than 3,500, three times higher than those accounted for in 2020 and 2021, and seven times higher than in 2019. The lack of public policies to protect defenders and the issuance of restrictive laws have further fostered a hostile environment for the defence of human rights.

We deplore the Guatemalan government's rejection of nearly 70% of recommendations on human rights defenders, and nearly 90% of those related to the independence of the judiciary and attacks against judges, prosecutors and lawyers. This is not the behaviour of a government committed to combating impunity and safeguarding civil society space, but that of one seeking to dismantle it.
Raphael Viana David, Programme Manager (China and Latin America) at ISHR

In this context, ISHR endorsed joint statements delivered by Franciscans International and Dominicans for Justice and Peace, calling on Guatemala to reconsider rejected recommendations, meaningfully investigate and prosecute cases of harassment and criminalisation against human rights defenders, journalists and justice officials, and ratify the Escazú Agreement.

In January and March 2023, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk denounced the ‘persecution against justice officials’ combating impunity for human rights violations or working on anti-corruption cases, including against former members of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and members of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Türk also expressed his concern at ‘the increase of over 70% in the number of justice officials subjected to harassment and intimidation because of their work’ and the ‘54% increase last year in [cases of] harassment, intimidation and use or misuse of criminal procedures against human rights defenders, Indigenous Peoples, human rights organisations, media and journalists.’ 

To date, 37 Guatemalan justice officials have been forced into exile due to the persecution that they face, according to local human rights groups.

In his 19 June opening remarks to the Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Türk said he was ‘deeply concerned about attacks against members of the judiciary, human rights defenders and journalists’ in Guatemala. Similar concerns have been underscored by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Concrete change and substantive UN engagement urgently needed

The outcome of Guatemala’s UPR made evident that the country is at a dangerous juncture. Ever since the expulsion of the UN-backed CICIG court in 2019, the government’s dismantlement of the rule of law has fuelled a new cycle of abuses against justice officials, human rights defenders, journalists, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society at large. 

On 7 July, ISHR co-hosted a press conference with representatives of the Coalición EPU to discuss the outcomes of Guatemala’s UPR. Speakers highlighted the government’s lack of good faith engagement in UN reviews, regretting the lack of implementation of recommendations and commitments from one review to the other. 

At the Human Rights Council, the government did not talk about implementation and impact of public policies, but, instead, listed activities and institutions, some existing prior to Guatemala’s last UPR in 2017. Yet, we, Indigenous women, have not seen any change in our reality.
Juana Sales, representative of the Coalición EPU

The notable lack of attention by the international community, including the Human Rights Council, to the human rights situation in Guatemala has further enabled a rapid deterioration in the country. On 19 June, Türk called for the extension of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) presence on the ground and encouraged the country to swiftly accept visits by UN Special Procedures’ human rights experts. Since 2020, the government has refused to renew the OHCHR’s three-years presence agreement, extending it only on a yearly basis.

Though Guatemala’s Permanent Mission to the UN has been engaged on a range of thematic issues, we can only stress the widening gap between their stated commitments in Geneva and the situation on the ground. If the Guatemalan government wishes to remain credible, it will need to demonstrate significant, substantive re-engagement with UN rights bodies and follow these with concrete and effective changes at the national level.
Raphael Viana David, Programme Manager (China and Latin America) at ISHR

The government’s growing disengagement, coupled with the closure of civil society space and the dismantling of checks and balances clears the way for an entrenchment of grave human rights abuses.

In this context, ISHR calls on the Guatemalan government to: 

  • Promptly take meaningful steps to implement the recommendations of the High Commissioner’s September 2022 report on Guatemala and of the UN human rights treaty body reviews
  • Resume and strengthen meaningful cooperation with OHCHR and other UN human rights mechanisms, including by extending and expanding the OHCHR’s presence on the ground;
  • Accept and hold pending visits by UN Special Procedures, including the Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers, on peaceful assembly and association, on freedom of expression and on human rights defenders;
  • Invite the High Commissioner for Human Rights for a country visit;
  • Restart the process to implement a protection mechanism for human rights defenders, after its sudden extinction in 2020.

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