Human Rights in Guatemala

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Still impacted by a 36-year civil war, internal conflict and an extensive human rights violations still occur in Guatemala today. Disappearances, violence, and organized crime persist due to previous events and institutional failures. In addition, there are new challenges such as natural disasters, high migration flows and class divisions. The situation worsens for vulnerable groups because of urbanization, modernization and climate change.

This article gives an overview of the current situation of human rights in Guatemala, affected groups and human rights frameworks.

Guatemalan protestor in Guy Fawkes Mask
Immunity: The public is tired of the narrative of the white man going free and that people with power decide who can be convicted for atrocities. 

Human Rights In Guatemala Today

In a global context, Guatemala is high on the corruption scale which correlates with an equally high impunity rate. Societal characterization is much reflected in inequality, discrimination, poverty and insecurity. Although Guatemala has made historical efforts in seeking justice for criminalizing perpetrators, much still needs to be done. A free press, further decentralization, and strengthening the rule of law are some necessary steps in the right direction.

Guatemalan flag against blue sky
A new Guatemalan Spring: 2015 is characterized as the new awakening of “the land of eternal spring” when people campaigned on social media, protesting government corruption which led to incarcerating the former president, vice-president and parts of the cabinet.

Today, Guatemala is characterized by human and narco trafficking as well as high migrant flows. Guatemalans are increasingly fleeing the country for lack of work, safety and environmental disasters since the migration peak in 2017. Furthermore, Guatemala is considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. For example, the 2021 storms Eta and Iota worsened the situation for 1.9 million people. The hurricanes came only two years after volcano Fuego’s eruption, leaving thousands homeless. 

Indigenous Rights

The most vulnerable and excluded population group in Guatemalan society is the indigenous people. Despite the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People and the Constitution stating the protection of Maya communities, the reality is different. There are a lack of legal instruments and mechanisms guaranteeing Indigenous’ property, language and intercultural educational rights. 

The right to own land, access adequate housing and sanitation are often unattainable for indigenous groups. As stated in the UN Convention, their right to free, prior, and informed consultation is continuously violated by foreign involvement. Examples include; palm oil, the mining industry and hydroelectric projects in the regions of Quiché, Huehuetenango, Izabal and Alta Verapaz. The only instrument recognizing the rights of Indigenous communities is the ILO Convention of 1969. It came into effect in Guatemala in 1997.

Guatemalan woman working at market dulces tipicos (traditional sweets) stand
Ironic: With the majority population group being indigenous, there are many paradoxes regarding Maya representation in Guatemala.

Women’s Rights

Women’s status, social and judicial value, and rights in Guatemala are not equal to the male’s. This is reflected in; illiteracy rates, gender-based violence, human trafficking and female representation in the labor force. 

In 1982, Guatemala ratified The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The national plan, Our Guatemala 2032, is to advance the status of women in Guatemala. Certain objectives included; closing the gender gaps in accessing education, employment, equal pay, and political representation.

Guatemala ranks 113 out of 153 countries in gender equality. Nevertheless, it has made advances in agriculture. For example, in 2016, The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) implemented policies strengthening women’s roles in rural development.

The Guatemalan Congress has made several attempts to criminalize abortion further and restrict the country’s abortion laws. Today, abortion is only permitted when the women’s life is endangered. As with its regional neighbors, Guatemala fails to comply with international standards regarding sexual and reproductive rights. These cases often go unreported and perpetrators unpunished. 

Guatemalan woman looking out window
Ni Una Menos (Not one woman less): Like other Latin-American countries, women are treated as second-class citizens in Guatemala. 

Youth Rights

Guatemala has a history of overlooking the rights of youth. Over half of the population under the age of 30 have a low life expectancy rate. Guatemala also has the 6th-highest rate of child murder and some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. 

A recent example is the 2017 fire of the governmental-run youth institution Hogar Seguro in the capital. 41 young girls were killed in the fire, which alerted the international community to Guatemala’s handling of child welfare cases.

Many young people grow up without a parent due to their recruitment to the criminal sector. They are desperately in need of protection from gang-related crime, exploitation and child labour. Guatemala ratified all international instruments for regulating child labor and has implemented an anti-trafficking plan for 2018-2022. Nevertheless, despite an anti-trafficking unit, there are still failures to address victims of human trafficking and to provide adequate services.  

Mayan woman selling produce in the market
Social structures: With a significant informal sector and a constant low education level, the challenges of malnutrition, irregularities and illiteracy persists.

Persons with Disabilities

A national 2016 study showed a 10.2 % prevalence of disability. It showed also that 31% of households had at least one member with a disability.

Guatemala has never been considered a disability-friendly country. General anti-discrimination provisions are not enforced. Furthermore, there are no specific prohibitions around disability discrimination in the employment, education, and health care sectors. 

The long-term effect is that disabled people are generally viewed as a burden and an expense for the state. By implementing the disability law of 1996 (1935-96), Guatemala acceded to international instruments guaranteeing disability rights. However, it fails to follow through with relevant policies in practice. 

Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity

In line with its regressive policies, Guatemala’s legislation discriminates against the LGBTQ community. It also hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage and has made few attempts to reverse these laws. The Ombudsman’s Office has reported frequent murders of homosexual and transgender people during January 2021. 

Hate speech targeting the LGBTQ community typically leads to further violence and crime inside and outside of the community. Discrimination, representation and political participation by marginalized groups are structural issues and filtered throughout Guatemalan society. Initiative 5674 which protects against hate crime is the only protection mechanism. Nevertheless, opposing bills exist such as the controversial 2018 Life and Family Protection Bill. This bill defines transgender individuals and women as second-class citizens. 

Guatemalans protesting government corruption
Rarely seek or get justice: The LGBTQ community is one of the least protected population group and are targets for censorship, stigmatization, discrimination and why the informal sector upholds. 

Freedom of Expression

Criminalization, aggression and repression of media and journalists limit freedom of expression in Guatemala. This is because it collectively and individually restrains access to information.

Indigenous media is in theory protected by the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People, The American Convention on Human Rights and Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords. 

During the pandemic, however there were more killings and attacks on journalists than ever before. In 2020, several incidents in multiple regions were directed towards indigenous journalists belonging to grassroots media (Prensa Comunitaria). Indigenous radio journalist Anastasia Mejía was incarcerated in September 2020. The same month, journalist Sonny Figueroa was assaulted and arrested by the National Civil Police for reporting on government corruption. Altogether, there were 110 attacks on the press between January – November 2020.

Civil society continues to ask for the Special Investigation Unit for Crimes Against Journalists to be strengthened. They also seek further advancements of the Program for the Protection of Journalists (a 2013 Government Initiative). Lastly, they seek increased attention paid to the attacks on the press by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. There is also a marked lack of support from the elite owned mass media and a high rate of censorship. 

Human Rights Defenders

During the pandemic, eight human rights defenders were murdered between June and August of 2020 (IACHR). The case of Q’eqchi’ community defender Bernando Caal Xol who was incarcerated in 2018 is a prominent one. The “shrinking space of civil society” characterizes the climate that human rights defenders and their organizations operate in. This also applies to journalists, social leaders, trade unionists, students and human rights and environmental defenders. They are all at continuous risk.

By extension, Guatemalan Congress attempted to further criminalize civil society organizations with a 2020 law that restricts civil society freedoms. The law was backed by the Guatemalan Courts in May 2021 and gave the government the right to pry into the affairs and dissolve non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This drew huge criticism from Washington as being “onerous”.

Guatemala is still to adopt a policy to protect human rights defenders ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2014.

Guatemalan protestors holding signs  renouncing government corruption
Mass mobilization: Guatemala civil society actors have made a significant impact since a student protest in 2012 and a national strike in 2015 which changed the country’s course.

Lack of Accountability for Past Human Rights Violations

As most Latin American countries, the legal framework in Guatemala is characterized by the lack of accountability measures. This leads to a constant high impunity rate. Some of the reasons are delayed criminal proceedings, suspended hearings and abuses of power overall. The amnesty laws for and past atrocities, were suspended by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) in 2019 (IJM). They however still remain part of Guatemala’s legislation and are legally binding. 

Guatemala is continuously asked to implement recommendations by the Human Rights Procurators Office and IACtHR. It is usually cases of Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Cultural and Social Rights that are breached.

The culture of impunity for military and police in addition to state complicity in violence explains low conviction rates (2%). Smear campaigns, state-terrorism, stigmatization and misuse of the criminal justice system persists. 

The 1996 Law of National Reconciliation established no amnesty for genocide, torture, and forced disappearances. 

Guatemalan protestors wearing covid masks
Public pressure: Because of impunity, organized crime, and lack of safety measures – the public is continuing to demand political reforms, justice and human rights.  

Current Efforts To Promote Human Rights & Accountability in Guatemala

With the elimination of the investigative body, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in 2018, there has been little investigation of human rights violations in Guatemala and organized crime. Despite the majority public (70%) voting to keep the 12-year-old UN initiative in the country in 2019. 

A strong civil society is advocating for accountability measures and ensuring due processes, for the respect, protection and promotion of fundamental human rights, and strengthening the Guatemalan judicial system. A legislation for recognizing all media at all levels is also on the grassroots’ agenda. 

Under international law, Guatemala has laws (Bill 5377) that grant amnesty to those accused of and those convicted of crimes and violations perpetrated during the armed conflict (1960-1996). However, the implementation of the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s recommendations and protocol (5-2018) for the investigation of these attacks remains inadequate.

Guatemalan police in full riot gear at protest
Doesn’t uphold rights: The state of Guatemala is continuously oppressing its citizens and constrains their Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights as stated in the international human rights framework. 

How Supporting Guatemalan Nonprofits Can Help

As the human rights situation worsens in an unstable political climate, it has never been more crucial to support Guatemalan civil society. 

In May 2021, NGOs’ right to free association was limited by amendments to the law regulating NGOs. By supporting nonprofits advocating for the fundamental rights of Guatemalans, you are strengthening their work in practice. No one who knows better where or what the need is and what the necessary actions are. Non-governmental organizations often send out petitions online for specific events in which their supporters and fellow advocates take part.

By joining the Guatemalan Human Rights community online, you are creating awareness of the human rights situation in Guatemala.

As an updated platform of the work of Guatemalan civil society, following Pionero Philanthropy is a great starting point. Check out our interactive nonprofit map to discover great nonprofits, including those working in Human Rights.

Or contact us for more information on how you can supporting human rights organizations in Guatemala.