Human Rights in Guatemala

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Human Rights in Guatemala

History of Human Rights in Guatemala

Impacted by a 36-year-old civil war, Guatemala is still affected by internal conflicts today and has an extensive record of violating its citizens’ fundamental rights. Disappearances, violence and organized crime persist due to previous events and institutional failures in addition to new challenges such as natural disasters, migration flows and class divisions. 

The situation worsens for vulnerable groups because of urbanization, modernization and climate change. This article is an overview of the current situation of human rights in Guatemala, impacted groups and human rights legislation and legal framework. 

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 rated high on the corruption scale correlating with an equally high impunity rate and gross human rights violations. Societal characterization much reflected in inequality, discrimination, poverty and insecurity. Although Guatemala has made historical marks of seeking justice for previous offenses and criminalizing perpetrators, even heads of state, a free press, decentralization reforms and strengthening the rule of law would be some necessary and lengthy 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, migrant flows and the increase of asylum seekers to the US and Mexico, in addition to human and narco trafficking, make Guatemala a country of both origin and transportation of irregularities in the Central American region. People have continuously fled the country for lack of work, safety and environmental disasters since the most recent migration peak in 2017. Regionally and globally, Guatemala is considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and last year’s 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 has historically been indigenous peoples; indigenous women and children, and afro-descendent women in particular. Although Guatemala has adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People and the Constitution (1985) states the protection of Maya communities, there is a lack of legal instruments and mechanisms guaranteeing Indigenous’ property, language and intercultural educational rights. 

As the majority population group (6 million), the right to own land, accessing adequate housing and proper sanitation services are often unattainable for indigenous groups who depend on government services. 

Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, as stated in the UN Convention, is continuously violated by foreign investments and involvement (transnational extractive industries) in so-called monocultures and the exploitation of land and natural resources in rural areas. Palm oil, the mining industry and hydroelectric projects are some examples in the department of Quiché, Huehuetenango, Izabal and Alta Verapaz. The only instrument recognizing the rights of Indigenous communities is the ILO Convention of 1969 that 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

As a machismo country, women’s status, social and judicial value and rights in Guatemala are not equal to the male’s and come second. This is reflected in the gender proportion of illiteracy rates, gender-based violence (femicides), teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality, victims of human trafficking and female representation in the labor force, etc. 

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

Guatemala ranks 113 out of 153 countries in gender equality. Still, it has made advances in agriculture in which the policy on gender equality by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) was implemented in 2016 to strengthen the role of women 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 and 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

With over half of the population under the age of 30 and a low life expectancy rate for both genders (76 years for women and 70 years for men), Guatemala has a long history of overlooking the rights of youth. Guatemala has the sixth-highest rate of child murder and some of the highest rate of malnutrition and stunting in the world. 

An example from recent times is the burning of the governmental-run youth institution Hogar Seguro in the country’s capital (2017), where 41 young girls were killed in the fire, which alerted the international community to Guatemala’s handling of child welfare cases.

Based on the interconnectivity of socio economic issues, many young people and adolescents grow up without a parent because of recruitment to the criminal sector. They are desperately in need of protection from gang-related crime, exploitation and child labour. Guatemala has ratified all international instruments for regulating child labor and has also implemented a national anti-trafficking plan for 2018-2022 and a new national anti-trafficking unit but fails 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 study from 2016 (a comprehensive study in the Latin American context) showed a 10.2 % prevalence of disability and 31% of the households in the survey including at least one household member with a disability.

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

The long-term societal effect is that disabled people are often viewed as a political burden and an expense for the Guatemalan state. By implementing the disability law of 1996 (1935-96), Guatemala has acceded to regional and international instruments guaranteeing disability rights but fails to do so in practice. 

Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity

In line with its regressive policies, Guatemala’s legislation discriminates against the LGBTQ community, doesn’t legalize same-sex marriage and has made few attempts to reverse these laws. Although the national Ombudsman’s Office has made attempts to mark the global pride celebration, this has had its consequences by anti-LGBTQ public officials. A research study conducted as late as 2019-2020, in addition to reporting by the Ombudsman’s Office shows frequent murders of homosexual and transgender people during January 2021. 

Topics concerning the LGBTQ community consist of the country’s hate speech both offline and online, leading to further violence and crime within and outside 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 as opposed to the controversial Life and Family Protection Bill that define transgender and women as second-class citizen as of 2018. 

The Guatemalan state ratified The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1982. 

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 community media and journalists limit freedom of expression in Guatemala – collectively and individually, and constrains the access to information. During the pandemic where quarantine and safety measures have increased the risk of journalists and the freedom of the press, there have been more killings and attacks on journalists than ever before. In 2020, several incidents in various departments were directed towards indigenous journalists belonging to the grassroot media (Prensa Comunitaria). Indigenous radio journalist Anastasia Mejía was incarcerated in September 2020. The same month, journalist Sonny Figueroa was assaulted and arrested by agents of the National Civil Police in the capital for reporting on government corruption. Altogether, there have been 110 attacks on the press

Civil society continues to ask for the Special Investigation Unit for Crimes Against Journalists to be strengthened, for further advancements of the Program for the Protection of Journalists (an initiative offered by the Government since 2013) – and for increased attention to the attacks on the press by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. There is also a noticeable lack of support from the mass media (owned by the Guatemalan elite) and a high rate of censorship. 

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

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 term “shrinking space of civil society” characterizes the climate that human rights defenders and their organizations operate in – and as with journalists, social leaders, trade unionists, students and human rights and environmental defenders are at continuous risk.

By extension, the Guatemalan Congress made legal attempts to further criminalize civil society organizations by pushing a law in late 2020 that restricts the freedom of civil society as a whole. Thus, continue discussing criminalizing civil society organizations. The law which was backed by the Guatemalan Courts in May 2021 gives the government the right to pry into the affairs and dissolve non-governmental organizations (NGOs), drawing criticism from Washington for being “onerous”.

Guatemala is still to adopt the public 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 which 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, especially for genocide and past atrocities, have been ordered suspended by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) as late as 2019 (IJM) but remains part of Guatemala’s legislation and are legally binding. 

The state of Guatemala is continuously asked to implement the recommendations by the Human Rights Procurators Office as well as by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). It is usually cases of Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Cultural and Social Rights that are breached.

A climate of impunity allowed by the military and police, in addition to a state being complicit in the staggering violence, constitutes the status quo in Guatemala with a low conviction rate (2%). Smear campaigns, state-terrorism, stigmatization and misuse of the criminal justice system pertains. 

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 situation of human rights worsens in an unstable political climate, environmental changes, and the evolution of the pandemic – 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. This in addition to cuts in resources by the Trump Administration in 2019. By supporting, donating or contributing to the work of the nonprofits advocating for the fundamental rights of the Guatemalan people, you are strengthening their position and work they carry out 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 or campaigns 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, the country’s context and educating about the legal human rights framework. As an updated platform of the work and movements 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.