"Sixteen years after the signing of the peace accord in 1996, Guatemala is still struggling to overcome wide ranging issues that put the economic, political and social well-being of the country at risk,” noted a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation visiting Guatemala from 27 to 29 November.
The visit was organised by the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) to express solidarity with the victims of human rights violations, and to meet with the representatives of human rights organisations, civil society groups, social activists and church leaders.
The delegates were told that basic needs and living conditions of a vast majority of the Guatemalan population, especially the Indigenous Peoples, are not protected due to the lack of democratic reforms and political will.
The members of the delegation included Noemi Espinoza from Honduras, vice moderator of the CCIA, Maria Sumire, president of the National Indigenous Women’s Association and a former parliamentarian in Peru, Rodrigo Gomez Tortosa, alternate secretary of International Affairs, Permanent Commission for Human Rights in Argentina, Patricia Bruschweiler, WCC staff and Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA.
“Unemployment, poverty, violence, organized crime, exploitation of natural resources, encroachment on the Indigenous Peoples’ land is on the increase,” observed Sumire.
She said that “this situation gravely impacts development, security, democratization and protection of human rights. A similar situation is also observed in several other Latin American countries.”
“Low levels of political institutionalisation, continued existence of authoritarian political culture, lack of proper structures of public control and social auditing derail the peace, reconciliation and human rights protection of millions in Guatemala,” commented Luis F. Linares Lopez, executive secretary of the Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES), a think tank facilitating dialogue in Guatemala.
Lopez went on to say that “today’s Guatemalan society is highly polarised which leads to social unrest and conflicts. Indigenous Peoples, who constitute 40 per cent of the total population, are faced with the serious problem of lacking agricultural land, which is owned by rich and powerful families.”
During the visit, the country representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Alberto Brunori, shared his observations on the Guatemala situation. He is heading the UN mission in the country which facilitates institutional capacity building in human rights protection.
“Guatemala has ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention 169, which stipulates consultation with the Indigenous Peoples for the use of land and their territory,” he said. “Yet a vast number of Indigenous Peoples are denied their ancestral land and this is a major reason for social unrest and polarisation of Guatemalan society today.”
“The rural development law which is expected to protect the land of Indigenous Peoples, with prospects to introduce land reforms and regulations to the use of illegal mining, is now shelved due to lack of political will or pressure from powerful private business sectors within and outside of the country,” he added.
The human right activists in Guatemala shared with the WCC delegation that more than 200 industrial mining companies are engaged in exploitation of natural resources in Indigenous Peoples’ areas. They said that another 700 companies are awaiting approval for licenses, and are likely to take the same path.
Edwin Camil, coordinator of the Centre for Legal Action and Human Rights, said, “Guatemalans have experienced brutal and systematic violations of human rights.” These violations, he said, include “killing, forced disappearances, displacements, violence and conflicts during the long years of military rule, while transitional justice is still an issue to be properly addressed.”
Camil added that during 28 years of authoritarian rule in Guatemala, 200,000 people have been killed and 245,000 forced disappearances have occurred.