Concern at rise in attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala

By agency reporter
August 10, 2018

UN human rights experts have raised alarm over the increase in killings, attacks and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders in Guatemala, amid restrictive legislative and political attempts to curtail their work.

Between 9 May and 27 July 2018, 11 defenders who were working to protect various indigenous communities’ rights in the context of safe and healthy environment, including access to land and to basic services, were killed. These defenders, the majority indigenous, sought to protect their communities from development and business-related human rights abuses. The attacks were of an unusually violent nature- four suffered fatal cuts by bladed weapons, including cuts to their ears and throat.

“We are concerned that the frequency and severity of these attacks could have ripple effects throughout the population, sending a message that there are dangerous consequences for defending human rights, especially given that these crimes often go unpunished”, the UN experts said.

“In Guatemala, there is a broader environment of stigmatisation of human rights defenders, including on social media, which undermines the legitimacy of their work, and could provoke attacks against them”,  the experts emphasised 

“Human rights defenders have also been subjected to poorly founded criminal accusations and legal processes in which their due process guarantees are not always ensured – acts that are carried out directly by State agents and have the effect of disrupting and sanctioning of the work of human rights defenders”, they added.

The recent closing of space for dialogue to discuss the protection of human rights defenders with government and civil society could also contribute to their heightened situations of insecurity.

“It is important for the State to meet with civil society organisations to listen to their concerns with the aim of re-establishing civic space and strengthening protection measures for human rights defenders”, said the UN experts. 

“Further, the wave of attacks is taking place amid what appears to be an attempt to tighten legislative restrictions on civil society. In recent months, Congress has been considering draft bills in key areas that could restrict the work of civil society and stymie the promotion and defence of human rights, and the fight against corruption and impunity”, the UN experts said.

They called on the Guatemalan authorities to investigate the killings and attacks in an objective, transparent and independent manner and bring those responsible to justice. “It is fundamental that due examination be given to the role of the potential masterminds of such attacks, including those whose interests may be affected by the work of human rights defenders.

“We further urge the Guatemalan authorities to publically recognise the important work of human rights defenders, which is an essential factor for their protection, and call upon the State to prevent harm against them and refrain from measures that restrict their work. Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional lands and resources and to participate in decisions regarding its use and development, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, the UN experts said. 

They also called on companies to consult with and engage collaboratively with defenders – treating them as key partners in ensuring that business activities respect the rights and dignity of people who are impacted by their operations, as set forth by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The experts have been in contact with the Government of Guatemala regarding the issues highlighted.

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human RIghts


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