Amending Guatemala's National Reconciliation Law 'will lead to impunity for grave crimes'

By agency reporter
January 24, 2019

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed serious concern after the approval in first reading of a bill to amend Guatemala’s long-standing National Reconciliation Law. If adopted, the amendment would result in a generalized amnesty for all cases of grave human rights violations and crimes committed during the internal armed conflict.

“The National Reconciliation Law, in its current form, has been used by national courts in a number of emblematic cases addressing grave human rights violations”, Bachelet said. “This amendment, if passed, will represent a drastic set-back to accountability and the rule of law in Guatemala. At the same time, it will gravely endanger the progress made by the country to grapple with the legacy of the civil war and to prevent further violence.” 

Bachelet noted that the proposed change to the law is the latest in a series of initiatives undermining the important achievements made by the country in the fight against impunity.

If adopted, the amendment will not only halt ongoing investigations related to human rights violations, but will even have a retroactive effect, enabling dozens of individuals currently in jail after being convicted for grave human rights violations – including enforced disappearances, summary executions, sexual violence and torture – to be released within 24 hours.

“This in effect means complete impunity for all those involved in some truly horrendous violations, including crimes against humanity,” Bachelet said. “It will reopen old wounds, and destroy victims’ trust in the State and its institutions.”

The National Reconciliation Law has been in force since the implementation of the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the 36-year civil war. Since then, the law has been praised internationally as a legislative model in the fight against impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses, and as a positive example of ensuring victims’ rights to redress.

On 17 January, the Guatemalan Congress approved the amendment in first reading, ignoring the advice of its own Commission for Human Rights. In order to be adopted, the bill has to go through three readings, and Congress may proceed with the second and third readings over the coming days.

“I am also deeply worried that if this amendment is approved, it may lead to retaliation against all those courageous victims, witnesses, judges, public prosecutors, lawyers and organisations who have been promoting justice for past crimes in Guatemala”, Bachelet said.

The UN Human Rights Chief recalled that international standards establish limits regarding the adoption of amnesties for the most serious crimes, and pointed out that they are incompatible with State obligations to prosecute grave violations of human rights.

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/EN/pages/home.aspx

[Ekk/6]

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