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PRESS STATEMENT BY THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS FOLLOWING HER OFFICIAL VISIT TO GUATEMALA


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27 MAY 2006


Good morning (Buenos das):

I would like to thank the Government of Guatemala for inviting me to visit the country, and facilitating the many fruitful discussions that I have had in the last two days. I was honored to be received by the President together with the Vice-President, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the presidents of the Supreme Court, the Congress and the Constitutional Court. I also had the opportunity to meet with the Minister of Interior, the Public Prosecutor, a high representative of the Ministry for Defense, the Ombudsman and the President of COPREDEH. I also had the pleasure to meet with several indigenous representatives who are doing an important work within the public administration. I am particularly happy for the meeting I had with a group of prominent women, who in their respective fields of work are contributing to the development of a more equitable society. And, of course, as I do in all my visits, I also met with many representatives and members of non-governmental organizations, who are essential in providing a balanced understanding of the challenges that societies face.

I also visited Rabinal in Baja Verapaz together with Mr. Frank La Rue, President of COPREDEH, Mrs. Rosalina Tuyuc, President of the National Reparations Program and Mr. Fredy Peccerelli, Director of the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology. I heard moving testimonies of the atrocities committed in the past, and of the resilience of the victims to uncover truth and obtain justice.

In assessing the progress made in human rights since the signing of the peace agreements almost ten years ago, it should be noted that Guatemala is a different country today than it was at the conclusion of the conflict. The end of authoritarian, repressive and violent State practices associated with the internal armed conflict, have brought undeniable benefits to the country as a whole, but especially to those areas in the countryside that bore the brunt of the conflict.

Important initiatives have been launched in a number of areas, particularly the adoption of an anti-discrimination law; the establishment of the National Reparations Commission; and programs to improve access to justice for indigenous communities. From a human rights point of view last year’s adoption of the Framework Law concerning the Peace Agreements, by which the Peace Agreements became binding on the State, was also very positive. The President’s public recognitions of the atrocities committed during the armed conflict, and of the existence of racial discrimination in the country, also constitute important steps forward.

It must be recognized that the profound political, social and cultural changes called for in the peace agreements cannot be fully achieved in only ten years. However, in Guatemala it is cause for concern that not only reforms are progressing slowly, but that more and more people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the State’s inability to deliver the promised security, equality and justice.

From the Peace Accords to recent reform initiatives and programmes, Guatemala has equipped itself to achieve social peace and justice. Expectations have been raised, again and again, but results have rarely followed. Insecurity and inequality prevail, and a history of failed opportunities has created disenchantment in a population eager for change.

Nothing can exemplify this better than the delay encountered by victims of the armed conflict in obtaining justice and reparation. Where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes.

This has led Guatemala earning the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the region. According to the Ombudsman, homicides have risen 60 percent from 2001 to 2005, with a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people. This is deeply worrying. Particularly alarming is the increase in murders of women and the upsurge in mob lynching in the interior of the country.

There has been no significant progress in combating impunity or eliminating clandestine groups. Human rights defenders and justice operators in particular remain subject to ongoing threats, harassment and, in some cases, fatal attacks.

I have in my conversations with the President and members of his cabinet raised the need to adopt a comprehensive public security strategy in full compliance with human rights norms and standards. However, Government efforts to combat gang violence and other crimes should not result in a disproportionate investment in short-term gains vis--vis long term development needs. For any strategy to be effective, it is crucial to address the root causes of all forms of social violence, including the activities of criminal gangs.

Key human rights and rule of law institutions are especially important in such difficult circumstances.

The strategy to address public insecurity should therefore include the strengthening of the police force, in terms of numbers, but also the establishment of stronger controls, including disciplinary regulations, dismissal of officers with poor human rights and performance records and criminal prosecutions where required.

This reform of the police must be accompanied by a speedy and thorough modernization of the judicial sector. There should also be recognition of indigenous customary law and practices into the formal legal system, and a dramatic increase in the capacities for bilingual services. Access to justice programs should also incorporate local dispute resolution practices of indigenous communities.

An equitable administration of justice cannot be achieved without a functioning correctional system. The prison system requires a full overhaul and I recognize the current efforts to address the need for rehabilitation programmes and education services as a key elements to this reform.

I have been reassured by several officials that the Government is fully supporting the much needed reforms. But given the deep-seated nature of the problems, progress will require a sustained commitment over a number of years as well as additional funding for implementation.

In general terms, Guatemala suffers from the region’s lowest public investment in social services and lowest tax collection base (10 percent of GDP) from which to fund these investments. Security cannot be achieved without a sustained attention to the social and economic challenges that the country faces.

Guatemala scores consistently low on the United Nations’ Human Development Indices including on infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy. The isolation and discrimination faced by the indigenous peoples have not visibly changed. Indigenous populations, particularly women, remain disproportionately poor, and suffer high rates of illiteracy as well as health and social problems - largely as a result of lack of access to health care, education, decent housing, employment and social services. Guatemala should ensure the indigenous communities’ full participation as actors in the development of the country.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Dr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who visited Guatemala last week, reiterated his concern over the delays in the implementation of the Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the deeply rooted discrimination against indigenous peoples. He called for increased efforts to ensure access to justice for indigenous peoples and that institutions established to deal with the human rights situation of the indigenous peoples be strengthened.

The challenges to overcome insecurity, impunity and inequality are ambitious, but they can be met by a new and broad political commitment to support - and to appropriately fund - the urgent implementation of the reform programs initiated under the peace agreements.

At the invitation of the Government and after the approval of the Congress, I opened my Office in Guatemala in September last year, with a mandate to observe the Government and other State actors’ human rights performance and to provide technical assistance to the Human Rights Ombudsman, the judiciary, the Public Prosecutor, the Congress and civil society organizations. I want to express my gratitude to the Government of Guatemala for its cooperation with my Office since its inception. My Office and the United Nations system will continue to support the efforts to achieve both a durable peace and a consolidated democracy in Guatemala.

Finally, I would like to mention the importance of the recent election of Guatemala as a member of the newly created Human Rights Council. In the voluntary pledges and commitments made by the Government of Guatemala in order to be considered as a member of this new Council, the Government reiterated its “firm belief in the importance of encouraging the coordination and cooperation between all countries in the world in order to secure the equitable, objective and non-selective treatment for the full and effective observance of human, economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, including the right to development”.

Being a member of the Human Rights Council is not only a great privilege for Guatemala, it is also a great responsibility. I trust that Guatemala will live up to the world’s expectations and will dedicate itself to the respect and promotion of all human rights, at home and abroad.

Thank you (Muchas gracias),