Sue Willman*, Law Society Human Rights Committee member and Partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, joins a team of experts on an ILAC** judicial assessment mission to investigate the situation of the rule of law in Guatemala. Sue Willman is the Law Society’s delegate on this mission.
The delegation, constituted by experts from different nationalities who were nominated by ILAC members (including the Law Society), will meet with a wide range of stakeholders operating within the judicial system as well as civil society organisations. The delegation will attempt to identify the most pressing challenges for the rule of law and key priorities facing the Guatemalan justice sector. The mission will also be investigating the criminalisation of protest and attacks on members of the legal profession. Part of the mission includes visiting rural areas, mining communities, and projects undertaken by national and multinational companies in order to evaluate the impact of such programmes on the rights of the inhabitants and their access to justice.
Since the end of the civil war in 1996 Guatemala sadly holds the unfavourable status of having the fourth highest murder rate in the world. In 2016, according to the Guatemalan National Police (PCN), there were more than 4,500 homicides, 5,800 aggravated assaults, and 3,500 missing persons cases. The US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) has reported that Guatemala’s murder rate appears to be driven by four key factors: drug-trafficking, gang-related violence, a heavily-armed population, and a police/judicial system that is unable to hold many criminals accountable. The CICIG*** has also stated that a steady rise in crime in Guatemala, and the failure of the state and police to bring perpetrators to justice, has corrupted the standard of living, rule of law and, most significantly, the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens.
The World Bank highlighted that, although Guatemala is the biggest economy in Central America, it also has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America, with some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates in the region, especially in rural and indigenous areas.
There was some glimmer of hope in 2013 when Efraín Ríos Montt, a former dictator and military general, was prosecuted for atrocities carried out against Guatemalan citizens, including indigenous peoples. After a painful public examination of a brutal period in the country’s long-lasting armed conflict, during which tens of thousands of people were killed and disappeared, Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. However, in a divided ruling just days after the verdict, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court annulled the judgment on a procedural technicality. In October 2017, it was reported that a Guatemalan judge determined that there is sufficient evidence to send former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to trial for the case of the “Las Dos Erres massacre” - this is the second trial Ríos Montt will face in which he is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
Serious challenges still remain for Guatemala. On 27 August 2017, President Morales ordered the expulsion of CICIG’s Commissioner Ivan Velasquez, on the basis that the latter was investigating alleged corruption charges against Morales. The British Embassy, together with the Embassies of Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America issued a statement the same day commending Commissioner Velasquez’ work and acknowledging the vital role played by CICIG in tackling the impunity and corruption that is undermining security and prosperity in Guatemala.
The decision to expel Commissioner Velasquez was overruled by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, which showed a commitment to uphold the rule of law. In its ruling, the Court suspended the President’s order on the grounds that Art. 183 was not applicable to the President’s decision and that the President had violated the Constitution (Art. 182) by acting unilaterally and without seeking approval from his ministers before issuing such an order. Moreover, Article 12 of the 2007 Agreement to Establish the CICIG also advises that the government of Guatemala must reach an agreement with the United Nations before removing its commissioner.
In this context, the ILAC mission comes at a crucial time and members of the legal profession and civil society organisations in Guatemala merit our support in order to progress the rule of law. A comprehensive report of this mission to Guatemala will be released by ILAC in 2018.
The Law Society has previously sent intervention letters to the Guatemalan authorities concerning the harassment and acts of intimidation against human rights defenders and lawyers and is monitoring the situation closely.
* Ms. Willman is also a member of the Colombian Caravana UK lawyers group and has participated in regular fact-finding missions to Colombia, with a focus on the situation of lawyers and human rights defenders at risk in that country.
** The International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) works with governments, civil society and other stakeholders to provide assessments and expert guidance on how to rebuild justice systems after conflict. ILAC assessments prioritise how to begin rebuilding a workable justice system that is based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights.
The Law Society has been a member of ILAC for many years and is currently a member of ILAC’s Advisory Council.
*** The Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) is an independent international body, which aims to investigate clandestine security organisations in Guatemala (criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions, fostering impunity and undermining democratic gains in Guatemala since the end of the country’s armed conflict in the 1990s).