Justice Can Prevail in Guatemala

It has been frustrating to witness as powerful forces in Guatemala have implemented an authoritarian agenda of closing political spaces, limiting access to historical documents, labeling as ‘terrorist’ those who oppose state policies, and weakening the protections for human rights and those who defend them.

Thankfully individuals, organizations and communities have been working together to resist these perverse efforts, through meetings, forums, publications, public protests, and legal actions.

Their efforts have not been in vain.

In the past 48 hours Guatemala’s two highest courts have handed down important rulings that help preserve the rule of law and access to truth and justice. 

Lifting the Limits on Nonprofits

Yesterday afternoon the Constitutional Court provisionally suspended the regressive legislation (Bill 5257, signed into law as Decree 4-2020) that puts at risk the work of nonprofit organizations in Guatemala. The Court stated that the bill “poses a threat to human rights.”

The court added that “the rights to freedom of assembly and to freedom of association provide protection against arbitrary interference by the state and are fundamental to the existence and functioning of a democratic society.”

Bringing the Truth to Light

Just hours ago, the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld the request of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) to guarantee the protection and full functioning of the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN).

The Archive has played an important role by providing evidence leading to the conviction of high-level police and military officials for crimes they committed during the armed conflict. For that reason, it has come under attack by those advancing an agenda of state-sponsored amnesia, amnesty, and impunity.

“Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, 1984

The former Minister of the Interior (and head of the National Civilian Police), Enrique Degenhart, even tried to restrict access to the archives alleging that “they contain sensitive information concerning national security.”

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of protecting and perpetuating this national resource for years to come.

In their groundbreaking ruling, the magistrates:

  • Declared that, as “a guarantee of the no-repetition” of the crimes committed during the armed conflict, any jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior over the archive has been terminated.
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior “to cease adopting measures that threaten the integrity of the archive” affirming that the Ministry of Culture has “exclusive jurisdiction to determine the necessary measures for its conservation, protection, and care.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior to guarantee the permanent use and/or transfer of the building housing the Archive to the Ministry of Culture.
  • Urged the Ministry of Culture to officially designate the Archive as a “a National Cultural Heritage.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of Culture -in no more than four months- to adopt the necessary financial and administrative measures, along with hiring sufficient numbers of qualified personnel, to guarantee the continuity and sustainability of the archival process. 
  • Also ordered the Ministry of Culture, in that same time period, to design and implement a plan for the conservation and safeguarding of the Archive according to international standards relating to “the right to the truth” and the United Nation’s “updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.” In order to create this plan, the Ministry should consult with renowned national and international archival experts.

Guatemala often feels like a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of country, at least as far as respect for human rights is concerned. These two rulings, however, provide a glimmer of hope that justice can prevail even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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