Congress restricts freedom of association - President Giammattei must veto Decree

Press release
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Geneva-Paris, 14 February 2020 - With the approval of Decree 4-2020, the Guatemalan Congress has imposed dangerous limitations on freedom of association, demonstrating that it is maintaining the offensive against the rule of law initiated during the previous legislature, reports the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH).

Due to the vagueness of its wording, the new article 15, amended by Decree 4-2020, allows for major discretion in the possible dissolution of NGOs that aim to disrupt public order. The same article also authorises the criminalisation of members and those NGOs that use external financing "to carry out activities affecting the maintenance of law and order in the national territory".

These measures confirm what is established in the text of initiative 5257 initially presented in 2017, which already established limitations and new obstacles for the work carried out by NGOs [1]. Similarly, it is alarming how article 16 establishes that there will be a process of cancellation as an NGO whose appeal for revocation will be resolved by the Ministry of the Interior (or by the executive body) and not by the courts, proof of impartiality and right to due process.
Furthermore, it is important to note that, as declared by civil society, including an FIDH report in 2019 [2], NGOs will be required to report the receipt of funds from abroad, identifying the amount received, the origin of the funds and their purpose. Given the extent to which national organisations rely on international resources, since accusations of surveillance and espionage of human rights defenders and organisations have been a constant in Guatemala, this measure appears to be a way of further controlling the organisations and hindering the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association [3]. These obstacles to the international funding of NGOs are also contrary to international standards in terms of freedom of association.

This approved decree takes up the text of initiative 5257 of 2017, which had already generated great concern and alarm on the part of human rights organisations, civil society at the national and international level and the United Nations High Commissioner for Rights Human [4], as well as the European Parliament [5]. Despite this, it is reprehensible that its approval also occurred without being previously scheduled or foreseen on the legislature’s agenda and produced in the context of a debate on the emergency situation of the Coronavirus.

The Observatory recalls that the previous legislature of the Guatemalan Congress and the actions of the executive headed by Jimmy Morales were characterised by a series of regressive measures for human rights including clear attempts to undermine the fight against impunity and corruption that crystallized, among other measures, in the non-renewal of the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), as well as actions against the Constitutional Court and other judicial personnel. The agenda of regressive laws such as the NGO Law or the so-called Amnesty Law, as well as the increase in attacks against human rights defenders and organisations also characterised the previous period.

For the above reasons, the Observatory considers that the new President Alejandro Giammattei is facing his first trial by fire in which he has the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to human rights and the rule of law by exercising his right to the presidential veto to return the NGO Law to Congress for being contrary to international human rights standards.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) is a programme created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) which aims to intervene to prevent or remedy concrete situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders implemented by international civil society.

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