GUATEMALA: Constitutional Court ruling restricts freedom of association

Press release

Geneva-Paris-Guatemala City, May 26, 2021 - The progressive closure of spaces for civil society by the Guatemalan authorities is becoming increasingly evident, following the recent ruling of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad - CC) giving the green light to pass the Law on NGOs. This is a serious development, as the law’s provisions contravene international human rights standards and restrict the right to defend human rights in Guatemala, according to the Observatory (OMCT-FIDH) and the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders -Guatemala (UDEFEGUA).

Decree 4-2020, which reforms the Guatemalan Law on Non-Governmental Organisations for Development (Ley de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales para el Desarrollo– “Law on NGOs”) was approved in 2020 by the Guatemalan Congress. That same year, various civil society organisations denounced the unconstitutionality of the Decree before the CC, to prevent it from entering into force. However, on May 12, 2021, the CC, whose new members were recently elected, found their writs for amparo unfounded and definitively dismissed them, revoking the provisional injunction (amparo provisional) granted on March 2, 2020, which had, until now, prevented the Decree from entering into force. CC magistrates held that the law did not pose an imminent threat, thereby allowing the President of the Executive Branch to adopt and publish the Decree.

The reforms introduced by Decree 4-2020 allow the Guatemalan State strict and arbitrary control over civil society organisations. For example, Article 15 grants the Executive Branch, through the Guatemalan Ministry of Interior (Ministerio de Gobernación), the discretion to dissolve and deregister civil society organisations and associations whenever it deems appropriate. The same Article also permits the criminalisation of civil society organisation members and of social organisations that use external funding to carry out activities that it deems to disturb public order in national territory.

Alarmingly, Article 16 states that there will be an organisation deregistration process, under which any appeal for reversal (recurso de revocatoria) will be decided by the Ministry of Interior(i.e., the Executive Branch), rather than by appeal to a judicial authority, a test of impartiality and the right to due process.

These measures confirm the provisions of Bill 5257 (I niciativa 5257), which was initially presented in 2017 and established limitations and new barriers to the work carried out by NGOs. As reported by the Observatory, at that time, the bill generated great concern and alarm on the part of human rights organisations, national and international civil society and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the European Parliament, among other actors in the international community.

This legislation forms part of a drive to completely dismantle the system for the protection of human rights defenders in Guatemala, where there is already a total lack of implementation of the policy for the protection of human rights defenders. It also deepens and legitimises the erosion and criminalisation of the right to defend human rights in Guatemala. The Observatory and UDEFEGUA are concerned that this Law will further increase State violence against civil society organisations and leaders. In fact, in recent months in Guatemala there have been a multitude of attacks on the lives, personal integrity and freedom of individuals who defend human rights, which have gone unpunished. UDEFEGUA reported a total of 1,055 attacks against human rights defenders during 2020, especially those defending land and territory, and independent and impartial justice.

In conclusion, the Observatory and UDEFEGUAregret the resolution of the CC and reject this reform and demand its suppression, as it jeopardises the exercise and enjoyment of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and citizen participation, as well as the right to defend human rights. This is incompatible with the Guatemalan Constitution, in particular Article 149, and with Guatemala’s international obligations under the human rights agreements it has signed.

For more information, please contact:
· OMCT: Iolanda Jaquemet: +41 79 539 41 06
· FIDH: José Carlos Thissen: +51 95 41 31 650
· UDEFEGUA: Jorge Santos: +502 4297 0094

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

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) is an organization that provides services to human rights defendersin Guatemala and in countries of the Central American region since 2000, forthe generation of individual and Collective self-management of risks. UDEFEGUAis a member organization of the SOS-Torture Network of OMCT.

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