Brussels, novembre 2007
The need for intervention in Guatemala
Description of the situation and rationale for civilian intervention.
The current crisis has erupted in the context of a larger, ongoing violent struggle that the people of Guatemala have endured for the past 36 years.
In May 2007, human rights defenders, international bodies, government officials and the press continued to voice alarm about the impunity with which violent crimes are committed in Guatemala. Disagreements arose between the government and human rights groups about the actual numbers, but none disputed the fact that this is still the major problem facing the country. A major newspaper, La Prensa Libre, reported that in the first four months of the year, 2,000 Guatemalans were assassinated, whether by “common crime” or “extrajudicial executions”. If this is true it exceeds the death rate of the war years. A poll by Unimer Research International found 82% of the respondents listed “crime and insecurity” as their major concern.
Most of the public criticism has focused on the PNC (National Civil Police). The Collective of Social Organizations in a publication marking ten years since the signing of the peace accords, confirmed what NP has heard from other sources, namely that the previous administration opened the doors to organised crime allowing infiltration into the management and operation of the PNC. As an example, continued press investigation of the case of the murders of the three Salvadoran diplomats and their driver (see above), has led to revelations of apparent involvement of an organised crime syndicate within, or cooperating with, the police and prison guards.
Government officials responded to criticism by pointing to the problem of understaffing of the PNC. There are less than two policemen for every 1,000 inhabitants when according to international standards there should be at least eight. There are 23,000 police in the country, but in a country with such high levels of violence, there should be 100,000. Some three thousand of the existing force have been assigned to protect high level personalities, embassies and other buildings, and judges, something the Minister of Government has said must change. With the elections pending, the police force will be stretched even farther to protect polling places and respond to conflicts.
The relevance for human rights defenders, and those who seek to protect their right to defend human rights, is that the very authorities they might call on to protect them are often the ones implicated in attacks against them. Consequently human rights defenders are forced to create strategies to protect their homes and offices from break-ins, take measures such as changing their schedules and routes for transportation, issue official complaints to the prosecutor’s office, the police, and the ombudsman’s office on human rights so the government is informed, seek protection through public awareness within Guatemala and internationally, and request international accompaniment. The latter is far too scarce for all those who might benefit from it, but for those who have that possibility, it is an important element in their strategy.
The elections are an expected source of additional violence and human rights abuses in 2007, but media coverage of the election process was distracted by the February 19th 2007 abduction, torture and murder of three Salvadoran officials and their driver who were in Guatemala for a Public version meeting of the Central American Parliament. Four policemen were arrested for the crime and within days they were murdered in prison. This blew up into scandal proportions leading to the resignations of the Minister of Government and the head of the Penal System, both of whom appeared implicated in the crime. The crimes created heightened alarm in the international community as well. There was some hope that this might have opened a national discussion about the model of national security that has gained importance. However, some believed that the response by the government and press was weak and the push for a thorough investigation and arrests of the intellectual authors of the crime was stalled.
Election season officially opened May 2nd 2007 with political parties rushing to meet the registration deadline, announce their programs and step up their public appearances. In the past five presidential elections not once has the party in power been re-elected. Nevertheless 38% responding to a poll by Prensa Libre in early May said they were motivated to vote by the hope that some things might improve.
Election related violence, however, is a serious concern, according to the Guatemalan group, “Election Watch”, politically related assassinations in 2007 had already surpassed the entire election period of 2003, the last year elections were held. In 2003, the group counted 29 politically motivated assassinations through October. By May 2nd 2007 the number was at 43. The group’s report added that this statistic may be low due to underreporting by the parties.
It is in this context that the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of the National Movement of Human Rights of Guatemala does its work.
As rights defenders whose presence is shedding light on abuse and its perpetrators, the Unit of Protection has long been the target of low-level threats and intimidation. On the night of 3 February of this year, the Unit’s offices where raided and a death threat left. Through conversations with allies and with knowledge of the history of violence that has resulted in the deaths of partners in Guatemala’s human rights community, these threats have been established as credible and imminent.
The objective is to enable the Unit to continue its work of supporting human rights defenders and following the related cases across the whole of Guatemala during the election year of 2007, preventing an increase in the level of threats and violence against them.
By providing visible international presence we will be deterring further attacks and threats.
The Unit proposed the project to Nonviolent Peaceforce, it was discussed by the International Governing Council and been approved by them last February.
There has been protective accompaniment in Guatemala for over 20 years, PBI began work in Guatemala, and evidence shows that it does reduce attacks and threats. Human Rights Defenders have stated that they believe they are alive today because of having protective accompaniment with them. Protective accompaniment enables people to continue and even extend their work of defending human rights.
International protective presence works in Guatemala, as other projects by other INGOs demonstrate. This project can enable the Unit to operate, and to demonstrate the international support that they have, and to support human rights defenders across Guatemala during a period of increased violence and tension.
The work of the Nonviolent Peaceforce team in Guatemala will coordinate with existing accompaniment projects and short-term election monitoring work to provide Guatemalans with broad, visible, international support to reduce violence and human rights abuses during the election period. Working to reduce violence during the election period is one of the steps in the peaceful conflict transformation of a very complex and violent situation.