The IACHR and Its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Urge the State of Guatemala to Protect the Right to Protest and the Right to Peaceful Assembly

October 30, 2023

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression are concerned about various attempts to delegitimize and frighten protesters in Guatemala, as well as about the Constitutional Court decision aimed at restricting the right to protest in the country. The State must respect and protect the right to peaceful assembly and all other rights affected by these moves, including protesters' rights to life and humane treatment.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship have been closely monitoring the social protests led by indigenous authorities since October 2, allegedly in response to a series of reports of persistent interference by the Public Prosecutor's Office in violation of the democratic order and of the sovereign will of the people expressed at the polls. In this context, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship note that the legitimate demands and discontent of the people have been peacefully expressed in social rallies, road blockades, and other acts of protest on public spaces and before the facilities of State institutions.

However, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship have received complaints about actions aimed at restricting the free exercise of the right to protest, in an atmosphere of growing social tension. For example, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship have received reports about stigmatizing comments and threats of criminalization made by Guatemala's highest authorities, and also about attacks and threats by private individuals against demonstrators—including indigenous persons, rights defenders, and journalists—in various parts of the country.

Among other incidents, the IACHR condemned the armed attack against demonstrators by private individuals seeking to end a road blockade in the municipality of Malacatán. This attack was allegedly perpetrated in the presence of officers of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and left one person dead and two injured. The Public Prosecutor's Office and the Interior Ministry reported the arrests of 11 individuals in connection with these events. The Interior Ministry further noted that the PNC was protecting safety in the area but that its officers were unarmed, in keeping with the applicable Guatemalan legislation.

In this scenario, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship are concerned about the Constitutional Court decision of October 18, made in response to a complaint filed by the Public Prosecutor's Office over a long blockade by demonstrators of its own headquarters in the Gerona neighborhood of Guatemala City. The Constitutional Court ordered that the PNC and the Interior Ministry "take the action and measures required to restore law and order," if necessary including the use of force and the cooperation of the Guatemalan Army. The Constitutional Court also said that some "non-peaceful" protests might amount to crimes against humanity for "causing the extermination of civilians" in the wake of "situations involving the destruction of facilities and water reserves." The Constitutional Court further ordered the arrests of all individuals caught in the act while committing crimes.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression consider that the Court's decision seriously affects the right to freedom of expression and the right to defend rights at a crucial time for the country—the period after an election where the presidency changes hands.

According to the applicable inter-American standards, social protest is essential for the existence and consolidation of democratic societies and for the defense of human rights, and it requires the exercise of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. This in turn requires tolerating a certain level of disturbance in everyday life (for instance, in terms of traffic and entry into public buildings).

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that using force to disperse participants in peaceful demonstrations involves direct interference with this right and may also affect the lives and personal integrity of the individuals in question. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship therefore call on the State of Guatemala to comply with its duty to respect, facilitate, and protect human rights, to take concrete action to protect the right to protest, and to refrain from criminalizing protesters. Democracy requires that States act based on the legality of any social protests and assume they are not a threat to law and order.

The State of Guatemala asked the IACHR, "in keeping with the subsidiarity and complementarity principles of the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights, to refrain from conducting an examination or issuing a statement on the situation regarding the social rallies of recent weeks." The State stressed that it had been complying with the applicable international standards, that it had always favored and pursued dialogue first and foremost, and that the use of force remained a last resort. Concerning the actions of the Public Prosecutor's Office, the State said that the ongoing criminal investigation in no way sought to disturb the democratic order or the results of the general election. The State further noted that all the actions of the Constitutional Court reflected the requirements of the Guatemalan legal system and protected the fundamental rights of the Guatemalan people.

The State also said that, by promoting dialogue and the strict application of the applicable laws, plans, and protocols concerning the human rights of everyone involved, the Interior Ministry had managed to reach an agreement with the leaders of the group that had gathered before the headquarters of the Public Prosecutor's Office and secured the restoration of access to those facilities. The State said that mediation efforts were gradually bearing fruit and that freedom of circulation and movement had been peacefully restored in many areas following relevant decisions made by demonstrators themselves.

On October 27, the Public Prosecutor's Office filed a complaint against Semilla party legislator Samuel Pérez, after he posted on social media a comment questioning the Court's decision and considering that decision a "declaration of war against the people of Guatemala." According to the Public Prosecutor's Office, the legislator's message might "destabilize the democratic rule of law" and amount to a crime against Guatemala's homeland security. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship stress that the right to freedom of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government controls or any other hurdles aimed at preventing the free circulation of ideas and opinions.

Finally, as this press release was being finalized, the IACHR was informed of the murder of human rights defender Noé Gómez, a member of the Xinca people and one of the leaders of protests in Jutiapa. The IACHR calls on Guatemalan authorities to investigate with due diligence the events surrounding the death of Gómez on October 28.

In the current context, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship consider it essential to address the legitimate demands of the people. The ongoing talks and mediation process supported by the Organization of American States (OAS) are the most suitable platform to do this.

Given the current situation and its effects on human rights, the IACHR asks the State of Guatemala to consent to a Commission visit to the country.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate stems from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has the mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as an advisory body to the OAS on the matter. The IACHR is made up of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 255/23

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