IACHR Press Office
Washington, DC—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned the excessive use of force against demonstrators and members of the Q'eqchi' Mayan communities, as well as acts of repression against journalists and media outlets recorded in recent days in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal department in Guatemala; and urges the State to investigate acts of violence with due diligence and to respect and guarantee freedom of expression, social protest, and the rights of indigenous peoples.
On October 22 and 23, according to publicly available information, agents of the National Civil Police Force (PNC) violently repressed demonstrators, journalists, and members of the Maya Q'eqchi' people, making excessive use of force and using tear gas. The demonstrators had been engaging in peaceful actions and blockades for more than 20 days to protest operations at the Fénix mine, which is in their territory. The Office of the Human Rights Ombud of Guatemala (PDH) reported that several people sustained injuries following the indiscriminate action of security agents, including children and adolescents, elderly people, and journalists who were covering the events. According to the PDH, as of October 23, seven PNC agents had been wounded by firearm ammunition.
As the IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have pointed out, protest is a fundamental tool for different population groups to express their identity and manifest their demands. As a result, social demonstrations often translate into forms of discourse that are specially protected by the right to freedom of expression. As a consequence, the IACHR has called on States to adopt affirmative measures to guarantee the right to protest of particularly vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples.
The IACHR noted that although the State has a legitimate duty to guarantee security and public order, the use of force must be governed by the principles of legality, strict necessity, and proportionality. It is also the State's duty to respect and guarantee the work of journalists during demonstrations, given the vital role that they play in documenting events and the actions of security forces. The IACHR rejected the violent actions taken by Guatemalan security forces against demonstrators and the press on this occasion and urged the State to conduct a prompt, thorough, diligent investigation into the acts of violence.
Being able to gather and associate is key for the empowerment of indigenous communities. In this regard, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous peoples' forms of association and organization enjoy specific protection when they relate to specially protected rights such as their cultural identity and lands.
In its report on protest and human rights, the IACHR noted once again that according to international norms and standards, States must restrict the implementation of forced evictions and are obliged to adopt measures to protect individuals and communities that are jeopardized by such operations, as cases of forced evictions are "prima facie incompatible" with the principles of international law.
Following the violent events that took place, on October 24, 2021, the President of the Republic decreed a state of emergency in the municipality of El Estor, "because actions had been carried out that affected public order, governability, and inhabitants' security" and "because armed individuals and groups" had carried out "acts of violence against security forces that jeopardized inhabitants' freedom of movement," among other reasons. Following the President's statement, which was ratified by Congress on October 25, PNC and army agents were reportedly deployed in the municipality of El Estor. In this context, the IACHR received information about raids on the residences of Prensa Comunitaria journalists, as well as police searches of the facilities of the Xyaab' Tzuultaq'a community radio station and the Q'eqchi' Ombud's Office.
On the matter of the state of emergency that was decreed, the IACHR reminded the State of Guatemala that such measures should be exceptional and must conform to the requirements of international law. It also noted that they do not constitute sustainable, effective responses for tackling or resolving social or political conflicts. The State of Guatemala informed the IACHR that the state of emergency decreed in the municipality of El Estor complies with the standards of international human rights law.
Furthermore, the information received by the IACHR indicates that the activities being carried out at the Fénix mine by the Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel (CGN), a subsidiary of the Russian firm Solway Investment Group, could seriously pollute Lake Izabal, destroy the flora and fauna of the region, and endanger the health and life of the local population, which is why these activities have been rejected by the population of the area and the Ancestral Councils and Mayan Q'eqchi' communities. In this context, the IACHR became aware that through the ruling issued on June 18, 2020, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala upheld a provisional injunction granted in 2019 to the affected communities.
In this ruling, the Constitutional Court determined that the rights of indigenous peoples to participate in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of economic, social, and cultural development plans and programs that directly affect them had been compromised. Consequently, it ordered the competent authorities to carry out a process of preconsultation and consultation with the peoples living in the area of influence of the Fénix Mining Project, as stipulated in ILO Convention 169. In this regard, the State of Guatemala informed the IACHR that it has carried out an exercise that is in accordance with the legislation currently in force in the country regarding the implementation of consultations with indigenous peoples that respect these people's right to express their views on issues that concern them. The State noted that it engaged in dialogue with the people who requested to take part in the preconsultation process and with people who filed appeals, listening actively to their demands and responding to them based on the criteria established by the Constitutional Court itself for carrying out the consultation. The IACHR noted that although the Constitutional Court ordered that mining operations be suspended until the consultation process has been concluded, the mining company's activities have reportedly continued.
The IACHR reiterated that the unique relationship between indigenous peoples and their territories has been widely recognized in international human rights law, as has States' duty to guarantee and protect those territories. It also reaffirmed that indigenous peoples' right to self-determination is closely related to the use and availability of lands and territories. In this regard, the IACHR reiterated that it is the duty of the State of Guatemala to conduct prior, free, and informed consultations with indigenous peoples on administrative and legislative initiatives in order to obtain their consent. Failure to do so contravenes international standards on the matter and jeopardizes their fundamental rights to participation and to their lands, territories, and natural resources.
The IACHR also reminded Guatemala of its obligations to respect and guarantee human rights in relation to business activities being carried out in its territory in relation to the events described in this press release, urging the State to apply the criteria, standards, and recommendations set out in the report entitled "Business and Human Rights: Inter-American Standards," created by the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (OSRESCER). Specifically, the IACHR and the OSRESCER reminded the State of its duty to listen effectively to affected individuals, communities, and populations, taking their concerns seriously, as part of its obligation to prevent violations and guarantee the effective enjoyment of human rights in the context of business activities.
These obligations are more pronounced when, as is the case for the inhabitants of the Municipality of El Estor, the realization of other rights, such as the right to food, water, or a healthy environment depend on the protection of their territories, rights that are critical for the subsistence of the peoples who live there. Consequently, the IACHR and the OSRESCER call on the State to urgently apply a human rights perspective and a human rights and business perspective to all measures adopted to address the social conflict regarding operations at the Fénix Mine, including the effective exercise of the right to free, informed, prior consultation of indigenous peoples and the effective participation of the population in business projects and activities that affect them.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.