Press Release

A Year after the Tragedy at a Guatemalan Residential Institution, the IACHR Expresses Concern about the State’s Slow and Incomplete Response

March 8, 2018

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Washington, D.C. — On the first anniversary of the tragic fire at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution in Guatemala, in which 41 girls lost their lives and at least 15 others suffered severe burns and psychological trauma, the IACHR extends its solidarity to the victims’ family members and to the surviving girls and their families. It urges the State of Guatemala to move forward and adopt measures so that similar events do not happen again and to ensure the protection and well-being of the survivors.

In the context of the events at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, the Inter-American Commission issued Resolution 8/17 on March 12, 2017, in which it granted Precautionary Measure No. 958-16 and requested that the State of Guatemala adopt a series of measures to protect the life and personal integrity of the children and adolescents housed at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution. The Commission asked the State to, among other things, provide adequate care and treatment to the girls who suffered serious burns or other physical or psychological injury because of the fire; take effective steps to encourage the girls’ reintegration into their families, whenever possible and with any necessary support, or identify care alternatives that provide greater protection; and report on the steps taken to investigate the events in question and prevent a recurrence. The Commission later followed up on compliance with the precautionary measure during a working visit to Guatemala by the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child that same month of March, and during the Commission’s on-site visit to the country in August 2017.

On the one-year anniversary of this tragedy, the Commission notes that the approach to this situation has been slow and incomplete and has failed to recognize the serious lack of protection of children in the country, which demands an urgent response. The IACHR cautions that there is a lack of comprehensive medical, material, and psychological support for the survivors and the victims’ family members, and notes with concern the delay in judicial proceedings against those responsible. The Commission also has serious concerns about the failure to follow up on the status of the girls who were taken out of the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution and returned to their families, as their current situation is unknown. The IACHR is also concerned about the lack of adequate support to the families so that they can take proper care of these girls.

The Commission encourages the State to accelerate the effective implementation of the plan to comprehensively attend to the needs of the survivors and the family members of the victims; adopt a stronger commitment to the process of deinstitutionalizing children in the country and to the implementation of policies to support and provide direct assistance to families going through family reintegration; and promote the availability of alternative forms of foster care, in foster families and small-scale, specialized residential centers that meet international standards. It also urges the State to move forward with proceedings to determine responsibility for the events of March 2017, as well as with investigations into the allegations of violence, exploitation, and sexual trafficking that predated the fire, with all due diligence and in keeping with the types of criminal charges that address the gravity of what happened. This tragedy is symptomatic of a failed child protection system in Guatemala. To address this problem from the roots, the State must, as a matter of priority and without delay, profoundly transform the current model and adopt appropriate legal and policy frameworks so that a National System for the Comprehensive Protection of Children’s Rights can function, one that has sufficient and appropriate human, technical, and financial resources and is strongly focused on prevention, on locally provided services, and on social policies geared toward families and designed to ensure basic rights, such as health, education, and nutrition.

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.

No. 043/18