Push to curtail activism continues in Guatemala

Human rights organizations have come under intense attacks in the last decade in Guatemala, and a new reform looks to criminalize and even close organizations that the state considers to be threatening to the country.

The reform to the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Law was first passed in February, generating fear among human rights defenders. “It is a law that violates fundamental constitutional rights,” Iduvina Hernández Batres, the director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy told Toward Freedom

Among the most troubling sections of the reform is Article 15, which states “no donation or external financing may be used to carry out activities that disturb the public order in national territory.” The same article permits the Ministry of the Interior to close organizations that are considered to be in violation of the law. 

Activists protest against the new NGO Law in Guatemala City. Photo: Jeff Abbott.

The reform could impact tens of thousands of non-governmental organizations, social organizations, churches, sports clubs, business, and community associations, according to Hernández Batres.

“The worry is that [the reform] gives the state the possibility and capacity to have control over its critics and groups that are not related to them,” Marielos Chang, an independent political analyst, told Toward Freedom. “If the state considers that an organization breaks the public order –say protesting outside of congress– then that can be the justification to close that organization.” 

On March 2nd, Guatemala’s highest court temporarily suspended the controversial reform of the NGO Law, which was known as Initiative 5279 prior to its approval. In its decision, the Constitutional Court stated that the reform “carries a threat of the violation of human rights.” 

The court’s decision to suspend the reform is widely seen as a victory for various movements across Guatemala. It comes after various organizations and individuals, including current congressional representatives, including Aldo Davila and other members of leftist Winaq party. Former representatives like Leocadio Juracán, who served in congress from 2016 to 2020, also issued challenges to the reform in the court. The Constitutional Court case argues that the reform limits freedom of expression, of the right of association, and freedom to protest. 

While the Constitutional Court’s decision temporarily suspends the reform from being implemented, it now must go to a public hearing where supporters will present their arguments. A full decision will take time. 

In spite of the court’s decision, Guatemala’s conservative new President Alejandro Giammattei stated that the reform would become law, and that the court had made their decision too quickly. Vice President Guillermo Castillo initially told reporters the executive will respect the court’s decision, before aligning with the president. Regardless of hostility from the executive, the Constitutional Court issued a statement saying their decision stands and the reform will not enter into law. 

Supporters of the reform to the NGO Law have argued that it will put in place new oversight on NGOs and improve transparency. Carlos Calderón, a congressional representative with the President’s VAMOS political party told Reuters the reform seeks to curtail the ability of foreign organizations to “harm the sovereignty” of Guatemala. Critics argue that the reform is an attack on freedom of association and gives the state the ability to shutter government critics. 

The reform was originally proposed in 2017 by congressional representatives from the FCN-Nación party, which at the time was the party of sitting president Jimmy Morales. The reform sought to change the NGO law that was approved 2003, when former dictator turned congressional representative, Efrain Ríos Montt, was head of congress. The previous legislation placed new requirements on NGOs, including registration in the national tax system and oversight for organizations that receive public funding. Critics argue that recent reform is not necessary due to the already existing registration process for NGOs.

Congressional approval under dubious circumstances

On February 11, just a month into the year’s congressional sessions, conservative congresspeople used a motion to combat Coronavirus in Guatemala to push through the final session on Initiative 5279. The right-wing coalition within congress approved the reform with the minimum votes required, in spite of outcry from the opposition and new members of congress. 

Most new congressional representatives had little time to review the reform to the NGO Law.

“They included the [reform] in a way that was not transparent, using the coronavirus,” Aldo Dávila told Toward Freedom.  Dávila was one of the representatives who spoke up against how the law was being brought up. In response, his microphone was cut off. “[The new representatives] voted for a law that they had not read, that they did not know.”

The approval of the reform has renewed concern around the alliance between conservative and centrist politicians within congress known locally as the corruption pact, or “pacto de corruptos,”  which have pursued regressive laws that seek to maintain immunity. According to Dávila, the vote on February 11 showed how these alliances are continuing within the new congress. 

On February 26 President Giammattei signed the controversial reform into law. Various organizations followed by filing injunctions in the Constitutional Court, which led to the March 2 reversal. 

International organizations, the US State Department, the European Union, and the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights expressed concern with the reform, and called on Giammattei to veto the reform. 

The surprise approval of the reform sparked outcry from national organizations. The following week activists gathered outside of congress to let them know they were watching. The President’s initial approval of the reform was met by widespread criticism in the national media

The reform to the NGO law is not an isolated incident. Rather it is part of a push for regressive legislation in the Guatemalan Congress pushed by the pacto de corruptos that seeks to limit human rights, undo anti-corruption legislation, and attack critics of the state. 

This group has sought to repeal laws that make it illegal for politicians to switch parties in the middle of their terms, a common practice utilized by political power blocs, to strip campaign finance laws, and to reduce sentences and criminal charges for those who accept the charges against them. Congress has also sought to remove the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, from his position. 

Among other pending laws in Guatemala is Initiative 5272, that looks to “protect” the nuclear family by restricting LGBT+ and women rights. The regressive law is backed by evangelical and conservative Catholic groups. It looks to strip LGBTTI+ people of rights by defining a family as being “between a man and woman with children.” It would also further criminalize abortions by ordering prison time for women who undergo the procedure as well as those who preform it. 

Guatemala’s Human Rights Crisis 

The original proposal for the reform to the NGO Law occurred as the outgoing Morales administration began its campaign against the anti-corruption efforts of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, better known as CICIG. The reform targeted the groups that pushed back against the unilateral decision to remove the CICIG, which officially ended its mandate on September 3, 2019. 

“This is revenge by the corruption pact against organizations that have denounced and followed the acts of corruption,” Dávila told Toward Freedom

The Morales’ administration’s campaign against anti-corruption efforts further debilitated the independence of the judicial branch, and created a crisis within the Guatemalan political system.

The reform to the NGO Law is especially troubling for human rights organizations, campesino organizations, LGBT+ groups, women’s associations, and independent media. These are the groups which have been among the most active in Guatemala in recent years in the movements against corruption and in defense of territory. 

“This law is directed against human rights organizations,” Brenda Hernández, an activist in Guatemala City, told Toward Freedom. “[It affects] all the organizations that have intervened with actions and shown the violation of rights by the state.” 

Physical attacks, threats and harassment have led to a deterioration of the functionality of human rights organizations in Guatemala. This situation is highlighted by the 2019 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), according to which in 2019 there were over 300 attacks on human rights defenders, and sixteen more were killed for their activism. 

In particular, the violence targeted the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), which saw 10 members killed in 2019. CODECA is one of the organizations most targeted by the state, which has tried to paint them as a terrorist organization for blocking highways during protests. 

In addition, there is ongoing criminalization of community members who protest against mega-projects. In 2019, there were nearly 1000 cases brought against campesino leaders from the two other main campesino organizations in Guatemala, the Campesino Committee of the Highlands and the Committee for Campesino Unity, according to the OHCHR report. 

Activists promise that they will continue to challenge the reform. The Constitutional Court was poised to hear arguments in coming months, but public hearings are currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Author Bio:

Jeff Abbott is a freelance journalist based out of Guatemala where he has reported for Al Jazeera and The Progressive Magazine, among many others. Follow him on Twitter @palabrasdeabajo.