Guatemala must do more to assure security, justice – UN rights chief

Louise Arbour

30 May 2006 – Although Guatemala has launched important initiatives and made undeniable progress since a peace agreement almost 10 years ago ended decades of civil war, reforms are moving too slowly and there has been no significant advance in combating impunity or eliminating clandestine groups, according to the top United Nations human rights official.

“It is cause for concern that not only reforms are progressing slowly, but that more and more people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the State’s inability to deliver the promised security, equality and justice,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said in a weekend press statement at the end of an official visit to the Central American country.

“Nothing can exemplify this better than the delay encountered by victims of the armed conflict in obtaining justice and reparation. Where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes,” she stated, calling for reform of the police, including dismissal of officers with poor human rights records and criminal prosecutions where required.

“This has led Guatemala earning the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the region,” she added, noting that according to the Ombudsman, homicides have risen 60 per cent from 2001 to 2005, with a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people.

Ms. Arbour also called for speedy and thorough modernization of the judicial sector, stressing that a functioning correctional system is essential to this process.

“I have been reassured by several officials that the Government is fully supporting the much needed reforms. But given the deep-seated nature of the problems, progress will require a sustained commitment over a number of years as well as additional funding for implementation,” she said.

In general terms, Guatemala suffers from the region's lowest public investment in social services and lowest tax collection base at 10 per cent of gross domestic product. It scores consistently low on the UN Human Development Indices including on infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy. “Security cannot be achieved without a sustained attention to the social and economic challenges that the country faces,” Ms. Arbour declared.

She also emphasized the isolation and discrimination faced by the indigenous peoples, who, particularly in the case of women, remain disproportionately poor, and suffer high rates of illiteracy as well as health and social problems – largely as a result of lack of access to health care, education, decent housing, employment and social services.

Guatemala should ensure the indigenous communities’ full participation as actors in the development of the country, she added.

Ms. Arbour had positive comments, too. “It should be noted that Guatemala is a different country today than it was at the conclusion of the conflict,” she said. “The end of authoritarian, repressive and violent State practices associated with the internal armed conflict, have brought undeniable benefits to the country as a whole, but especially to those areas in the countryside that bore the brunt of the conflict.”

She cited important initiatives in a number of areas, particularly the adoption of an anti-discrimination law; the establishment of the National Reparations Commission; programmes to improve access to justice for indigenous communities; and the President’s public recognitions of atrocities committed during the armed conflict.

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