16 August 2002 With an advocate for street children in Guatemala scheduled to go on trial today on charges of defamation, the top United Nations human rights official today voiced serious concern about the right to freedom of expression in that country.
According to a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, the proceedings against Bruce Harris appeared to be the result of an overly restrictive interpretation of the right to freedom of expression in the country. Mr. Harris is the regional director of Casa Alianza, an organization that works throughout Central America in defence of street children.
The High Commissioner, joined by UN human rights experts dealing with the sale of children and the independence of the judiciary, as well as the UN's special envoy on human rights defenders, urged Guatemala to implement international obligations to protect freedom of expression.
Mrs. Robinson also indicated that she knows Mr. Harris personally, and that she has high regard for his commitment to action on behalf of children.
The case against Mr. Harris was opened in 1997 following a press conference at which he named an individual allegedly involved in the trafficking of Guatemalan and Mexican babies for adoption in other countries.
The individual, who at the time was married to the President of the Supreme Court, brought defamation charges against Mr. Harris. The head of Casa Alianza argued that, as the Guatemalan Constitution protected freedom of expression, a civil court should resolve the case.
In 1999 the country’s Constitutional Court, however, ruled that only journalists have freedom of expression, and ordered Mr. Harris to be tried by a criminal court.