Go On! Book Launch: The Construction of the Customary Law of Peace: Latin America and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

You are welcome to register for participation in the book launch of The Construction of the Customary Law of Peace: Latin America and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on October 1st at 5pm, live streamed via Zoom:

https://www.jus.uio.no/ior/english/research/news-and-events/events/other/latin-america.html

At present, Latin America may be characterized as a region that has enjoyed an epoch of “long peace”, due to the lack of inter-state wars. Simultaneously we have seen a diametric rise in intra-state violence, evidenced by its ranking as having the highest level of violence in the world, and in particular having the highest levels of violence against workers and women.

This book explores the regional normative evolution of peace from its negative form (absence of violence) to its positive form (equality, non-discrimination, and social justice) and the challenge of articulating a pro homine peace in an increasing authoritarian populist context.

Bailliet has interviewed the sitting judges in The Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court has established a large amount of case law regarding migrants, indigenous and elderly people’s rights. The court also employs orders demanding protection of human right advocates and other civil society actors participating in protests subject to state repression.

The sitting president for The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Elizabeth Odio Benito, views women as the heart of peace, and concludes that the court protects peace because it protects women’s rights. At present there is a high level of polarization in the region, evident by societal mobilization and counter-mobilization regarding abortion, access to IVF, violence against women and family rights.

The book seeks to explore to what degree The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is capable of developing a framework for sustainable peace within the context of the triad human rights, democracy and development.

PROGRAMME:

17:00 Welcome and introduction by Cecilia Bailliet

17: 10 Prepared comment by Professor Thomas Antkowiak, Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Seattle University School of Law (live streamed from the US).

17:30 Prepared comment by Professor Benedicte Bull, UiO.

Discussion:   Challenges to peace in Latin America 

Migrant Worker Women Advancing Gender Equity through the USMCA

Men only, 1835 years old. 

In 2021, seeing a job posting with those words is startling. Shocking even. But more than a year into a world-changing pandemic that has pushed millions of women out of paid work, U.S. employers continue to discriminate against women, posting ads like that one. To evade legal consequences, U.S. businesses discriminate in Mexico, hiring men to work in the United States with temporary H-2 guestworker visas while turning women away. Other U.S. businesses discriminate by hiring women but channeling them into lower-paying jobs with poorer conditions than those they hire men for. Although the U.S. government knows that H-2 employers discriminate against women, it has done little to stop them. 

For more than fifteen years, since I founded Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM)—the first transnational workers’ rights organization based in Mexico and the United States—I have heard from women in Mexico about patterns of abuse in the U.S. H-2 programs. Migrant women have courageously spoken out about blatant discrimination in H-2 recruitment and hiring, sexual harassment and other violence against women at work, unfair pay, and unlawful working conditions. Women report discrimination in industries ranging from Maryland’s blue crab processors to fruit and vegetable sorting. Sex discrimination persists in H-2 labor supply chains even though U.S. law prohibits employers and labor recruiters from discriminating against women. Laws prohibiting discrimination protect all women who work in the United States, even if businesses hire them outside of the country.

Today, migrant women continue the fight for gender justice. In March, in honor of Women’s History Month, CDM and workers’ rights organizations across North America joined migrant women in filing the first viable state-to-state complaint under the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA). The USMCA’s labor chapter, Article 23, requires the United States to enforce its anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In failing to root out discrimination in H-2 recruiting, hiring, and employment and neglecting to ensure gender equity in the program, the United States is violating Article 23. 

In the complaint, we collectively make three demands:

  1. The U.S. government must end sex discrimination in the H-2 guestworker programs once and for all.
  2. The government must ensure that all workers have access to Legal Services Corporation-funded civil legal services. (Without lawyers working in solidarity with them, it is nearly impossible for migrant women to access justice through U.S. courts.)
  3. The government must investigate discrimination complaints from women in the H-2 program under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, rather than ignoring or summarily dismissing them.

And to increase pressure on the Administration, we are filing a supplemental complaint with Professor Sarah Paoletti, a Practice Professor of Law and the Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. The supplement will address the U.S. government’s obligations under the ILO and international human rights law to end discrimination in the H-2 program.

We have reasons to be hopeful that the USMCA can serve as a tool to improve access to transnational justice for migrant workers. Unlike NAFTA—the old trade agreement with its toothless labor side accord—the USMCA has a mechanism for migrant workers and their advocates to push governments to comply with labor and employment laws—or face sanctions. Concretely, this means that the U.S. government may face sanctions if it maintains the status quo and ignores the grave abuses that the petitioners report in the H-2 program. It means that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must end its practice of failing to investigate and meaningfully respond to migrant women’s discrimination complaints. And it means that the U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security must stop allowing H-2 employers to discriminate without consequences. In receiving and reviewing our petition, the governments are legally responsible for showing us that they meant what they said about protecting migrant workers’ and women’s rights when they signed the agreement. 

The historic process for the migrant women petitioners began in Mexico, where we filed the USMCA complaint with the Mexican government. Mexico formally accepted the complaint and is now investigating discrimination and other abuses in the agricultural and protein processing industries, the industries in which the petitioners work. Earlier this month, Mexico asked the United States to honor its obligations under the USMCA and invited cooperation in doing so. And now the Biden-Harris Administration has the opportunity to make good on the promise of the USMCA and proactively address the urgent issues we raise in the complaint.

For too long, U.S. businesses have used the H-2 programs to bypass our civil rights and labor laws. Left without government oversight, H-2 employers have enacted their sexist, racist, and ageist ideas about the kinds of workers who maximize profitability. Sex discrimination in the H-2 program harms not only migrant women from Mexico but also U.S.-based workers. 

Over the next year, as we rebuild the U.S. economy for a sustainable and equitable recovery, justice for migrant women must be at the fore of the government’s labor and employment policies and practices. And next Women’s History Month, we look forward to celebrating meaningful, sustainable reforms in the H-2 program that will end discrimination against migrant women and promote access to justice. 

We would be grateful for your support in standing with migrant worker women to fight against discrimination. Please email me (rachel@cdmigrante.org) to join the supplemental complaint on the U.S. government’s obligations under the ILO or to submit an amicus in support of migrant worker women. 

Violence, Justice, Equity: Reflections on International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day (IWD), the official UN theme for 2021 is “women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” The elimination of discrimination and violence against women and girls are targets of the Millennium Development Goals and the UN Agenda 2030, which emphasizes inclusivity in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including gender equality and the empowerment of all females in Goal 5. Goal 10 aims to reduce gender and socioeconomic inequalities globally, including through the elimination of discrimination, violence, exploitation, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Dating back to the first celebration in 1909 in the United States, IWD is rooted in socialist women’s leadership in struggles for labor and economic justice, such as the 8-hour workday and limits on women’s and children’s labor; political justice, such as suffrage and liberation from fascism and autocracy; a refusal to sacrifice husbands and children to wars; and breaking down false barriers between “public” and “private” life that conceal the important roles of mothers and wives. Women’s efforts against poverty and violence have also been consistent IWD themes, including the structural violence of female subordination—“a tolerance of violence against women and children” and being “subjected to a life of sub-humanity for the sheer fact alone that they were born female,” as noted on IWD 2012.

To imagine a gender-equitable future from this historical moment in 2021 requires reckoning with how women and girls have been faring. For instance, since the start of the pandemic in the US women—disproportionately women of color—have left the work force at four times the rate of men, reversing previous gains. One of the more well-known outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is the escalation of domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), triggered by prolonged social isolation, household tension in close quarters, and increasing strains on individuals and families due to deteriorating health, socio-economic, and/or political conditions. The “Forever Wars” and other conflicts around the world have also raged on during the pandemic, adding to the world’s refugee crisis in which 75-80% of displaced persons are women and children. Trauma is understandably a common preoccupation of our time.

Working at the intersection of human rights and trauma mental health, I have spent the last year writing about SGBV and trauma-informed approaches to interviewing female survivors for purposes of investigating human rights violations such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and mass detention of people seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Among multiple things competing for our attention, mine has been focused intensely on militarism, conflict-related SGBV, impunity, and feminist activism amidst growing societal & global inequities and increasing violence in many forms—criminal, sexual, domestic, and political—during the pandemic. In the ongoing and escalating struggle for gender justice, urgent attention to violence remains important. Among the types of violence and harm SGBV stands out for several reasons. It is the only serious crime for which many justice systems require victims to prove lack of consent to the harm inflicted. Across diverse legal systems, redress for SGBV is difficult to attain due to attribution of blame and complicity to victims/survivors as well as impunity for perpetrators. SGBV has also historically been the least punished offense committed during wartime.

In the long history of international feminist activism, it is only recently that women’s efforts led to the recognition of conflict-related SGBV as a war crime against the long-standing idea that sexual violence against women, girls, men, and boys is an expected military reward or byproduct of war. Women’s campaigning for redress of this injustice, through UN human rights and women’s rights conferences and particularly since the 1990s International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, resulted in its designation as a crime against humanity. “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime,” said Judge Pillay of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (later, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).

However, all forms of SGBV persist, supported by strong ideological underpinnings: state-supported violence, militarized masculinity, and victim-blaming alongside perpetrator impunity. These thrive in a broader context of social, economic, civil, and political inequities. SGBV is founded on sexist beliefs and compounded by other structural inequalities in the context of globalized discourses of militarized masculinity that merge sex and violence, and which are amplified through warfare. The globally pervasive threat of SGBV reduces the quality of life for targeted persons—disproportionately women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons—and is particularly acute in hyper-masculinist institutions in which sexual assault rates are often highest, such as in militaries. Conflict-related SGBV inflicts collective trauma by systematically targeting individual bodies in furtherance of broader social harms such as the mass displacement, dispossession, and extermination of entire neighborhoods and communities. Female survivors of conflict-related SGBV have reported feelings of complete insecurity and multiple losses: bodily integrity, health, loss of family and their livelihoods, disorientation and lack of belonging, profound dispossession of their personal identity, and marginalization.

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Judicial Independence Hanging by a Thread in Guatemala

Guatemalan justice sector actors known for being independent and impartial are facing a new slew of threats to their careers and professional integrity.

Increasing efforts to rid the justice sector of the dwindling number of rule of law defenders that remain is part of what appears to be a larger, systematic plan to return Guatemala to a state of impunity. These attempts are spurring on the rule of law backsliding which began with the attack against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and have created an exigent situation. Corruption and impunity will prevail again if something is not done soon to protect Guatemala’s independent and impartial justice sector actors.

The full policy brief outlining the ongoing attacks against the independence of the justice sector in Guatemala is available here.

The policy brief was co-authored by Jaime Chávez Alor, Latin America Policy Director at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association, and Lauren McIntosh, Legal Advisor at the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC).

Guatemala and Covid-19: Justice Postponed

Photo courtesy of Alexey Hulsov

This blog piece was co-authored by Jaime Chávez Alor, Latin America Policy Manager at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar, and was originally posted on the website of the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC).

Guatemala is just one of the slew of countries like Brazil, Nicaragua and Hungary that was already experiencing rule of law backsliding long before Covid-19. However, as highlighted in ILAC’s most recent rule of law assessment report, there was a window of opportunity to return to combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala with the ushering in of a new executive in January 2020. Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, even took early steps to show he was serious about fighting corruption by signing an inter-institutional cooperation agreement and establishing a presidential commission against corruption. Even though there were initial signs of hope, there are already unfortunately several reasons to fear that the rule of law will continue to backslide and that the chance for justice will be postponed during the pandemic.

Further rule of law backsliding during Covid-19 is already happening

We have already seen Guatemala’s Congress use a Covid-19 discussion to pass a bill that amends the NGO law. The amendment restricts development NGOs and has been heavily criticized since it was first introduced in March 2017 as being inconsistent with the right of association and freedom of expression. Yet, on February 11, it was “surreptitiously approved after being introduced by three congressmen during a discussion of emergency measures to confront the coronavirus, thus deceiving all transparency and debate in the parliamentary process”.[1] Guatemala’s Constitutional Court provisionally suspended enactment of the law, but its final ruling is on hold as the Court is not in session due to Covid-19.

Added challenges to judicial nominations

More than six months have passed since Congress should have elected judges to Guatemala’s highest benches, including the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. What was already a nominations process plagued by technical failures and corruption scandals has been further delayed and is likely to become even less transparent due to the pandemic. In the midst of the national quarantine, Guatemala’s Congress met on March 17, and elected judges to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The Congressional session to elect the judges was closed to the media as a measure to apparently prevent spreading of the virus. In response, many sectors within Guatemala expressed concern over the lack of transparency in the election process. Despite these concerns, the nine newly elected judges took the bench on March 27. 

Almost as worrying is the fact that the first order issued by the new judges suspended the annulment of six different political parties, economic sanctions against former political candidates, advertising companies and political organisations, several of whom had allegedly illicitly financed past elections. The judges justified their order by stating that the affected parties were unable to appear in their defense due to the public health crisis. This begs the question of whether the judges used Covid-19 as a pretext to justify their ruling after being influenced to suspend the annulments and sanctions. If the answer is yes, this is not a good start for the legitimacy of the newly formed Tribunal which is meant to administer justice and root out corruption in electoral matters.

Covid-19 as a pretext for limiting civil liberties

Not only was the media excluded from the Congressional session to elect new judges to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, but the government has placed further restrictions on journalists seeking to access and cover other Congressional sessions. On April 4, in response to the limitations, the Human Rights Ombudsman filed an amparo[2] with the Constitutional Court claiming that the restrictions violated Guatemala’s constitution. Similarly, about a week later, more than a hundred journalists, columnists, activists and civil society organizations demanded that President Giammattei and his government stop threatening their freedom of expression and independent journalism. The demand arises from the fact that the government has attempted to silence media outlets critical of the government’s response to the pandemic by using intimidation tactics and excluding journalists from official WhatsApp groups where the government disseminates Covid-19 information.

Can the Constitutional Court continue to resist?

The Constitutional Court has remained a pocket of resistance throughout the attacks on the justice sector and the rule of law in Guatemala, and hopefully this will remain true in spite of the pandemic. In addition to the amparos pending before the Constitutional Court regarding the NGO law and the restrictions placed on journalists, the Court continues to receive amparos during the pandemic. This includes amparos filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman to decentralise Covid-19 testing and for President Giammattei’s failure to appoint a head of the Presidential Secretariat for Women which works to protect the rights of women and children, an amparo requiring President Giammattei to guarantee water and electricity services throughout the health emergency and an amparo to guarantee that the conditions of employees are not modified during the pandemic. It is unclear how these pressing constitutional questions will be resolved while the Court is not in session and how much of a backlog the institution can manage once it is up and running again. How long can justice be postponed during a public health crisis?


Sources

[1] WOLA, “Guatemala: National and International Organizations Condemn Approval of NGO Law,” https://www.wola.org/2020/02/organizations-condemn-approval-of-ngo-law/ (18 Feb. 2020).

[2] An amparo is a remedy to protect constitutional rights and is common to many legal systems in Latin America.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court issues landmark decision recognising victims of reproductive violence in conflict

A month ago, on 11 December 2019, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued an important decision recognising that women and girls who suffered forced contraception and forced abortion by their own armed groups should be recognized as ‘victims of armed conflict’. The decision is one of very few in the world to specifically recognise reproductive violence as a form of harm committed against women and girls in times of conflict. It thus sets important legal precedent in recognising a form of gender-based violence that has long remained invisible. Although the full written decision has not yet been made available, a summary of the decision has been published. In what follows, I analyse this summary.

Helena’s case

The case was brought by Women’s Link Worldwide on behalf of Helena (pseudonym), a young woman who had been forcibly recruited into the FARC at the age of 14. While with the FARC, she was forced to take contraceptives (injections) and forced to undergo an abortion when she became pregnant. She suffered significant and long-lasting health consequences as a result of the unsafe conditions in which these procedures were forcibly carried out. Continuing to suffer negative health consequences, Helena fled and was in hiding for many years until the peace deal with the government was signed. In 2017, she submitted an application to be recognised as a victim and to seek reparations under Colombia’s Law on Victims and Land Restitution (Law 1448). This law, adopted in 2011, recognizes victims of the armed conflict and confirms their rights to truth, justice and reparations. It includes provisions on the restitution of land and other reparations, and requires that special attention be paid to the needs of specific groups and communities, such as women, survivors of sexual violence, trade unionists, victims of forced displacement, and human rights defenders.

The agency charged with the registration of victims under this reparations framework (UARIV), however, subsequently denied Helena’s claim for victim status. In doing so, UARIV had relied upon an article in Law 1448 that denied victim status to members of illegal armed groups (Article 2(3)), and held that, in any case, Helena’s claim was submitted outside of applicable timelines set out in Law 1448. Helena fought this decision; while the first instance court did grant her access to government-provided medical support, her claims for recognition as a victim and for reparations under Law 1448 were dismissed in both first and second instance. She thus appealed her case to the Constitutional Court, who heard the matter in 2019, and issued this landmark decision at the end of last year. Importantly, Helena’s case was selected for review by the full panel of nine judges, rather than being decided upon by a panel of three judges. This illustrates the importance the Constitutional Court attached to the issues.

Constitutional Court’s decision

In its December 2019 decision, the Constitutional Court firstly found established that Helena was the victim of grave violations of her fundamental rights. The Court subsequently held that in dismissing her application to be registered as a victim of the armed conflict, UARIV violated Helena’s fundamental rights on two grounds. Firstly, UARIV had violated Helena’s rights as a victim by failing to interpret the applicable rules in accordance with established constitutional principles of most favourable interpretation, good faith, pro personae, and the primacy of substantive law. Secondly, UARIV failed to properly substantiate its decision by neither acknowledging the acts of forced abortion and forced displacement Helena suffered, nor by recognising that Helena’s specific circumstances constituted force majeure, preventing her from submitting an application within designated timelines.

The Court acknowledged that, on its face, Article 2(3) of Law 1448 allowed for the denial of victim status to ex-combatants who demobilised as an adult, and that, under this interpretation, Helena would have to seek reparations through other mechanisms, not including Law 1448 (as Helena fled the FARC after she turned 18). However, the Court also questioned whether this exclusion in Article 2(3) was consistent with Colombia’s obligations towards victims of the armed conflict, noting in particular the coercive nature of the practice of forced contraception and abortion within the FARC and that these acts were often perpetrated upon girls under 18, or upon young women who had only just reached the age of maturity.

According to the Court, denying Helena the right to be recognised as a victim under Law 1448, therefore, would violate her rights to access justice and to timely and adequate protection measures. Noting the principal obligation on the state to recognise victims of sexual violence as victims in such a way as to guarantee their rights to integral reparations, the Court also held that as a victim of sexual violence committed within an armed group, Helena would not have access to other avenues of reparations beyond Law 1448. As such, for the Court, registration in the Register of Victims constituted her only available avenue to adequately repair her fundamental rights.

Importantly, the Court held that the exclusion stipulated in Article 2(3) could not become an obstacle to reparations for victims of sexual violence who, as ex-combatants, were forcibly recruited into those illegal armed groups at a young age. Such a rigid interpretation of Article 2(3), according to the Court, would thus create an unconstitutional lack of protection and vulnerability. The Court also reiterated the state’s obligation to provide immediate, comprehensive, gender-sensitive and specialised health care to all victims of sexual violence by armed actors for such time as deemed necessary to overcome the physical and psychological health consequences of such violence.

For this reason, the Court relied upon the principle of declaring a ‘constitutional exception’ (la excepción de inconstitutionalidad) as provided for in Article 4 of Colombia’s Constitution to overrule the applicability of Article 2(3) of Law 1448 to Helena’s case. Pursuant to this principle, when faced with a conflict between an ordinary legal norm and a constitutional norm, the Court may declare a constitutional exception to preserve rights guaranteed by the constitution in a specific case. In this case, the Court held that relying upon this principle was the only way to guarantee Helena’s fundamental rights and to find an adequate balance between Colombian law and Colombia’s international legal obligations under international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Not doing so, the Court stressed, would give rise to consequences that it held to be unconstitutional. As such, the Court rendered Article 2(3) of Law 1448 inapplicable to this specific case.

The Court thus ordered:

  • that the decision by UARIV not to include Helena in the Register of Victims be declared void;
  • that within 10 days of the date of its decision, UARIV admit Helena to the Register of Victims on the basis of her having suffered forced recruitment as a child, sexual violence (including forced use of contraceptives and forced abortion), and forced displacement;
  • that within 15 days of the date of its decision, UARIV reinstate the provision of psychosocial and medical assistance to Helena to address the emotional, mental health and physical effects of having suffered sexual violence;
  • that in the provision of integral reparations to Helena, UARIV take a gender-sensitive approach to ensure her fundamental rights; and
  • that the health services provide and guarantee access to Helena to immediate, comprehensive, gender-sensitive, specialised care for as long as necessary to address the physical and psychological consequences of the violations she suffered.

Significance of the decision

In finding in favour of Helena’s registration as a victim of the armed conflict, this case establishes that ex-combatants who were forcibly recruited into illegal armed groups and suffered sexual violence, as well as reproductive violence, within those armed groups may seek victim status and thus have access to reparations under Law 1448 – a right they did not have before – regardless of the age at which they demobilised or fled. Beyond the significance of this finding for the claimant in this specific case, therefore, this decision also sets important legal precedent in recognising that victims of sexual and reproductive violence within armed groups are victims of armed conflict. This follows earlier jurisprudence by the International Criminal Court in the Ntaganda case (here and here; see also this 2017 post by IntLawGrrl Rosemary Grey). The Colombian decision is also one of very few in the world to specifically recognise reproductive violence as a distinct form of harm committed against women and girls in times of conflict.

As part of the case, the Court received 17 expert briefs from national and international human rights organisations, women’s rights organisations, academics and international experts, including one from the author of this blog post (written jointly with Ciara Laverty). In our amicus request filing, we offered the Court a comprehensive overview of the way in which reproductive violence long remained invisible in international law, how it is increasingly being recognised, and why it should be recognised as a specific and distinct form of harm, including when committed within armed groups.

Reproductive violence is a widespread yet understudied phenomenon that occurs in times of both conflict and of peace. It can have serious physical, mental, emotional and other consequences that persist long after the violence has occurred. It is a form of victimisation connected to but also different from sexual and other violence, due to the distinct harm it inflicts and the underlying value it is said to violate, i.e. reproductive autonomy. Although reproductive violence affects individuals of all genders, there are distinct forms of harm and violence that are inflicted only upon women and girls because of and directly targeting their sex-specific biological reproductive capacities, such as forced contraception, forced abortion and forced pregnancy.

Historically, however, there have only been few instances where such violence has been independently recognised and considered. This left reproductive violence relatively invisibilised in international law. Nonetheless, current developments reflect a growing recognition that reproductive violence constitutes a distinct form of violence that should be independently recognised as violating specific, individual rights and may also constitute (international) crimes in certain circumstances. This decision by the Colombian Constitutional Court recognising the specific victimisation of female ex-combatants through forced contraception and forced abortion thus contributes to providing greater legal recognition to a form of gender-based violence that has long remained invisible in international law.

Importantly, in addition to claiming her rights as a victim through the constitutional action that was the subject of this decision, Helena has also requested participation as a victim in case 007 before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. As such, further jurisprudence, including on individual criminal responsibility for acts of reproductive violence such forced contraception and forced abortion, may be forthcoming in Colombia.

Stay tuned!

Rule of Law Backsliding and a Rapidly Closing Space for the Justice System in Guatemala

© Wikimedia Commons

The rule of law has rapidly continued to backslide in Guatemala since my last post on ILAC’s report on the Guatemalan judiciary and our call for support to the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). I had originally planned to discuss in this post how the current situation in Guatemala reflects the challenges and opportunities for promoting justice globally in the context of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But, with such significant rule of law backsliding, the more pressing question is if it is possible to push back against this rapidly closing space for the justice system in Guatemala without CICIG?

Rule of law backsliding

In 2018, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled against President Morales’s attempts to bar CICIG’s Commissioner from reentering the country, and since the beginning of the new year President Morales has retaliated against the Guatemalan justice system.

On January 7, President Morales declared that he was unilaterally and immediately terminating the agreement establishing CICIG even though its mandate does not expire until September. He also demanded that all CICIG officials leave the country within 24 hours. In his declaration he stated that CICIG had severely violated national and international laws and that it put the security, public order, governance, human rights, and above all the sovereignty of Guatemala at risk. This type of authoritarian overreaching to attack and dismantle the rule of law follows the pattern of authoritarian trends globally, as evidenced by V-Dem Institute’s 2018 Annual Democracy Report.

Two days after President Morales’s declaration, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that his unilateral decision was unconstitutional. This was a step forward for the rule of law in Guatemala and it appeared that the justice system was pushing back against a closing space. Nevertheless, this positive momentum was short lived. Later that same day, Guatemala’s Supreme Court accepted a request from Congress to begin impeachment hearings against three Constitutional Court magistrates and to lift their immunity. The magistrates subject to that request are those who have consistently ruled in favor of CICIG. The impeachment proceedings are currently pending before Congress, and the ultimate decision on whether to lift the magistrates’ immunity and possibly remove them from the bench now lies with a Congress which is heavily aligned with President Morales.

In addition to President Morales’s unconstitutional unilateral decision to terminate CICIG’s mandate, another recent alarming indicator of rule of law backsliding is that Guatemala’s Congress is considering an amendment to its National Reconciliation Law which would grant amnesty to those convicted of serious human rights violations within 24 hours of the amendment’s ratification. This would result in the freeing of more than 30 convicts, most of whom are former military officers, and end any ongoing or future trials for crimes which occurred during Guatemala’s 30-year internal conflict.

Rule of law without CICIG?

CICIG, as a hybrid of international experts and authorities working with national criminal investigative institutions, has provided a mechanism for “accomplished and courageous leaders and prosecutors to emerge” in Guatemala’s attorney general’s office. The result was the prosecution of high-level government officials, including former presidents, ministers, and army officers, the breakup of over 60 criminal networks and 310 related convictions, fighting corruption throughout the judiciary and government, and strengthening the rule of law through programs, projects, and legislation. It is estimated that CICIG has contributed to a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides from 2007 to 2017. CICIG thus brought Guatemala closer to achieving the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda by: significantly reducing all forms of violence and related death rates (Target 16.1); promoting the rule of law at the national level and ensuring equal access to justice for all (Target 16.3); significantly reducing illicit financial and arms flows, strengthening the recovery and return of stolen assets, and combating all forms of organized crime (Target 16.4); and substantially reducing corruption and bribery (Target 16.5).

In ILAC’s recent report on the Guatemalan judiciary, we recommended to the government of Guatemala that in order to guarantee the rule of law for all persons (relating to SDG 16, Target 16.3) it must: support the independence of justice operators, including ensuring adequate resources are made available to the justice sector to ensure that it can perform its vital function, and guaranteeing the safety of justice operators, in particular judges in jurisdictions such as the High Risk Courts; confirm state support for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; and ensure that the state complies with court judgements and provides adequate resources for the enforcement of judgements, such as those by the Constitutional Court.

The continuance of Guatemala’s rule of law achievements and the support and oversight for implementing our recommendations, however, relied on CICIG’s existence.

Pushing back

Given the significant rule of law backsliding, is it possible to push back against the rapidly closing space for the justice system in Guatemala? First, it is important to note that Guatemala will hold presidential and congressional elections this summer. The elections, if conducted in a free and fair way, could bring about significant change to the current political climate. And, although the international community could not prevent an abrupt end to CICIG’s mandate, there is resistance to the closing space on the national level. Guatemalans have openly protested against the rule of law backsliding, and just last week Guatemala’s Attorney General opened an investigation into first lady Patricia Marroquin de Morales’s alleged cashing of unreported campaign checks made out to President Morales during his election bid.

This push back by civil society and justice sector actors on the national level against the closing space is hopefully a signal that the change brought about by CICIG’s work will have a lasting effect on the Guatemalan justice system. The international networks of judges, lawyers, and human rights organizations must support and encourage civil society and legal professionals in Guatemala and raise awareness of the dangers of the current rule of law backsliding. With such support, Guatemala’s civil society and the justice system’s actors and institutions can hopefully withstand the executive and legislature’s attacks on the rule of law.

ILAC was established in 2002, to facilitate cooperation by international and regional actors involved in rebuilding justice systems and the rule of law in conflict-affected countries. In 2017, ILAC selected a delegation of experts from candidates put forward by its 50+ member organisations to carry out an assessment of the justice sector in Guatemala. The delegation traveled to Guatemala in October 2017, meeting with over 150 Guatemalans, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, human rights defenders and business leaders. Follow the latest ILAC news at www.ilacnet.org and on Twitter @ILAC_Rebuild.

Un símbolo para el futuro venezolano

Cada lugar tiene símbolos e iconos que lo identifican. En algunos casos son grandes obras arquitectónicas, como el caso de la torre Eiffel, o maravillas naturales, como las cataratas del Niágara, pero independientemente de cuál sea el símbolo, todos sirven para identificar ese lugar. Todos utilizamos esas imágenes para describir no sólo las bondades del sitio al que nos referimos, sino también de los problemas que existen en el entorno.

En Venezuela la simbología ha sido utilizada ampliamente por los políticos para crear vínculos entre ellos y sus seguidores, particularmente por el gobierno, y en el 2018 hay un nuevo símbolo que todos ven, pero del que pocos hablan: el bolso escolar.

Para el año escolar 2018-2019, el gobierno del Presidente Nicolás Maduro ordenó la entrega de 4 millones de bolsos escolares. La ayuda estuvo dirigida a estudiantes del sector público, que en palabras del Ministro de Educación alcanza el 80% de la población estudiantil activa en Venezuela (aproximadamente 7 millones 200 mil estudiantes). Los bolsos fueron distribuidos a nivel nacional, y aunque no hay cifras oficiales de cuántos fueron entregados en Caracas, es posible verlos en cualquier lugar de la capital ya que la ayuda alcanzó a aproximadamente 55,6% de la población estudiantil.

Los principales receptores de los bolsos han debido ser niños y niñas. Niños como José Liborio, quien utilizaba su bolso mientras se dirigía hacia algún lugar de Caracas en compañía de su abuela. Sin embargo, vemos que quienes los utilizan son las abuelas, los hermanos, tíos primos y demás familiares que se ven en la necesidad de utilizar un bolso para llevar sus objetos personales o las compras del día.

Para algunos esos bolsos se han convertido en el símbolo de la miseria. El símbolo de padres y madres que no tienen los recursos económicos necesarios para comprar los útiles escolares. El símbolo de niños y niñas que por diferentes circunstancias han tenido que abandonar la escuela. El símbolo de familias separadas porque miles de venezolanos han migrado en busca de un mejor futuro. En el símbolo de un pueblo que espera paciente por las dádivas del gobierno para sobrevivir en un país que está cada día más lejos de cumplir con los objetivos del desarrollo sostenible.

Y es que con este panorama cabe preguntarse ¿qué tipo de desarrollo hay en Venezuela? ¿qué tipo de desarrollo podemos tener en Venezuela? Para mí las respuestas son muy simples: en estos momentos no hay desarrollo en Venezuela y por eso tenemos una gran oportunidad para repensar qué tipo de desarrollo debemos tener. En mi opinión, ese desarrollo debe comenzar por el cumplimiento del Objetivo de Desarrollo Sostenible 4: garantizar una educación inclusiva, equitativa y de calidad y promover oportunidades de aprendizaje durante toda la vida para todos y todas. Para lograrlo necesitamos trabajar en pro del cumplimiento de diversos objetivos, incluyendo: garantizar una vida sana (ODS 3), terminar con el hambre y la desnutrición (ODS 2), garantizar que el trabajo del personal docente está bien remunerado (ODS 8).

Pero sobretodo, Venezuela necesita que el gobierno cree alianzas estratégicas para lograr los objetivos, tal y como lo prevé el ODS 17. Estas alianzas deben ser no sólo con instituciones extranjeras sino también con organizaciones nacionales porque los objetivos del desarrollo sostenible solo pueden alcanzarse con la participación de la mayoría.

La población venezolana no puede seguir siendo receptora pasiva de ayudas, porque para alcanzar los ODS necesitamos que quienes residen en el país participen de forma activa en la creación de una sociedad más pacífica e inclusiva (ODS 16), y en el camino convertir esos bolsos escolares en símbolos de esperanza y desarrollo.

A symbol for the Venezuelan Future

Every place has symbols and icons that makes it unique. In some cases, they can be architectural wonders, as the Eiffel tower, or natural beauties, like the Niagara Falls. Independently on which symbol or icon is used, we all refer to them to describe the wonders of that place and to explain some of its problems.

In Venezuela politicians use iconography to create bonds between them and their followers. This practice has been very common in the past 20 years, and the ruling party is its main user. In fact, Venezuelans are used to this practice, and for that reason they are not discussing the newest symbol: the schoolbag.

For the Academic Year 2018-2019, President Nicolas Maduro ordered to deliver 4 million bags to students who attend to public schools. In an official event, the Minister for Education indicated that students in the public sector represented 80% of the active student population (approx. 7.2 million students). Even though there is no official data regarding the exact number of schoolbags distributed per state and that the help did not cover the entirety of the population, at least 55.6% received it; therefore, it is possible to see them in every corner of the capital.

The main beneficiaries of the help were children. Kids like Jose Liborio, who was using his bag in the subway while moving around Caracas accompanied by his grandmother. However, he is an exception to the rule. The main users of the bags are grandparents, siblings, and other relatives who need the bag to carry personal objects or just the food the bough that day. For that reason, for some people the bag is a symbol of misery and poverty. They see it as the symbol of parents who do not have the money needed to buy back to school supplies and books. The symbol of children that for several reasons have abandoned school. The symbol of broken families because thousands of Venezuelans have migrated to pursue a better life. A symbol of a population who patiently waits for the government charity to survive in a country that every day is stepping away from achieving the sustainable development goals.

And with this panorama, one could ask, what is the type of development that Venezuela has? What is the type of development that it should have? For me answers are very simple. In this moment Venezuela has no development, and precisely because of that, we have a great opportunity to discuss the type of development that Venezuelans would need to have.

In my opinion, Venezuelan development agenda should start with SDG 4: ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. However, to achieve it we need coordinated action to ensure good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), zero hunger (SDG 2), and that teachers are receiving a decent salary for their work (SDG 8). But, above everything, Venezuela needs strategic alliances as indicated in the SDG 17.

The government should promote alliances not only with foreign institutions, but also with domestic organizations. Sustainable development can only be achieved with the participation of the majority of the stakeholders. The inclusion on local institutions will transform the situation from within, and produce bottom-up solutions.

Moreover, as soon as Venezuelans start participating, they will stop being passive receptors of aid. They will be active creators of a more peaceful and inclusive society (SDG 16) and in doing it, Venezuelans will be able to develop and transform those bags in symbols of hope and prosperity.

ILAC launches report of Guatemalan justice sector and calls to extend CICIG’s mandate

We at the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) launched our assessment report of the justice sector in Guatemala on October 10, in Washington D.C., and on November 6, in London (the report is available both in English and Spanish). ILAC, established in 2002, is an NGO based in Stockholm, Sweden, which conducts rule of law and justice sector assessments, coordinates programs, and engages in policy dialogue. As a consortium of over 50 professional legal organizations along with individual experts, we gather legal expertise and competencies from various contexts and legal traditions to help rebuild justice institutions and promote the rule of law in conflict-affected and fragile states.

ILAC’s report of Guatemalan justice sector

ILAC’s assessment team traveled to Guatemala in October 2017, and met with over 150 Guatemalan judges, prosecutors, lawyers, human rights defenders, and business leaders to assess the role and capacity of courts and prosecutorial services. The team also examined several thematic issues facing the justice sector in Guatemala today, including the legacy of Guatemala’s conflict and impunity, disputes involving development projects on land claimed by indigenous peoples and local communities, criminalization of protests, and violence and discrimination. 

“A fragile peace”

Although Guatemala has been at peace for over 20 years, its history of inequality and a civil war that lasted over 30 years have left a legacy of impunity, corruption, racism, and violence which fundamentally threaten stability and equitable development. Since 2006, however, justice sector actors have been supported by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG) which aims to investigate criminal groups undermining democracy. CICIG may conduct independent investigations, act as a complementary prosecutor, and recommend public policies to help fight the criminal groups that are the subject of its investigations. This is an innovative institution for the United Nations and is unique in the sense that it combines international support, independence to investigate cases, and partnerships with the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office.

While the assessment report identifies ongoing rule of law challenges in Guatemala, it highlights the vital role CICIG and its current Commissioner, Mr. Iván Velásquez of Colombia, play in supporting the Attorney General’s Office to address the identified challenges. In fact, the majority of our recommendations are reliant upon CICIG’s continued presence in Guatemala as the country’s judiciary is not yet equipped to address and resolve corruption and impunity on its own. The American Bar Association, an ILAC member, has stated that:

it would be impossible to instill the rule of law within Guatemala at this time without the support of an international body. While many prosecutors and judges have – at great personal risk – performed their responsibilities with integrity, the pressures on the criminal justice sector writ large are so great that it is not currently able to operate independently without international support.

An abrupt end to CICIG’s mandate may also potentially result in backsliding of judicial and prosecutorial independence and integrity. Our report therefore includes a specific recommendation for a four-year extension of CICIG’s mandate.

In light of this recommendation, it is also worth noting that CICIG currently enjoys widespread public support in Guatemala and, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, “is a rare example of a successful international effort to strengthen a country’s judicial system and policing.”

ILAC joins call to extend CICIG’s mandate

Our assessment report comes at a crucial time as the future of CICIG is in jeopardy. In August, Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales announced that he would not extend CICIG’s mandate beyond its current expiration date in September 2019 (note that CICIG is currently investigating President Morales for illegal campaign financing). President Morales simultaneously barred Mr. Velásquez, who at the time was in the United States, from re-entering Guatemala. Subsequently, President Morales ignored an order by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court allowing Mr. Velásquez to return (the Constitutional Court has reaffirmed that order just this past Thursday). President Morales has also developed a rhetoric accusing CICIG of presenting “a threat to peace” in Guatemala and constructing “a system of terror.” 

Our report is an acknowledgement of CICIG’s role in laying the foundation for a stronger and more resilient judicial system in Guatemala. And, in order to continue to build upon this foundation, we join the call for Guatemala to recommit to the work of CICIG under Mr. Velásquez and for an extension of CICIG’s mandate.

While we are neither the first nor the only observer to point out these challenges to the rule of law, we hope that the report will provide clear notice to state authorities that failure to address the documented and well-understood obstacles to the independence and effectiveness of the justice sector can only be taken as unwillingness to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala. Without an effective and independent system of justice, the rule of law and human rights cannot be secured.

In a future post we will elaborate upon how the current situation in Guatemala reflects the challenges and opportunities for promoting justice globally in the context of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and particularly SDG 16.

To learn more, you can read the report press release here.

You can follow ILAC on Twitter here