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Guatemala: human rights and security concerns persist, UN official says

Guatemala: human rights and security concerns persist, UN official says

Tom Koenigs
Despite progress achieved in implementing the Guatemala peace accords, serious human rights and security concerns persist, a senior United Nations official said today.

Tom Koenigs, the Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), told reporters in New York that the country now enjoys a broad consensus against a return to armed conflict, as well as greater freedom. But while the Guatemala peace agreements have closed a dark chapter in the country’s history, providing a comprehensive and viable blueprint for consolidating peace and constructing a multiethnic democracy, their implementation had “dangerously slowed down” and key commitments remained unfulfilled.

Mr. Koenigs said that where progress had been made, it had fallen short of the goals set out in the agreements. “In some cases, such as human rights, there have been clear steps backward,” he said. “The benefits of peace had still not trickled down to the population in the form of security, jobs and land for the landless.” He warned that increasing social conflict and polarization could get worse as the election campaign heats up next year.

Although human rights abuses had declined sharply after the peace agreements were concluded nearly six years ago, the past 12 months had seen a “worrisome upsurge.” Human right activists continued to be the target of threats and violence. Progress in ending impunity had been slow, he added, predicting that further advances would be measured in key cases such as the killings of anthropologist Myrna Mack and Bishop Juan Gerardi. The crime of lynching had increased in recent months, he said. “This is a horrific practice which shows the war’s results and its legacy.”

Discrimination against indigenous people, who make up more than half of the population, persists. “The greatest treasure of Guatemala is the diversity of its people,” he observed. “Nevertheless there is widespread discrimination; the access to justice is difficult, health and education is everywhere but in the countryside, and among the children, those who least go to school are always indigenous.”

The Special Representative voiced concern that long-disbanded civil patrols, which had been responsible for human rights abuses during the conflict, were receiving new support from the Government. “I share the fears of many people in Guatemala that these groups could become violent,” he said. At the same time, changes to the army called for in the peace agreement had still not been made. The army’s doctrine and deployment “are as if there were a period of war,” he noted, adding that its budget was growing at the expense of education and health. He also called for the immediate dismantling of a “shadowy presidential security unit.”

However, Mr. Koenigs said he was encouraged by recent statements made by President Alfonso Portillo pledging to press ahead with army reductions, indemnify war widows and orphans, increase funding for land purchases and provide greater safety for human right workers.

“The peace process has to be intensified and words have to become actions,” he said.