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Human rights defenders at grave risk in Guatemala, UN expert finds

Human rights defenders at grave risk in Guatemala, UN expert finds

The number of attacks against Guatemala’s human rights defenders has virtually doubled in the last five years and the perpetrators of these crimes enjoy almost total impunity, an independent United Nations expert said today, calling on the country’s Government, police and Attorney-General’s office to overhaul their efforts to protect the defenders.

In a statement issued following a three-day visit, Hina Jilani, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on the situation of human rights defenders said the situation had only worsened since her last official visit – in mid-2002 – to the Central American nation, despite a series of Government initiatives to tackle the problem.

There is now one attack against a human rights defender every other day, Ms. Jilani said, and at least 50 defenders were murdered between July 2002 and December 2007.

“Equally alarming is the level of the impunity for attacks and violations against human rights defenders,” she said in her statement, released in Guatemala City. “The reported figure of 98 per cent of impunity for attacks against human rights defenders makes justice an empty word in Guatemala.”

The attacks are widespread, with defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights among the most affected and organizations dealing with justice and the right to truth especially targeted, but trade unions, journalists and representatives of indigenous and peasants’ groups also at risk.

Ms. Jilani called on the Government to “take concrete and visible steps to give political recognition and legitimacy to the work of human rights defenders,” starting with firm, public condemnations of any attacks.

She said the current system of protection must be changed so that State institutions – especially police and prosecutors – coordinate their response to any attacks, and there is a quick response to any incident.

Ms. Jilani, who serves in an independent, unpaid capacity and reports to the UN Human Rights Council, also called on defenders in Guatemala to strengthen their networks and coalitions so they can provide protection to each other.

But she voiced encouragement that the new Government has stressed its commitment to upholding human rights, and also welcomed several recent measures, such as the December 2006 establishment of the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which is charged with investigating the presence of illegal and clandestine security groups.

“Guatemala is a country confronted with daunting challenges. It ranks among the most unequal in terms of income distribution. Violence and organized crime are rampant, the level of impunity is almost total and the influence of parallel powers impairs change. This has dramatically deteriorated the environment in which defenders operate.”

During her visit Ms. Jilani met with Government officials, the Ombudsperson, members of the judiciary and the national Congress, human rights defenders and representatives of the international community.