On October 26, a seminar organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was held in Guatemala. The seminar was about how the legal system is used incorrectly and criminalizes human rights defenders who protect land and land rights in the country.
In 2017, two human rights defenders for environmental and natural resources were assassinated in Guatemala, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Five attacks have so far been carried out against these activists, six of them are imprisoned and many are afraid of being arrested without reasonable cause. Suddenly it happens and they do not know why. This is what everyday life looks like for human rights defenders in Guatemala.
- We only follow the law and use non-violent methods, despite that we are criminalized or arrested for crimes we have not committed, says Bernando Caal Chol, an indigenous leader who opposes hydropower plants in the Alta Verapaz region in Guatemala.
The purpose of criminalization is to silence human rights defenders because their opposition often conflicts with profit interests. The aim is also to create discord between the people in the villages and to limit their social life through various threats. There is a social stigma surrounding human rights defenders and several times they are slandered on social media and in newspapers while others are persecuted or monitored by unknown persons.
- There is a lack of space and institutions to go to to file complaints, we have been everywhere and it is not progressing, says one of the human rights defenders who participated in OHCHR's event.
According to the UN Declaration, a human rights defender is defined as one or more persons and / or an organization that peacefully protects human rights. Many of the human rights defenders are indigenous leaders and / or smallholders who do not usually identify themselves as human rights defenders, but believe that they need to defend land and land rights in order to be able to live a normal life, without discrimination against their cultural identity and way of life. As an indigenous leader from Corozal Arriba a village in the Zacapa region said:
- To be free is a dream.
In Guatemala, there is often a struggle between the state, companies and local communities over the use of land and natural resources. Several human rights defenders work daily in the opposition to the mining companies' locations in territory that is already inhabited and where the population has not been consulted whether they approve the company's presence in the area. Other human rights defenders struggle is that their cultural identity is recognized and that their historical land is reproduced.
Criminalization and impunity
Guatemala has a high level of impunity. Police reports that human rights defenders make to the company are progressing slowly or they are not taken seriously by the police authorities and the Ministry of Justice. At the same time as police reports against human rights defenders are progressing, they are often accused of crimes they have not committed and several carry arrest warrants that limit their everyday lives and create fear among many. The non-violent organization COMUNDICH coordinates 48 indigenous and smallholder communities from the Zacapa and Chiquimula regions with the aim of strengthening the cultural identity of the indigenous group Maya Ch'orti and giving them back their land. Since May 2017, six of their members have been detained and eleven people have an arrest warrant. This has created a fear among the people of the village of Corozal Arriba.
- Many of us do not dare to go out and shop anymore because we are afraid of being arrested, says a woman from the village Corozal Arriba.
The criminalization of the people of Corozal Arriba has taken various forms since May. Necessary documents have not been assigned to the lawyer, which limits the lawyer to prepare his defense. The trial is set to begin on October 18, but has been postponed to February 2018, another method of discouraging human rights defenders.
"Our job is to protect our history and human rights," said Melin Torres, one of the detainees.
An international pattern
The situation in Guatemala is not unique. Many indigenous peoples and smallholders around the world are confronted with the same criminalization on a daily basis. The newly started International Fund for Land and Forest Rights, which is headquartered in Sweden, will be fundamental for everyone who defends land and land rights in the world. The fund will be the first and only organization that will only work with these issues.
- It is a very important organization that works for indigenous peoples and local people in different villages around the world in poor countries, for their right to actually use and own the land in the same way as other people in the countries they live in, says Carin Jämtin, CEO on Page, in a interview with Swedish Radio.
Human rights defender Fausto Sanchez, who was imprisoned for a year without proof, is sure of his case, he will not give up:
- Living or dead, we will continue to defend the ground.