U.N. Undermining Human Rights Work in Guatemala

Almost one year after the U.N.’s ten-year peacekeeping mission in Guatemala closed its doors, the world body has decided to return to the country to address the chronically bad human rights situation in Guatemala by establishing the Guatemalan Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OACNUDH).

Human rights (HR) in Guatemala—economic, cultural, civil, political and social -are violated with next to complete impunity.  Repression continues unchecked; exploitation and poverty are commonplace; racism against the Mayan majority is normal; and gender violence against women and girls is typical.

Protection and support are needed for environmental, development, indigenous and women leaders across the country working courageously in defense of all HR and for the establishment of the rule of law and the proper functioning of all political institutions of a real democracy. 

Guatemala is not a democratic country, in that it is not governed by the rule of law. The political and legal systems are largely ineffective. Yet, I fear that the presence of OACNUDH will weaken the HR and institution building work that needs to be done here.


The United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINGUA) evolved from the monitoring of human rights commitments during the "peace talks" to disarmament and reintegration of the guerilla forces, to the monitoring of the implementation of the "peace agreements", with a focus on the justice system, citizen participation at all levels of government, and equitable development.

MINUGUA, which began in the mid 1990’s and ended formally in 2004, was a mostly well conceived mission and civil society invested much hope and energy into working with it.  Some of what MINUGUA accomplished was helpful in the short-term – i.e., providing a HR presence that helped to partially break the silence and fear that had characterized the country since the worst years of genocide and repression.

Yet the underlying causes of endemic HR violations, and indeed of the armed conflict, remain.  Repression and impunity, as well as systemic violations of economic, social and cultural rights continue, despite, or maybe more accurately because of the fact that approximately $1 billion dollars was invested by the so-called "international community" in the limited peace process.

Given the pending opening of OACNUDH, it is urgent to have a critical understanding of what MINUGUA was not able to do to end power-abuse and impunity in all of their dimensions.

MINUGUA’S findings and recommendations were non-binding and non-enforceable.  Thus, in a very real sense, MINUGUA’s presence provided a veil of respectability and a protective wall of impunity to cover-up entrenched non-democratic and abusive structures.

Throughout its time in Guatemala, MINUGUA documented repression and impunity in regular reports, yet little changed. Widespread repression continued, while the U.N. mission refused to address the issue of poverty as a systemic violation of economic, social and cultural rights.

Moreover, the flow of "aid" and investments from international "development" and investment institutions flowed into the country largely unchecked.  Much of the "aid" and investments not only strengthened the position of human rights abusers, but also contributed to the endemic violations of economic, cultural, environmental and social rights. 

MINUGUA left Guatemala without accomplishing its most important objective: ending the power abuse and impunity of the powerful economic, military/ security and political sectors.


The matter of ‘whom’ the UN hires and pays high salaries to needs to be examined. 

Although there were well-intentioned people who worked in MINUGUA, many of them did not have the appropriate background and knowledge to work on HR in Guatemala—a country barely recovering from civil war and genocide. In addition, it is problematic that these U.N. workers received very high salaries compared to what vast majority of Guatemalans earn.

By their very establishment, MINUGUA (and now OACNUDH) create an elite, well-funded human rights bureaucracy divorced from the every day reality and struggle in the communities plagued by structural abuses of power. This power structure impedes local community leaders and activists from carrying out key human rights work and actions because of subsequent lack of resources and political support, as well as fear of on-going repression.

In addition, the local population is often skeptical of U.N. workers "commitment" to their country when these workers will stay only as long as their mission lasts or until another one in another country is created. Many Guatemalans referred to MINUGUA as the "Vacaciones Unidas" (United Vacations).


Even before MINUGUA left the country, community-based groups and HR NGO’s were calling for the UN to establish Commission to Investigate Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CICIACS).

The very conceiving of CICIACS was an admission that power-abuse and impunity were endemic in Guatemala and that the work of MINUGUA had not succeeded.  Unlike MINUGUA, or any other UN body I know of, CICIACS was conceived to have enforceability.  CICIACS was to investigate the policies and actions of the Interior and Public Ministries, the Presidential High Guard, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office as government entities possibly involved with "clandestine" groups in the commission of human rights violations and crimes.  The decisions made by CICIACS were to be binding and carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. 

To no one’s real surprise the CICIACS proposal was shelved, even as some courageous community based HR groups and NGOs continue to demand for it establishment.

Hiding behind the excuse that Guatemala could not allow an outside body to carry out functions that the legal institutions of the country are supposed to carry out, the powerful sectors of Guatemala rejected CICIACS because it would have had binding legal authority and the enforcement mechanisms to back it up.

The so-called "international community", particularly the U.S. and Canada, as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, did not in any way insist on the establishment of the CICIACS.

How did the UN respond to this situation?  Did it put its full weight behind the establishment of CICIACS? 

§ No.  Rather, as approved by the Guatemalan Congress in May 2005, the UN agreed to set up OACNUDH with the weak mandate to serve in an "advisory capacity" to the Guatemalan State in matters related to HR.

It is not "advice" concerning HR that is needed in Guatemala.  For close to 30 years, mainstream organizations of the so-called "international human rights movement" have been investigating, denouncing and giving advice to the Guatemalan power holders about HR violations and impunity, while little progress has been made. Their reports could fill a library. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that OACNUDH will:

§ Document a wide range of HR violations, probably focusing narrowly on certain political and civil rights.

§ Stick to the traditional and narrow ‘state-centric’ approach in its HR work, considering only the actions of the Guatemala State with respect to HR violations, and not consider the actions and impacts of other actors on HR, including: global mining companies, international hydro-electric dam projects and the on-going role of the United States in arming, funding, providing intelligence to and collaborating directly with Guatemalan police and military ‘security’ forces.

§ Identify patterns and structures of impunity as related only to violations of certain political and civil rights and not as related to poverty and the what ought to be considered criminal actions of global development institutions and private sector businesses and investors as it relates to the country’s endemic of poverty.

§ Make recommendations to the government and its various agencies and branches with respect to the political and civil rights violations and impunity, which will not be adopted.

§ Publish reports for the "international community".

§ Provide jobs, high salaries and privilege to its staff.


And that will be it. And the worst-case scenario:

§ The UN will in effect provide assurance to the powerful sectors in Guatemala and the "international community" that HR will continue to be dealt with in a non-binding, non-enforceable way.

§ HR will be dealt with in a way that will have no impact on the relations that the government and powerful economic and military/ security sectors maintain with their international partner governments, principally the U.S. and Canada; no impact on their relations with the WB, IDB, IMF; and no impact on their relations with international investors and companies, such as mining and hydro-electric companies.

§ The UN will once again provide false hope to the Guatemalan population and the Guatemalan human rights movement that the structural situation of power abuse and impunity might change—when it won’t;

§ The UN will provide a mask of respectability and good governance, a false demonstration of the supposed ‘good faith’ efforts of the Guatemalan government and the "international community" to improve the human rights situation, while in effect facilitating the abuses.

§ The UN will again undermine and disempower community-based and nationally-based HR NGO’s, as well as international solidarity groups and NGOs that will either put their faith in OACNUDH or if they are skeptical or critical, will be marginalized by the attention that will be given to the work of OACHUDH.

I hope I am wrong. The people of Guatemala and indeed the millions of people across the planet—especially in the exploited countries of the global south—really need the United Nations to take global HR work in directions it has never yet gone to.

Let’s hope the UN will hire the right people for OACNUDH and empower the office to take HR work in Guatemala to places that the UN has never wanted to go, though I suspect it will not.

Grahame works for Rights Action / Derechos en Accion, a non-profit organization based in Guatemala, funding and working with community based development, environment, human rights and emergency relief organizations in Guatemala, Chiapas, Honduras, Haiti and beyond.  info@rightsaction.org.  www.rightsaction.org  Photo from Indymedia.org