New law threatens NGOs' work

Gates of the Justice Administration Center (CAJ) in Guatemala

Human rights defenders in Guatemala carry out their activities in an extremely hostile environment, particularly those working on rights related to land, territory and the environment. They face continuous threats, intimidation and attacks.

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) reported 467 attacks against human rights defenders in 2019, including 20 murders and attempted murders. Defenders also face stigmatisation and smear campaigns from private actors and the Guatemalan authorities. The criminal justice system is regularly misused to criminalise human rights defenders, in an attempt to break up movements and organisations by wearing down the defenders and removing them from the public arena.

Amnesty International has fully documented this situation in its reports, “We are defending the land with our blood”: Defenders of the land, territory and environment in Honduras and Guatemala” and “Americas: State Protection Mechanisms for Human Rights Defenders”.

In February 2019, Amnesty International was alerted of the imminent approval of Bill 5257, which is aimed at reforming the 2003 Law on NGOs. If passed, it would impose excessive controls and onerous requirements for the registration and operation of NGOs in the country. It would also grant broad powers to the government to permanently suspend the activities of NGOs for ambiguous reasons such as, “disturbance of public order”. The potential interpretations of “disturbance of public order” could lead to the arbitrary closure of civil society organisations and worsening criminalisation, through the imposition of criminal sanctions against the human rights defenders that work in them.

Amnesty International also recently cited Bill 5257 in its briefings, “Last Chance of Justice, Dangerous setbacks for human rights and the fight against impunity in Guatemala” and “Laws Designed to Silence: The Global Crackdown on Civil Society Organizations”, as dangerous examples of the global trend of using legislation to repress NGOs and human rights defenders.

After several failed attempts, on 11 February 2020, the Guatemalan Congress passed the law, which is now registered as Decree 4-2020.

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