On video: arbitrary detention of indigenous leaders in Guatemala

Leaders of indigenous communities in Guatemala, seeking to protect their lands and natural resources from the negative impacts of business operations and infrastructure projects, have been charged with alleged criminal offences and in some instances arbitrarily detained.

This response is designed to silence voices of protest and legitimate demands for free, prior and informed consent for infrastructure or other projects in indigenous communities.

The video includes interviews with Ramón Cadena, ICJ Director for Central America, two indigenous traditional leaders, who have been the victims of arbitrary detention, and a women community leader, explaining the impact of the detention on the family and the whole community.

The criminalization of human rights work is a phenomenon whereby community leaders are charged with different criminal activities because of their opposition to a development model based on extractive industries or the privatization of essential social services.

This development model affects the natural resources (water, land and the environment) on indigenous peoples’ territories.

This is a global phenomenon and is particularly acute in Guatemala.

The exploitation of natural resources, such as open-cast mining and the operations of extractive industries in the territories of indigenous peoples, is one of the main reasons which are behind the crackdown on social protest and human rights work.

The different communities that have been affected seek to defend their territories and oppose the different forms of exploitation of the natural resources found on their territories or in the surrounding areas because it can affect the water supply, the land and the environment.

A number of leaders have been killed because of their opposition to these projects.

Some family members of those killed have in turn taken on the task of opposing these projects and they have also been charged with criminal offences.

In Guatemala, there is also an intense social conflict because of the way in which electricity services are delivered.

As a result of the privatization of the service in 1996, the Guatemalan State has granted concessions to national and international companies to provide electricity services.

Over the years, many users have complained about the poor quality and high cost of the services that these private companies provide.

The National Electricity Commission has failed to respect its legal duty to “ensure that the obligations of the concessionaries and contractors are fulfilled and to protect the rights of users,” which many discontented users have demanded.

The social protests concern the three different phases of electricity production: the generation of electricity, involving the construction of hydroelectric dams by multinational companies that impact on indigenous peoples’ territories, the electricity transmission grids, and the electricity services.

Because of this situation, many electricity users have declared that they are in resistance, citing article 45 of the Guatemalan Constitution that states: “It is legitimate for the people to resist in order to protect and defend the rights and guarantees enshrined in the Constitution.”

Acting on this Constitutional protection has led to human rights attacks on many community leaders, lawyers and human rights defenders.

The ICJ supports access to justice for persons who are victims of these human rights violations.

The ICJ supports lawyers who defend these victims of the criminalization of social protest; it carries our trial observations in significant cases; it promotes dialogue between the communities and the relevant State authorities as well as the local Mayors; and in some cases, it supports submissions before the Constitutional Court.


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