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RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: U.N. to Probe Violent Underworld

Srabani Roy

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 15 2006 (IPS) - Human rights groups say that this week’s signing of an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government to investigate abuses by clandestine armed groups operating in the country has brought new optimism that such crimes will no longer be cloaked in impunity.

Recent threats and murders of human rights defenders, including judges, prosecutors, journalists, activists, and union and political leaders, have been linked to these groups, most of which are a holdover from the country’s 36-year brutal civil war, according to Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation.

The U.N. says that some 5,000 murders are committed each year in Guatemala.

However, because of their coercive methods and ties to political, judicial and law enforcement leaders, the groups have largely gone uninvestigated.

“They have managed to infiltrate state institutions, with ties to state officials and the police,” Beltran told IPS, referring to the organised network of illegal groups. “You might say they have established a parallel state.”

The agreement to establish a U.N.-backed “International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala” was signed Tuesday by the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, and Guatemala’s Vice President Eduardo Stein.

“With this agreement, the United Nations is standing by Guatemala as it tries to solidify democracy and the rule of law by exposing and dismantling criminal groups that grew out of the armed conflict,” Gambari said.

The international commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala), will have an initial two-year mandate. It will assist the Guatemalan public prosecutors’ office, the supreme court and the national civilian police in investigating criminal activities of illegal, armed security and clandestine groups.

The network of illegal groups has been linked to violent criminal activities, corruption, drug trafficking and other organised crime in the country. Earlier this year, the special rapporteur for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Philip Alston, expressed concern about the increase in extrajudicial killings in Guatemala.

“There are now more killings per day than there were during the dark days of the civil conflict [which ended through U.N.-brokered peace accords in 1996],” he said.

“The killing of women, the execution of selected individuals by elements within the police and military, gang and crime-related killings, social cleansing, and other acts of random violence have created a widespread sense of insecurity among the population,” Alston told the press at the conclusion of his visit to Guatemala in August.

“The universally agreed challenge is to end impunity – the fact that those who kill can get away with it and have no reason not to continue and even escalate their murderous ways,” he noted.

The commission has been in the works for three years. An earlier version of the agreement to form a “U.N. Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Forces (CICIACS)”, as it was then known, was drawn up and signed in 2004. However, it was ruled to be unconstitutional by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court and did not pass in the Guatemalan Congress.

The original agreement would have given the commission itself the right to initiate criminal prosecutions in the country. However, Guatemala’s constitution mandates that such prosecutions be carried out by Guatemalan authorities. The current agreement eliminates this provision.

Officials say the international commission will support and strengthen Guatemala’s judicial system by providing technical assistance, promoting criminal prosecutions, and implementing cooperative agreements with ministries and offices in charge of prosecutions within the country. The commission may also join a criminal proceeding as a private prosecutor, called a querellante adhesivo. The current agreement goes to the Guatemalan Congress next January for approval.

Human rights groups such as WOLA, Amnesty International and Human Rights First, among others, have supported the initiative and the Guatemalan government’s efforts to address impunity in the country.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International issued an action alert and called on the Guatemalan authorities to “investigate all threats and attacks against human rights defenders, to bring to justice those responsible and to ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear of threats, attack, theft of their human rights work or restrictive legal measures.”

“There’s been an increase in attacks on human rights defenders in the last few years,” Andrew Hudson, a fellow in the Human Rights Defenders Programme at Human Rights First in New York, told IPS.

Hudson stressed that the commission is a “vital tool” to investigate the criminal activities of the illegal groups in the country, which he described as being “very powerful”.

The relatively small body will be headed by a commissioner appointed by the new U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. It will consist of prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials familiar with human rights, criminal and international law.

The commission has no budget yet, but is unlikely to require the hundreds of millions of dollars typically needed for similar mechanisms, such as international tribunals, according to a U.N. official familiar with the agreement.

Countries will be asked to make voluntary pledges. In the past, the United States, the European Union, Germany and the Netherlands had expressed interest in CICIACS, according to both Beltran of WOLA and the U.N. official. Structural mechanisms to establish the commission, a budget, and international commitments will be put in place once, and if, the Guatemalan Congress approves the initiative.

Passing the agreement through Congress in Guatemala is one of the most crucial challenges ahead for the commission.

“It will take a lot of work and a lot of political will on the part of the government, private sector, and civil society,” said Beltran. “But we are very hopeful.”

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