WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Jan 2009 | Publication | News

Advocates Against Impunity: A Case Study on Human Rights Organizing in Guatemala

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In 2001, a group of human rights organizations based in Guatemala launched an advocacy campaign calling for the creation of an international commission to investigate and assist in prosecuting the illegal armed groups and clandestine structures deeply entrenched in the Guatemalan state. A legacy of the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict, these groups morphed into organized criminal networks and are believed to be settling scores, executing enemies and advancing their illicit interests in a context of near total impunity. The campaign soon broadened to include North American and European organizations and later garnered the support of a broader coalition of Guatemalans and numerous foreign governments. Nearly six years later, and after numerous setbacks and obstacles, their persistent efforts came to fruition with the approval of an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG.

Officially inaugurated in January 2008, the commission was given a two-year renewable mandate to investigate these illicit organizations and work with the local Public Prosecutor’s Office and the police in building rock-solid cases to ensure that those involved finally face justice. The commission also has the capacity to join a criminal proceeding as a ”joint party,” promote key reforms and aid the country in implementing effective institutional vetting processes.

Advocates Against Impunity recounts the advocacy campaign that led to the establishment of this pioneering multilateral commission and draws lessons that could be applied to similar efforts elsewhere in Latin America and beyond. Based on interviews with key figures, official documents and news accounts, the report illustrates how civil society, by putting the issue on the agenda and generating political and societal support, can play a vital role in the fight against organized criminal structures. The campaign for the creation of the commission also showed how flexibility, a broad-based coalition and judicious use of international pressure can make a successful human rights campaign.