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Repression and Inequality in Guatemala

Human Rights in Guatemala

Guatemala’s lack of respect for the right to prior free and informed consultation with indigenous peoples in relation to extractive projects, monoculture, hydroelectric plants and other types of initiatives has aggravated their situation of exclusion and inequality.

Judicial independence has been threatened by corruption, delays in appointments and Congress’ refusal to swear in the head judge of the Constitutional Court. Harassment and attacks against human rights defenders remain widespread.

Human rights in Guatemala

In a country as stratified by race and wealth as Guatemala, the very concept of human rights challenges those in power. Those who speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable are subjected to repression.

The indigenous peoples continue to suffer from high levels of exclusion and poverty. They lack access to their ancestral lands and territories. They also experience the negative impacts of development projects, such as mining, monoculture and hydroelectric plants, developed without prior free and informed consultation with them.

In addition, they face high rates of violence and discrimination against them. The police and judiciary are implicated in human rights violations and abuses. Civic space continues to shrink as activists are stigmatized and criminalized. Thousands have been forced to leave the country.


Corruption is widespread in Guatemalan society and undermines the effectiveness of public institutions. It is common for businesses to pay bribes to obtain needed permits or avoid retaliation from criminal groups.

In 2018, as CICIG was moving forward with historic corruption investigations and receiving broad support from the broader Guatemalan population, high-level actors led campaigns against the body at both national and international levels. They stigmatized social leaders and justice officials, passed laws to promote impunity, and suffocated the media and business interests that supported the fight against corruption (HRR 2018).

Some judges investigating high-profile cases have faced threats or spurious complaints used to harass them. For example, Judge Erika Aifan, who is investigating allegations of illegal electoral financing, faces more than 70 legal complaints filed by powerful people seeking to obstruct her work (FitW 2015). The process for selecting Supreme Court justices and Appellate Court judges is also susceptible to corruption and manipulation by criminal operators.


As the Cold War drew to a close, leftist union organizers, professors, and students started to disappear in Guatemala. They were abducted and killed by government forces or by right wing paramilitary death squads that the army tolerated.

The families of the disappeared began to organize as El Grupo and demanded justice. They took their case to the Inter-American Court and won a landmark ruling against the state for its forced disappearances.

However, the justice system is under-resourced and a climate of intimidation stifles investigations. Those who work on cases like Bamaca’s face serious obstacles and often suffer harassment. During this forum representatives from civil society organizations integrated by family members of the disappeared shared their experiences in the fight to search for their loved ones and seek justice.

Violence against human rights defenders

Human rights defenders face violence and criminalization for their work. Civil society groups have reported increased intimidation and threats; some have been forced to close. Several human rights defenders have been murdered in recent years. Judicial independence is undermined by corruption and delays in the nomination of judges, a refusal by Congress to swear in the head judge of the Constitutional Court, and spurious complaints against justices and prosecutors investigating high profile cases.

Guatemalans’ freedom to protest is restricted by the high level of insecurity that encourages self-censorship among ordinary citizens. Trade unions face discrimination and harassment. Despite a strong electoral democracy, political parties remain divided and often rely on extrapolitical forces to gain power.

LGBT rights

Although the constitution guarantees equal rights, minorities, including Indigenous communities, face discrimination and poverty. Sexual orientation and gender identity remain major areas of concern, with a reported high level of violence and discrimination against LGBT people. There is no comprehensive civil legislation protecting LGBT persons, and the country has not established a legal procedure for gender recognition.

Judicial independence is under attack, with corruption allegations, delays in appointments of judges, refusal by Congress to swear in the head judge of the Constitutional Court, and spurious complaints against judges and prosecutors investigating high profile cases. Civil space shrank as a result, with human rights defenders and protesters facing repression and unfounded criminal proceedings.

Workers’ rights are protected by a number of international conventions and domestic law, but workers’ organizations have reported pressure, threats, and retaliation from public officials.

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Prisoners’ Human Rights: Dignity, Privacy, Medical Care, Family, Education, Fair Trial, Reintegration

Human Rights For Prisoners

Human dignity is a key concern for prisoners, as well as for the international, regional and national bodies that monitor them.

The Court has published several Case-law Guides which analyse and summarise the important judgments it has delivered in prison-related cases. This particular Guide analyses the Court’s case-law on different articles relating to prisoners’ rights.

Rights of detainees

Prisoners must be able to read, write, practice their religion and communicate with the outside world. These activities are central to their ability to retain their humanity and to provide a form of oversight over prison conditions.

In some countries, prisoners are denied these basic rights in the name of security or health. They may be subjected to discriminatory treatment based on race, sexual orientation and disability and they are often excluded from facilities and programs available to the general population.

They are also at risk of contracting diseases that are easily treatable, including hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. These illnesses are particularly dangerous in a closed environment.

Right to privacy

Many people believe that prisoners lose their rights when they enter prison. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that a person’s rights cannot be taken away simply because they are in custody.

Prisoners have a right to privacy and may not be subjected to searches that violate their dignity. Prisoners also have a right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

They have a right to practice their culture, religion and beliefs, and use their language while in prison, unless there is a good reason for preventing this.

Right to medical care

Like any other person, prisoners can suffer from illnesses and injuries that require medical attention. Those working in prisons and jails need to be familiar with relevant laws, rulings and international standards regarding medical treatment for prisoners.

For instance, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that prisoners have a right to conditions “adequate for the health and well-being of persons deprived of liberty”. This is an absolute right (other rights are ‘limited’ or ‘qualified’) and it applies to all aspects of healthcare in prisons.

Right to family

Prison staff must consider your human rights when making decisions about you or taking actions affecting you. They can only limit your rights if they have a good reason, such as keeping you and other prisoners safe.

Prisoners are entitled to health care that is at least equivalent to that available to people outside of prison. This is set out in many international instruments, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

In the case of Polyakova and Others v Russia, the Court found that decisions to relocate applicants to remote penal facilities thousands of miles from their families violated their right to respect for family life.

Right to education

Education is a fundamental right that opens doors for individuals and presents a priceless opportunity for prisoners to change their lives. In fact, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not explicitly refer to prisoners, their rights are acknowledged in many international and regional non-binding instruments, such as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (commonly known as the Nelson Mandela rules).

Prisoners should be able to pursue their education and improve their chances of social reintegration. It is crucial to promote prison education as a right.

Right to a fair trial

All prisoners have a right to a fair trial. They must be charged with a crime and given the opportunity to present a defence and be able to consult lawyers and family members before and during their trial.

Prisoners should also be given adequate detention conditions, including an end to prolonged solitary confinement, and rapid and regular access to their families and lawyers. They must not be subjected to torture or any other form of ill treatment, including sexual assault.

They must also be given health care that is at least equivalent to that available in the community and they should have their right to medical confidentiality respected (see Case-Law Guide on Article 6 of the European Convention). We have helped set up windows in prison cells, install heat extractor ventilation and erect internal fences to provide outside space for prisoners.

Right to be reintegrated into society

All prisoners have a right to be reintegrated into society. This includes a right to adequate living standards, health care and education. Prisoners also have a right not to contract disease in prison, especially HIV/AIDS.

Despite the existence of internationally recognised human rights instruments, violations of prisoners’ human rights are common in many countries. The Universal Declaration of 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights explicitly state that people deprived of their liberty have rights.

These include not being detained arbitrarily, not being held incommunicado and not being tortured. They should also have rapid access to lawyers and doctors.

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