Last week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down its judgment in Case of Human Rights Defender et al. v. Guatemala, concerning the State’s failure to adequately investigate and address the 2004 killing of human rights defender Florentín Gudiel Ramos. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Human Rights Defender et al. v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of August 28, 2014. Series C No. 283, para. 288 (Spanish only).
The Court held Guatemala internationally responsible for violations of the rights to: humane treatment, freedom of movement and residence, participate in government (as applied to Mr. Gudiel’s daughter), judicial protection, judicial guarantees, and the rights of the child (with regard to the children in the family), as set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights. See id. at para. 288. The Court held, by three votes to two, that the petitioners did not sufficiently establish violations of Mr. Gudiel’s right to life or right to participate in government. See id. at paras. 144, 149, 189. Human rights defenders in Guatemala continue to face threats and violence, in a prevailing climate of impunity. See generally, Front Line Defenders, Guatemala.
Facts of the Case
On December 20, 2004, human rights defender Florentín Gudiel Ramos was assassinated in Guatemala. Mr. Gudiel was a former member of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional de Guatemala (URNG) and was a community leader in his village, Cruce de la Esperanza. His life and the lives of his family were threatened in 2003 by a former member of the Kaibiles (special operations force of the Guatemalan military). The petitioners alleged that the State was responsible for failing to prevent Mr. Gudiel’s assassination and for failing to conduct a diligent investigation into his death. See IACHR, Report No. 56/12, Case No. 12.775, Florentín Gudiel Ramos, Makrina Gudiel Álvarez et al. (Guatemala), 21 March 2012, para. 1.
The State also failed to take measures to protect Mr. Gudiel’s family members, who were allegedly forced to flee for their safety. Mr. Gudiel’s daughter, Makrina Gudiel Álvarez, was consequently unable to continue serving as the Secretary on the Community Development Council in Cruce de la Esperanza. [IACHR Press Release]
At the time of his death, Florentín Gudiel Ramos was seeking justice for his son, Miguel Gudiel Álvarez, who was a victim in the “Diario Militar” case, which involved the forced disappearance of 26 people at the hands of Guatemalan authorities from 1983 to 1984. The case was decided by the Inter-American Court in 2012. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Gudiel Álvarez et al. (“Diario Militar”) v. Guatemala. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of November 20, 2012. Series C No. 253.
The Findings of the Inter-American Commission
This petition was brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Florentín Gudiel Ramos and Makrina Gudiel Álvarez. The Commission held that Guatemala violated the rights to: judicial guarantees, judicial protection, life, freedom of movement and residence, mental and moral integrity, and participate in government. See IACHR, Report No. 56/12 Case No. 12.775, Florentín Gudiel Ramos, Makrina Gudiel Álvarez et al. (Guatemala), 21 March 2012, paras. 1, 193, 219.
The Commission referred the case to the Court on July 17, 2012, because Guatemala had not complied with the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s merits report. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Human Rights Defender et al. v. Guatemala. Judgment of August 28, 2014, para. 1. The Commission recommended that the State make the following reparations: undertaking a thorough, timely, and impartial judicial investigation; issuing administrative, disciplinary or criminal measures against State officials that contributed to the impunity; and adopting measures to protect human rights defenders in vulnerable situations. [IACHR Press Release]
The Judgment of the Inter-American Court
The Inter-American Court unanimously held that Guatemala violated the rights to: humane treatment, freedom of movement and residence, judicial guarantees, judicial protection, participate in government (as applied to Ms. Gudiel), and the rights of the child. The Court held that the petitioners did not sufficiently establish that the State violated Mr. Gudiel’s rights to life and to participate in government. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Human Rights Defender et al. v. Guatemala. Judgment of August 28, 2014, paras. 149, 189, 288. Judges Diego García-Sayán and Alberto Pérez Pérez did not participate in the Court’s judgment.
Preliminary Objection Regarding Representation of the Victims
Among other preliminary objections, the State challenged the authority of Claudia Samayoa and B.A. to represent the victims, arguing that these lawyers had appeared before the Commission as petitioners, rather than as representatives of the petitioners, and that there was no written agreement identifying them as the victims’ counsel. Id. at paras. 33-35.
In its judgment, the Court noted that individual access to the Inter-American system should not be restricted because of a lack of legal representation. Id. at para. 36. It confirmed, “the designation of a legal representative in proceedings before the Court is a right of the alleged victims and not an obligation.” Id. (translation by IJRC). The Inter-American Defender program exists to provide representation to those without legal counsel before the Court, and victims are not turned away from the Court for lack of representation. Id. Moreover, the Court emphasized that its own requirements are not as strict as those at the domestic level with regard to legal representation, although any authorization by a victim must clearly identify the victim, representative, and purpose of the representation, and reflect the victim’s freely made decision. Id.
In view of these standards, the Court confirmed that the power of attorney document signed by the victims and two representatives was satisfactory. Id. at paras. 40, 41.
The Right to Life
The Court found that the State had knowledge of the vulnerability of human rights defenders in 2003 and 2004. See id.at para. 143. Although Ms. Gudiel reported the threat against her father’s life to the Prosecutor’s office and the Municipal Mayor knew that Mr. Gudiel had conflicts with an individual who was a former Kaibil, the Court held that it there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that the State knew that Mr. Gudiel’s life was in real and immediate danger. See id. at paras. 144–49. Consequently, the Court did not find a violation of the right to life. See id. at para. 288.
The Right to Humane Treatment
The Court found that the State had a duty to adopt measures to protect Ms. Gudiel and her family because there were reasonable grounds to believe that the threats made toward her were due to her role as a human rights defender. See id. at para. 159. The Court held that the State’s failure to adopt special measures to protect Ms. Gudiel and her family resulted in a violation of their right to humane treatment. See id. at para. 160.
The Right to Freedom of Movement and Residence
Ms. Gudiel and her family were forced to leave their homes due to the special risk to their safety and the lack of protection by the State. The Court found that the State’s failure to provide measures to enable them to return to their homes or relocate to another part of the country violated their right to freedom of movement and residence. See id. at para. 178.
The Right to Participate in Government
The Court reasoned that the State did not violate Mr. Gudiel’s right to participate in government because at the moment of his death he was discharged from his position on the Community Development Council. See id. at para. 187. The Court held that because the State did not violate Mr. Gudiel’s right to life, it could not be held responsible for violating his right to participate in government. See id. at para. 189. However, when Ms. Gudiel left Cruce de la Esperanza due to the State’s failure to implement protective measures for her safety, she was forced to leave her post as the Secretary for the Community Development Council. See id. at para. 190. Consequently, the Court held that the State did not guarantee the conditions necessary for Ms. Gudiel to continue exercising her political rights, and is responsible for violating her right to participate in government. See id. at para. 192.
The Rights to Judicial Guarantees and Judicial Protection
The Court held that the investigation that followed Mr. Gudiel’s death was not undertaken in a diligent, serious, nor effective manner, and consequently violated his right to judicial guarantees and judicial protection. See id. at para. 237. Additionally, the Court found that the State violated its duty to investigate the threats made to Mr. Gudiel’s family members, and that this lack of due diligence violated their right to access justice. Consequently, the Court held that the State violated the rights to judicial guarantees and judicial protection as applied to Mr. Gudiel and his family. See id. at para. 242.
The Rights of the Child
The Court reasoned that because members of the Gudiel family were children when the State violated its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights, the State also violated the rights of the child with respect to the rights to humane treatment and to the freedom of movement and residence. See id. at paras. 160, 178.
The Court’s Order for Reparations
The Court held that its judgment constitutes a per se reparation, and ordered the State to commence investigations and prosecutions to identify and punish the perpetrators of the assassination and the individuals who threatened the relatives. The Court ordered the State to look into the procedural irregularities of the investigation; to guarantee that the family members will be safe to return to their homes; offer free adequate, and effective psychological treatment for victims; implement public policy, legislative, and judicial measures to protect human rights defenders; and pay compensatory damages, along with the petitioners’ costs and expenses. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish only)]
To learn more about the Inter-American human rights system, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. For more information on protecting human rights defenders in the Americas, see the Commission’s Rapporteurship on Human Rights Defenders’ website.