This compelling piece was brought to my attention from our friends at Rights Action.
VIOLENCE AND FAILING JUSTICE, IMPUNITY IN GUATEMALA
by Colin Murphy, Le Monde diplomatique, http://mondediplo.com/2009/12/
At 7.15am on 4 September last year, Yuri Melini stepped onto the street from his mother's house in a suburb of Guatemala City. A man standing across the road called him. The man had a lost look, and had the dress and manner of someone from rural parts. He was holding a folded newspaper. "Chh chh," called the man, and Yuri Melini crossed the street to help him.
When Yuri Melini was one metre away, the man took a gun out from behind the newspaper. Yuri Melini turned to run, but the man shot him, and then shot him again, six more times. Yuri Melini collapsed and the man approached him. Yuri Melini lay there, awaiting the "coup de grâce", but it never came. The man left.
"And here I am," says Yuri Melini, speaking on the phone from Guatemala, as if happily surprised.
Melini is one of the most prominent human rights and environmental activists in Guatemala, a country where protection for rights and the environment is impoverished, and their protectors are besieged. Since 2000, he has run an organisation called Calas (in English, the Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action), which agitates for indigenous rights and the protection of the environment, among other areas.
Guatemala is caught in "a vicious circle", he says, mired in a "historical level of violence", the residue of the civil conflict that lasted from the 1970s to the peace accord of 1996. Not only is violent crime chronic, there is a culture of "total impunity".
Melini's language and analysis is echoed elsewhere. Amnesty International reported that, of 5,781 killings in Guatemala during 2008, 1% resulted in a conviction. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has criticised Guatemala for fostering impunity for killings. Human Rights Watch concluded: "A dozen years after the end of Guatemala's brutal civil war, impunity remains the norm when it comes to human rights violations."
'LIFE HAS LITTLE VALUE'
In May of this year, Amnesty International reported that activists working with two leading human rights organisations in Guatemala had received dozens of death threats via SMS text messages. One message read: "You've got one hour, this is the last warning. Stop messing with us. We'll kill your kids first, then you."
Melini elaborates: "In general terms, there is a very low value placed on life. Women and young people are killed on a regular basis. Environmentalists are also killed, when they get in the way of interests. You can contract a hired gunman for a very small price. A group with money can hire in a Colombian group to carry out assassinations."
In the first half of 2009, he says, there were 241 attacks on human-rights defenders. This context is such that, despite a growing international consensus around the need to prioritise environmental interventions, work as an activist in Guatemala is increasingly difficult.
Defence of the environment has become a cross-cutting issue that involves work on human rights, criminality and governance.
He cites examples: in the mining industry, the use of toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, has insidious effects on the health of workers; indigenous Mayan communities living on traditional lands in isolated areas suffer intrusions from narco-trafficking and illegal mining.
Yet there is, he says, "a sign of hope that some things can change". The election of Barack Obama in the US and subsequent substantial investment in "clean" technologies point the way forward at an international level. The global financial crisis "is an opportunity to develop a more sustainable model" and a "just economy". "The economy and environment may seem like distinct themes, but they're complementary. The key elements of development - factories, roads, railways - all have an environmental impact."
STATUS IS NO PROTECTION
There is, as yet, little appreciation of this in Guatemala, though, where there is "a crisis of governmentality". "On the one hand, there is no sense of corporate responsibility and on the other hand, there is total impunity and a justice system that doesn't work."
The attempt on Melini's life has left him reliant on a zimmer frame for walking, and on bodyguards for protection, but it brought him to international attention, which culminated in May this year with an international award for the protection of human-rights defenders from the organisation Front Line. The attack "raised me to the status of a recognised public figure, and has generated a debate in the country about these issues," he says. "The Front Line award has permitted me to launch myself onto a new level, in a way that I couldn't have done before, and that itself is an additional form of protection."
That it may be, but "celebrity" on the international human rights circuit, and even national recognition, is no bulletproof charm. Amidst the culture of impunity that Melini has documented, it could be tempting to despair at attempts to foster change.
Jim Loughran of Front Line concedes this. "Sometimes, when confronted by such an extreme situation, you can feel powerless," he acknowledges. "How do you break the cycle of poverty and violence in a country? Where is your starting point?" This, he says, is where Front Line's philosophy applies: "protect one, empower a thousand". "Your starting point is action to create a safe space around human-rights defenders, those people working on the ground to create change. You take the small steps that enable people on the ground to reduce their risk of arrest, harassment or assassination."
Whether those small steps serve to help Guatemala advance along the path to stability remains to be seen.
(Colin Murphy is a journalist and writer based in Dublin)