On January 25, 2023, UN member states reviewed Guatemala’s human rights record during the 42nd Session of the Universal Periodic Review, a process carried out by the UN Human Rights Council. This was Guatemala’s fourth cycle of review since 2008. The final outcome of the 42nd UPR session will be adopted by the plenary of the Human Rights Council at its 53rd regular session in June 2023.
Cultural Survival traveled to Geneva with Adriana Sunun (Maya Kaqchikel) from the Maya Lawyers Association and Rosendo Pablo Ramirez (Maya Mam), founder of Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun, to advocate for Indigenous Peoples' rights to freedom of expression and to their own community media at Guatemala’s UPR session.
The Universal Periodic Review consists of an assessment of the human rights situation of UN member states by peer states. It is considered to be an international peer review mechanism based on three reports: a self-assessment by the country of its own human rights record, a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or other UN experts, entities, or treaty bodies, and a stakeholders report based on information sent by civil society. Cultural Survival submitted such a stakeholders report jointly with Sobrevivencia Cultural).
After taking the three reports under consideration, the Human Rights Council meets to evaluate the State. The meeting lasts three and a half hours, and every State has the chance to speak for one minute and make recommendations to the State under review. Civil society organizations do not have the right to speak in this session. A few months later, the final report including the outcome of the recommendations—which the State can either accept or note (reject)—will be adopted at the plenary session of the Human Rights Council.
In Guatemala, Indigenous community radio stations still have not been legalized more than 26 years since this right was guaranteed in the Guatemalan Peace Accords and more than a year and a half after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the autonomous court of the Organization of American States, ruled in favor of the Maya communities in October 2021 in the case of Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel Peoples of Sumpango and others vs. Guatemala.
The court’s ruling declared the Republic of Guatemala “internationally responsible for the violation of the rights to freedom of expression, equality before the law, and participation in cultural life,” and established that Guatemala must create a simple and free procedure to obtain radio licenses for Indigenous communities and reserve part of the radio spectrum for Indigenous community radio. However, the State of Guatemala has refused to comply with or implement any of these obligations—even the most simple ones, such as publishing the court’s decision in an official newspaper both in Spanish and in the languages of the victims—and continues to criminalize Indigenous radio operators.
Ramirez comes from Todos Santos Cuchumatan in Guatemala and founded Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun in 2000. He says this was only possible because of the support from the people in his community, who “are the real owners of the radio station and the ones who keep the radio functioning by listening to it in their homes.” He traveled to UN headquarters in Geneva to advocate for his community’s right to its own media. “A People without their own media does not exist; we are in the 21st Century, and every People should have their own media, especially when they are interested in having it,” he says.
There are 25 Indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala, and many linguistic communities are keen on having their own radio station as this is the only means by which they can express themselves in their native language publicly. Ramirez says the learning of their native language, coming from their parents and grandparents, is the most familiar way of communicating for them. “Speaking our own language feels safer,” he says, as Indigenous Peoples cannot fully and freely express themselves in the language of the colonizer.
“We are grateful for the international organizations that have accompanied us in this fight that started 12 years ago by taking our case to the IACHR, which ruled in favor of our right to Indigenous community media,” Ramirez said. However, he points out that the Guatemalan State has not complied with the ruling and has not informed the community about how they will implement it. “The State of Guatemala must respect the recommendations made by other countries, and that is our objective here,” said Ramirez.
One of the main concerns throughout the review process was the lack of independence and impartiality of the justice system. Many countries recommended Guatemala put an end to the harassment and criminalization against judicial officers who are investigating corruption related crimes against government officials or attacks on human rights defenders and journalists. Another recurring concern, noted by more than 20 countries in their recommendations, is to fully investigate all threats and attacks against human rights defenders and journalists by taking measures or adopting public policies that aim at their protection and cease their criminalization.
Besides these pressing concerns, many States made recommendations regarding Indigenous Peoples’ rights, such as providing a bilingual and intercultural education (Peru); enhancing efforts to protect Indigenous Peoples from forced evictions from their territories (South Africa and Iran); and respecting and implementing Free, Prior and Informed Consent mechanisms for decisions affecting Indigenous Peoples (Venezuela, Canada, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, and Malaysia).
Colombia made a specific recommendation regarding the case of community radio stations, urging the State of Guatemala to consider the implementation and application of the IACHR ruling ordering Guatemala to recognize Indigenous community radio stations as distinguished media and to adopt the necessary measures to establish a simple and free procedure for obtaining licenses, as well as reserving part of the radio spectrum for Indigenous community radio and ceasing the criminalization of Indigenous radio operators.
Norway also recommended taking concrete actions to guarantee the right of Indigenous Peoples to prior consultation in accordance with ILO Convention 169, and to comply with the reparation measures ordered by the IACHR in the case regarding community radio stations.
Adriana Sunun is a lawyer working for the Maya Lawyers Association in Guatemala, an organization that supports Indigenous community radio stations in their fight for their right to their own media. Sunun said, “We are happy that this very specific recommendation was made by Colombia and Norway in terms of freedom of expression of Indigenous Peoples...however, there are also other problems related to Indigenous Peoples that we would have liked to hear as specific recommendations. The rest of the States made very general recommendations on Indigenous Peoples. The issue of evictions [of Indigenous Peoples from their lands] was mentioned by one State, but we would have liked to hear more about it.”
Sunun also said she would have liked to hear more about the specific criminalization of Indigenous leaders and communicators—not just human rights defenders and journalists in general—and recommendations on Indigenous women. “The State tried to mention advances in human rights issues, but a lot of those have been a result of the work of civil society organizations...and many others are just on paper, but not really implemented,” she said.
The State of Guatemala urgently needs to implement the 2021 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling and start taking effective measures to reserve part of the radio spectrum for Indigenous community radio and to fulfill every other international obligation it has towards Indigenous Peoples. Civil society can now use the specific recommendations made by UN member states to pressure Guatemala’s government to fulfill its rights obligations during the implementation phase of the review.