Guatemala’s highest court gives green light to controversial NGO law

The decision enables the control over all non-governmental organizations established in Guatemala and their unilateral dissoulution by the state.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Constitutional Court of Guatemala, the country’s highest court, on Wednesday, May 12, definitively endorsed a controversial reform of the law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) promulgated in February 2020 by the ruling party.

The decision enables the control of all non-governmental organizations established in Guatemala and their unilateral dissolution by state decision.

Guatemala's highest court gives green light to controversial NGO law
Guatemala’s highest court gives green light to controversial NGO law. (Photo internet reproduction)

Initially, in March 2020, the Constitutional Court had suspended the law due to a legal appeal by several entities and individuals, pending a final ruling, which was finally disclosed on Wednesday.

The suspension of the law by the court in 2020 was because “this Court considers that the validity of said decree entails a threat of violation of Human Rights.”

However, almost all of the incumbent magistrates of the Court at that time were not reelected to their positions last April for the 2021-2026 term of the court, and the decision to endorse the law was made this Wednesday with the vote of three new magistrates.

The court detailed that the magistrates who endorsed the NGO law reform were Roberto Molina Barreto, Dina Ochoa Escribá, and Leyla Lemus Arriaga. All three were appointed to their positions last April.

The law reform had been sanctioned on February 27, 2020, by the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, after the majority-government Congress approved it on February 11 in a long parliamentary session.

The Constitutional Court’s decision on Wednesday is due, according to its ruling of more than 60 pages, to the fact that “the arguments that sustain the claim” against the law reform do not have “foundation”.

OPPOSED BY THE U.S.

The reforms to the regulation, called “Non-Governmental Organizations Law”, had been objected at the time by local social organizations and by authorities in the United States and the United Nations (UN).

The U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in February 2020, Michael Kozak, expressed his opposition to the law reform through his social networks.

According to Kozak, the law reform proposes difficult requirements for non-governmental organizations, which “play a key role” in building various democracies.

A similar opinion was expressed on February 26, 2020, by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, which urged Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to veto the law to “civil society can operate without fear” of punishment.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Guatemala had also warned in 2020 of its reservations regarding the new regulation.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2019, Michelle Bachelet, similarly expressed in that year her concern about the law, which introduces “requirements and administrative controls applicable to national and international NGOs” that “in practice can be used in a discretionary or arbitrary manner to limit” their work.

The origin of the law is, according to various sources, an attempt by several deputies of the previous legislature (2016-2020) to counteract the anti-corruption fight undertaken since 2015 by the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office and the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

The law reforms, which originated in 2017 with the previous legislative term, mandate the “control” of non-governmental organizations in the country and their “oversight” even when they do not handle public funds, among other measures.

“No donation or external financing may be used to carry out activities that alter public order,” the law reform states. “If an NGO uses donations or external financing to alter public order, it will be immediately canceled,” reads the regulation.

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