Vance Center and Paul Weiss Issue Report Criticizing Guatemalan Law Regulating Civil Society

Changes to Guatemalan law threaten to violate freedom of association under international law, a report by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the international law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP has found. Guatemala: Revisions to the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations – Analysis Under the International Human Right to Freedom of Association, available in English and Spanish, reviews the changes in light of international human rights law, including the government’s substantial discretion over the cancelation of organizations and its increased control over their activities; the creation of criminal and civil liability for directors of NGOs; and the imposition of new, unnecessary and onerous reporting requirements.

The Alliance for Reforms in Guatemala commissioned the report for its effort to challenge the constitutionality of the revisions to existing law. The Alliance is a coalition of thirty-five civil society organizations, including human rights, international, women’s rights, and indigenous people’s rights organizations, as well as research centers and urban groups that share an agenda of social change to strengthen democratic rule of law in Guatemala.

The reforms were proposed in 2017 by a congressional representative with the ruling political party to increase government control over the work of civil society. Even when international human rights bodies warned of the risks to freedom of association, the legislative process advanced. On February11, 2020, Congress unexpectedly added the revisions to that day’s legislative agenda as part of a resolution related to the coronavirus pandemic, and approved it without discussion. Days later, President Alejandro Giammattei signed Decree 4-2020 into law. Various NGOs, human rights defenders, and opposition parties in Congress filed constitutional claims, and on March 2, the Constitutional Court issued a provisional injunction preventing the law from going into effect. A hearing on the merits is pending.

Analyzing the revisions to the Guatemalan NGO Law, the report observes that many of the specific changes are similar to restrictions in the legislation of other countries that have previously been struck down by courts or condemned by human rights organizations as violating freedom of association. The report studies standards from the United Nations human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Committee, and United Nations Special Rapporteurs, as well as regional organizations like the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Commission for Democracy through Law.

According to the report, the Guatemalan revisions threaten to dissuade the formation of new NGOs and discourage NGO opposition to policies and practices of the government. The changes may not have been properly legislated and are too vague, giving the government wide discretionary power to invoke “public order” to restrict freedom of association, without clearly defined and tailored limits for its application, the report finds.

The report follows other Vance Center efforts in Guatemala, including the report Judicial profession and conduct in Latin America for the Association of Guatemalan Judges for Integrity, a workshop for 50 judges of the association on how multinational companies conduct transnational business, and delegations of U.S. and Latin American business lawyers to Guatemala in 2013, 2014 and 2019 to examine the judicial selection process.

Read the full report here: English, Spanish

About the Vance Center

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association advances global justice by engaging lawyers across borders to support civil society and an ethically active legal profession. The Vance Center is a unique collaboration of international lawyers catalyzing public interest innovation that brings together leading law firms and other partners worldwide to pioneer international justice initiatives and provide pro bono legal representation to social justice

About the New York City Bar Association
The mission of the New York City Bar Association, which was founded in 1870 and has 25,000 members, is to equip and mobilize a diverse legal profession to practice with excellence, promote reform of the law, and uphold the rule of law and access to justice in support of a fair society and the public interest in our community, our nation, and throughout the world.