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Bo Forsberg following the visit to Guatemala: “We’re concerned”

A Swedish delegation recently visited Guatemala with the aim of supporting human rights defenders and engaging in dialogue with the private business sector.  “We’re concerned about developments in Guatemala,” says Bo Forsberg, Secretary General of Diakonia, who was part of the delegation. “The country is marked by corruption, a lack of justice and a concentration of power. We want people to be aware that Sweden is following events in Guatemala.”

5/2/2016 Publisher: Aron Lindblom

Every year, human rights defenders in Guatemala are subjected to hundreds of attacks. Those targeted are mainly people who are standing up for the environment or who are defending indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional lands against the threat of mines, hydroelectric power plants or industrial farming.

“With the developments we are seeing today, it is the poorest people, the women, and the indigenous population who are paying the price, as their situation is worsening day by day,” says Forsberg.

The Swedish delegation, which was organised by Diakonia in partnership with We Effect, IM Swedish Development Partner and the Church of Sweden, met with Guatemalan popular movements who believe that there need to be changes in the justice system and in the constitution for human rights to be guaranteed. They also met members of Congress pushing the demands of the popular movements and judges risking their lives to strengthen democracy in Guatemala. One of them is Yassmín Barrios, who led the genocide trial against the previous dictator Ríos Montt in 2013 and who convicted two military officials for crimes against humanity in February 2016. The officials were deemed guilty of the sexual torture of indigenous women held captive at the Sepur Zarco military base. The delegation also met Miguel Ángel Gálvez, the judge working on the preliminary investigations into La Línea, the major corruption case, and Iván Velásquez, the Colombian judge who, since 2013, has been Commissioner of CICIG, the unique UN body fighting impunity and corruption in Guatemala. 

“These are courageous people who are standing tall and attempting to clean up their country,” says Forsberg. “They risk their lives day in and day out to bring about change”.

The delegation met business owners who were critical of the major influence of the traditional financial elite over the country’s politics but also of the traditional Guatemalan business sector, CACIF.

“Part of the visit was about challenging those who have financial and political power and trying to get them to understand that they are on entirely the wrong course, both for the country and for themselves,” says Forsberg.

CACIF primarily represents Guatemala’s powerful family businesses in the sugar and coffee industries and is known for opposing taxes, advocating reduced wages and defending protectionist laws that serve their own financial interests.

“The business owners control all sectors in Guatemala,” says Forsberg. “If they do not take action against corruption and the concentration of power and fail to fulfil their social responsibilities, no-one will want to trade with Guatemala; that was the message from the delegation’s business representatives.”

In their dialogue with CACIF, the Swedish delegation shared their experiences of the Swedish labour market and stressed that the road to economic prosperity must include respect for trade union rights, equality and respect for the environment.

“Although we had good discussions, I left there with a feeling that there was no real willingness to change,” says Forsberg. “These business owners will never voluntarily relinquish their power or their wealth. Change can only happen if the Guatemalan people and civil society demand accountability.”

This year’s Swedish delegation was a follow-up to a similar visit in 2015, but focussed specifically on highlighting companies’ responsibility for the environment and human rights.

“Praise is due to the Swedish and US embassies, who maintain a clear line on human rights and also link investment to demands for human rights,” says Forsberg. “That’s a positive thing.”