President Jimmy Morales delivers a press conference in Guatemala City on August 31, 2018. Morales announced Guatemala will not renew the mandate of a UN anti-corrption mission, which he accused of improper interference on internal matters of the country. 

© 2018 ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – President Jimmy Morales needs to comply with a court ruling to allow the head of a UN-backed commission to return to Guatemala, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 16, 2018, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered Morales to allow the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to enter the country without restrictions. Morales had announced on September 4 that Commissioner Iván Velásquez, who was on a work trip abroad, would not be allowed to reenter the country.

The Constitutional Court has once again stood up for the rule of law in Guatemala, and has thwarted Morales’ efforts to derail CICIG.

Daniel Wilkinson

Managing Director, Americas Division

“The Constitutional Court has once again stood up for the rule of law in Guatemala, and has thwarted Morales’ efforts to derail CICIG,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch. “The court is now considering a request to further explain its ruling, which Morales must fully comply with.”

In 2017, the Constitutional Court blocked an order to expel Commissioner Velásquez from the country. Morales issued the order two days after the commission and the attorney general sought to lift his presidential immunity so they could investigate his alleged role in illicit campaign financing.

The September 16 ruling, a constitutional injunction that is binding until the court issues a final decision in the case, also ordered Morales to solve any disputes regarding the commission through negotiations with the United Nations. Under the agreement between the state of Guatemala and the United Nations to establish the commission, signed in December 2006, “[a]ny dispute between the parties (…) shall be settled by negotiation.”

In a news conference on September 17, Guatemala’s solicitor general stated that since the Constitutional Court’s ruling did not mention Commissioner Velásquez by name, the government’s obligation was to allow a commissioner, not necessarily the current one, to enter the country and that it would negotiate the selection of a new commissioner with the United Nations.

The foreign minister stated that the government no longer considers Velásquez to be the head of CICIG and that following presidential orders, she had asked the UN secretary-general to send a list of candidates within 48 hours. The interior minister announced that “Iván Velásquez Gómez will not enter the national territory.”

Leading Guatemalan experts in Constitutional law told Human Rights Watch that they see the government’s legal arguments as untenable. On September 18, the lawyer who had sought the injunction filed a request for clarification before the Constitutional Court. The Court is currently considering that request.

On September 6, a few days after he had prohibited Commissioner Velásquez from reentering the country, Morales stated that he would “not obey illegal orders,” apparently referring to the Constitutional Court.

“The president has no choice but to fully comply with the court’s order,” Wilkinson said. “A refusal to do so would be a flagrant breach of the country’s constitutional order and grounds for the Organization of American States to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to restore the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) says that representative democracy is indispensable for the stability, peace, and development of the region, and that governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. Under the charter, the OAS secretary general or any other member country can convoke a Permanent Council meeting to address situations where there has been an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” This application of the charter does not require consent from the government of the country whose democracy has been impaired.