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Guatemala: Rights Official at Risk of Criminal Prosecution

Ombudsperson Under Attack for Defending Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Jordan Rodas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with members of the organization "proud of my PNC" (Civil National Police), formed by relatives of police officers, in Guatemala City on July 17, 2018.  © 2018 JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Guatemala should ensure that its human rights ombudsperson, Jordán Rodas, can continue his defense of sexual and reproductive rights without fear of prosecution or reprisal, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 12, 2020, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled that Rodas had failed to comply with a 2017 decision that ordered the Ombudsperson’s Office (Procurador de los Derechos Humanos, PDH) to cease activities that support or promote abortion, present access to abortion as a right, or promote its legalization. The court ordered the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate whether Rodas is guilty of non-compliance with a judicial decision, a crime under Guatemalan law punishable with up to three years of prison.

“The Supreme Court has put Ombudsperson Rodas in an impossible situation where he risks being sent to prison for doing what international human rights law – and therefore his job description – requires,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary and Congress urgently need to end their relentless attack against Rodas’ work protecting and promoting fundamental rights.”

The Supreme Court’s rulings contravene international human rights standards on sexual and reproductive rights and restrict the ombudsperson’s free speech and ability to protect and promote human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

In a 2017 ruling, the court ordered the ombudsperson’s office to stop distributing a 2015 handbook titled “Human Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and Pregnancy Care in Girls and Adolescents,” ruling that it promoted abortion and therefore violated the right to life. At that time, the Supreme Court ordered the ombudsperson’s office “to counteract the effects that the distribution of the material may have had with material that is consistent with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” The handbook did not challenge the legal status of abortion in Guatemala, but it raised awareness about rights recognized under international law.

In August 2020, a pro-life group called Family Matters Association requested the Supreme Court to rule that Rodas had failed to comply with the 2017 ruling. It said he had continued promoting abortion in Guatemala, including by calling on the government to adopt recommendations by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about protecting the right to access abortion.

Ombudsperson Rodas reported to the court that his office had stopped publishing the handbook and that its statements supporting recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child were not specific to abortion but also addressed broader issues, such as discrimination and gender violence.

The court held that he had not adequately counteracted the effects of the handbook’s past distribution, as his office had failed to “make an emphatic and categorical statement that it did not support abortion ... in defense of the right of the unborn child.” The court grounded its ruling in Guatemala’s constitution and abortion legislation, without taking into account Guatemala’s international treaty obligations.

In Guatemala, abortion is legal only when the life of a pregnant woman or girl is in danger. In any other circumstances, a person who has an abortion can face a sentence of up to three years in prison. In August 2018, the Guatemalan Congress approved a preliminary version of the “Life and Family Protection” bill, which would raise the maximum sentence for abortion from 3 to 10 years and would make it a crime to engage in “the promotion of abortion.” The bill remains pending before congress.

Several international human rights bodies, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Human Rights Committee, have called on Guatemala to decriminalize and legalize abortion and ensure access to safe abortion services.

Meanwhile, Guatemala’s congress is seeking to remove Ombudsperson Rodas from office due to his public statements in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. On July 6, the legislature’s human rights commission summoned Rodas to a plenary session of congress “to be held accountable for his activities in office and the actions taken during his tenure.”

The Paris Principles establish that national human rights institutions have the responsibility to make recommendations to ensure that existing and proposed legislation and regulations respect human rights. This includes recommending “the adoption of new legislation, the amendment of legislation in force, and the adoption or amendment of administrative measures.”

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled that “once a State has ratified an international treaty … its bodies and judges are also subject to it, which compels them to make sure that the effects of the provisions of the Convention are not affected by the application or interpretation of laws contrary to its object and purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Rodas’ case violate international human rights law, including on freedom of expression and the right to information, Human Rights Watch said. Guatemala’s laws on abortion also violate a large number of human rights norms, including the right to health, nondiscrimination, and the right to be protected from inhuman treatment.

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