Robert F Kennedy Human Rights has been monitoring the human rights situation in Central America for decades. Many of the countries in the region suffer from high levels of poverty, corruption, violence and impunity, which have negative consequences on the defense and promotion of human rights. Although the causes of these problems vary from country to country there are a number of similar themes and issues throughout the region.
Elite privilege and high levels of social inequality have led to a system where small fractions of the population have been successful in controlling or influencing the relatively weak state institutions. This has promoted high levels of corruption within the most powerful sectors of society, including government officials, fostering a culture of impunity, undermining the legitimacy and accountability of state institutions. Political instability such as historical failures of the democratic process and multiple coup-d’états and military governments also add to the difficulty of promoting human rights in the region. Finally, since the early 1980’s many areas in the region are part of vast and complex drug routes from South America to North America and Europe. The illicit drug trade brings increased violence and corruption as officials are often part of or complicit with criminal organizations.
So what can be done to address these problems? A sui generis effort was made in Guatemala through the establishment of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent international body set up by the United Nations in response to a request for assistance from the Guatemalan government to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of national institutions. With significant investigation powers and the ability to act as a complementary prosecutor under the Guatemalan legal system, CICIG started its work in 2007 on an initial 2-year mandate which has been renewed on several occasions. The current mandate runs until 2017.
Following a slow and rocky start, CICIG proved its worth after its investigations along with the Guatemalan Attorney General, uncovered a widespread corruption network in the country’s tax and customs agency that led to the resignation and subsequent arrest of Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2015. New investigations have uncovered the extent of the corruption network, in which other high government officials and business leaders appear to be involved.
Corruption scandals have not been limited to Guatemala. More recently in Honduras there was a major corruption scandal involving the ruling National Party and the state healthcare fund. High-ranking government officials were accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars, with stolen funds also alleged to have been used to finance President Juan Orlando Hernandez’ presidential campaign. This led to protests from May to September of 2015. Protestors called for the creation of a UN backed commission modelled on CICIG. Instead, Honduran president Hernández and the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed on the establishment of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Contrary to its Guatemalan counterpart, MACCIH has a far more limited mandate.
MACCIH’s role essentially allows it to expose corrupt officials but unlike CICIG has no power to act as a complementary prosecutor against them. In addition, what information will be made available to MACCIH and what it can make public will depend on how the (2014) Law on Classification of Public Documents Related to Security and National defense is interpreted. The law could be used to withhold information from MACCIH and the public if it is deemed sensitive. This establishes a worrying pretext as it could block investigations by preventing officials from providing the commission with information. Another issue is that the law has no mention as to whether there is a right to appeal the classification status of documents. Further, any investigations will also require the support and cooperation of the attorney general’s office, currently a close ally of President Hernández and whose appointment was highly controversial. This raises questions as to how genuine efforts to curb corruption and allow investigations to take place will be. By being an advisory body with no judicial powers or ability to investigate freely and entirely dependent on the cooperation of government officials, there are questions as to how effective MACCIH will be to reduce corruption and impunity in the country.
The UN backed CICIG has become very effective in achieving the goals of its mandate since its establishment in 2007. It has been able to strengthen Guatemalan institutions and legal practices, reducing impunity and therefore improving the rule of law in the country. Bringing charges against former president Perez Molina has been a hugely symbolic victory against impunity and corruption and has sent a strong message of respect for the rule of law in the country. MACCIH is a much younger body having only been set up this year and must be given time to establish itself, but few are optimistic that lacking the powers of its Guatemalan counterpart it will be able to make similar improvements in reducing corruption and impunity.
Liam Spindler is an intern with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights