RFK Human Rights Submit Amicus Brief on Gómez Virula Case

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (“IHRDA”), Freedom of Expression Hub (“FOE-Hub”), the Centre for Strategic Litigation, and the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (“CHRDA”) have submitted an amicus brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Gómez Virula and Others v. Guatemala. The amici seek to highlight for the Court both the notoriously dire situation faced by labor unionists like Mr. Gómez in Guatemala over many decades, as well as the State’s failure to protect Mr. Gómez’s human rights in connection with his forced disappearance and murder twenty-three years ago. The brief was drafted by a team of external pro bono counsel led by Julia York, and composed of Stuart Baimel, Alejandro Guadarrama, and Ryan Travers.

Alejandro Yovany Gómez Virula was a 24-year-old labor union leader who was disappeared and subsequently killed in March 1995. He was the Secretary of Finance for the trade union at his manufacturing plant. When the plant shut down and laid off 70 workers, Mr. Gómez was a part of the negotiating team that engaged with the company to provide unpaid wages and other benefits. After his disappearance on March 13, 1995, Mr. Gómez’s family and his union made numerous requests for an investigation, but Guatemalan police made no efforts to investigate the case. This was despite significant indications that the disappearance was likely related to his legitimate participation in a labor union.

The case was presented by Guatemalan Organization CALDH to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This body concluded that the Guatemalan State was responsible for violating the rights to life, personal integrity, and personal liberty of Mr. Gómez, as it took no steps to search for him after learning of his disappearance. The IACHR found that, up until Mr. Gómez’s body was found, the State had the obligation to adopt immediate and diligent measures to search for and protect him, which did not happen. It also considered that the State violated Mr. Gómez’s right to freedom of association because, despite significant evidence suggesting that his disappearance and killing could have been linked to his activities as a labor union leader, Guatemala did not pursue any type of investigation along those lines. Given the lack of compliance with its recommendations, the IACHR submitted the case to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights on November 17, 2017.

In this brief to the Inter-American Court, the amici argue for a broad interpretation of the right of freedom of association enshrined in Article 16 of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Amici argue that, given Mr. Gómez’s status as a labor union leader, the State had a heightened obligation to protect Mr. Gómez’s Article 16 rights, but the State failed to conduct any serious or prompt search for him after receiving notice of his kidnapping, which ended in his murder. Protection of the right to freedom of association is critical for human rights defenders like Mr. Gómez, not only to ensure that they may, as individuals, carry on their work unobstructed, but also in light of the collective dimension of this right.

Several African human rights organizations that engage with the African Commission and Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights joined this amicus to share with the Court relevant regional standards on Freedom of Association, thereby promoting interregional dialogue and the harmonization of jurisprudential standards.