Impunity Watch brings together Guatemalan and international experts to discuss strategic litigation for the protection of human rights and social transformation

Impunity Watch organised an international seminar on “Strategic Litigation for Protection of Human Rights and Social Transformation” on 22-23 August in Guatemala City. National and international experts focused on successful strategic litigation cases, lessons learned from Guatemala as well as best practices that could be applied in other contexts.

About 100 participants including public prosecutors, judges, lawyers, victims of the internal armed conflict, and human rights defenders were present at the seminar. Opening remarks were given by Impunity Watch’s Head of the Guatemala office Denis Martínez, Secretary of Criminal Policy of the Public Prosecutor’s Office Julio Cordón and Director of the Myrna Mack Foundation Helen Mack.

“The goal of strategic litigation is to provoke significant public policy changes in order to safeguard human rights and protect victims, women, indigenous communities and the most vulnerable groups,” said Martínez. He emphasised the importance of ensuring the real and significant participation of the victims in the strategic litigation process.

Cordón explained that the Public Prosecutor’s Office considers strategic litigation a valuable tool in fulfilling its constitutional mandate. “Strategic litigation is useful in identifying patterns of illegal conduct and criminal structures that systematically abuse human rights,” he said, adding that it is a key tool to promote the recognition and protection of the rights of vulnerable groups.

Helen Mack shared her experience seeking justice for the murder

of her sister in 1990 by members of the Guatemalan army.

Mack highlighted the various obstacles that impeded the criminal

justice process, noting that she had not built the case of her

sister as a strategic litigation process but included broader

strategies as they became necessary in her fight for justice.

Recounting her experience, Mack described how deep the

structures of impunity are embedded in the Guatemalan judicial

system. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said.

A first panel discussion touched on “Strategic Litigation from the

International Experience,” and included panellists Alejandra

Vicente from Redress, Adriana Benjumea from Humanas

Colombia, and Ramón Cadena from the International Commission

of Jurists.

Vicente shared her experience of strategic litigation under

universal jurisdiction and in the Inter-American Human Rights

System. She stressed the importance of putting victims at the

centre of the process, which should always be carried out with the utmost respect to avoid re-victimisation or causing major damage. Vicente added that the Inter-American System has established an important precedent regarding victim reparation and non-repetition measures which has impacted public policies in several countries in the region.

Cadena touched on using strategic litigation to protect indigenous peoples. She explained that collective litigation is an essential component for the protection of human rights. “It is not only a bilateral relationship; it requires the empowerment of the victims and

collective community reflection, she said, noting that

strategic litigation seeks social change.

Panellists from the second session on “Lessons

Learned and Best Practice in Strategic Litigation”

included Alejandro Rodríguez from Impunity Watch,

Paula Barrios from Women Transforming the World,

Francisco Soto from Center for Human Rights Legal

Action, and Edgar Pérez from Human Rights Law Firm

(BDH).

Soto indicated that legal, political, and social

strategy should be considered in strategic litigation.

He explained that justice plays an important role for

victims and to ensure that these crimes will never be

repeated. In his turn, Pérez noted that indigenous peoples have been criminalised since the internal armed conflict up till now. He also shared his experience of strategic litigation in several cases defending the rights of indigenous peoples and human rights defenders.

Panelists from the third session on “Strategic Litigation in Sexual Violence Cases” included Hilda Pineda from the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office on Human Rights, independent expert Aura Cumes, and Lucia Xiloj from the Rabinal Law Firm.

Pineda highlighted that human rights violations against women corrode social cohesion. She relayed the public prosecutor’s belief that it is necessary to establish psychological and social services for the victims of human rights violations as part of fundamental protection for women. She explained that as part of strategic litigation, international standards should be applied when taking testimonies from victims of sexual violence, and that they should be guaranteed a fair trial. “Justice officials should not doubt the testimony of the victims as it is difficult for women to report sexual violence crimes that affect their privacy,” she added.

Cumes indicated that expert anthropological and social reports in sexual violence and racism cases make an important contribution to providing clarity around human rights abuses which have a collateral effect on society. “The expert reports are an important component of the evidence that illuminates the facts within a social and historical context and make victims’ testimonies comprehensible,” Cumes said.

In her closing remarks, Linnea Arvidsson,

representative of the Office of the UN High

Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala,

said that strategic litigation, as a tool for the

protection of human rights, has proven successful

in protecting children, migrants, and indigenous

peoples, and guarantees their access to justice.  

“Obtaining a verdict is not enough. we must

advocate for effective compliance. International

standards should be incorporated to guarantee the

effective protection of victims’ rights,” she said.

Arvidsson concluded by saying that based on this

seminar, we can build awareness to innovate

litigation for issues of human rights abuses - even in contexts where judicial independence is at risk. “The commitment to strategic litigation is for the defence of human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law,” she said.

Based on the seminar conclusions and recommendations, Impunity Watch will prepare a policy brief regarding best practices and lessons learned. This will be available on our website soon.