The past week has seen a number of fast-moving events touching on the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and its head, Commissioner Ivan Velásquez. On 23 August 2017, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric fielded questions from journalists in Guatemala regarding reports that the country’s President, Jimmy Morales, planned to ask the Secretary-General for the removal of Mr. Velásquez as Commissioner during a meeting set for 25 August. Mr. Dujarric said the UN Secretariat had never received any complaint about the role of Commissioner Velasquez, be it from the Government of Guatemala or from the country’s justice sector institutions.
“On the contrary,” he said, “we recently hosted a donor meeting at UN Headquarters with the participation of the Foreign Minister, the President of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General as well the Minister of Interior. They all praised the Commission’s work.”
The spokesperson added that Secretary-General António Guterres “heartily commends the work of Commissioner Velásquez and looks forward to continuing to support him carrying out his functions at the helm of the Commission.”
During their 25 August meeting, the Secretary-General and President Morales ”exchanged views on security and justice.” The Secretary-General reiterated the United Nations’ commitment to the fight against impunity and corruption, and the Organisation’s continuing support to CICIG. He also reaffirmed his confidence in Commissioner Ivan Velásquez.
It came as a shock to the Secretary-General, then, when two days later President Morales declared Commissioner Velásquez persona non grata and called for his immediate departure from Guatemala. The Secretary-General said he fully expected that Mr. Velásquez would be treated with the respect due to his functions as an international civil servant.
The Secretary-General also recalled that under Commissioner Velásquez’s leadership, CICIG had “made a decisive contribution to strengthening justice sector institutions in Guatemala, helping to ensure justice was done in numerous cases. Mr. Velásquez has worked tirelessly to promote a culture that upholds the rule of law and rejects corruption.”
The President’s order has been challenged by Guatemalan lawyers and civil society institutions in the country’s Constitutional Court, which has suspended it while appeals are heard. [On 29 August, the Court decided to permanently suspend the President’s order.]
In an interview with Politically Speaking last year, Commissioner Velásquez talked about the significance of CICIG’s work for Guatemala and internationally. In light of recent developments, we are re-posting that interview.
For almost nine years, a unique international body has been labouring to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala and help the country fight impunity and corruption. For most of that time, the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was not widely known outside the Central American country. In the past year, however, CICIG, an independent institution that reports through DPA, has been making increasingly bigger headlines as its investigations reach into the highest level of Guatemalan power. Indeed, the Commission’s investigations led last year to the resignation and prosecution of the country’s President and Vice-President. CICIG head Iván Velásquez Gómez, was in NY recently and spoke to Politically Speaking. We have translated and condensed our conversation below.
Politically Speaking: CICIG has played an increasingly significant role in public life in Guatemala. To what do you attribute the Commission’s success and its recent higher profile?
Iván Velásquez Gómez: I believe this is the result of a process that began from the arrival of the Commission in Guatemala, but which really took off because it had been foreseen that this would be the last term for CICIG in the country. The objective was to show the reality of corruption and impunity in Guatemala, so we designed an investigation strategy and investigative guidelines that were to lead to investigations in the first half of 2015, and that happened. There was then a confluence of factors: the putting of the spotlight on a reality of impunity and corruption together with a feeling – repressed but palpable – among the population of rejection of corruption. This allowed the emergence, following the presentation of the far-reaching corruption case on 16 April, of a great citizens’ movement that grew as cases were presented. It was the accumulation of revelations
and the investigations launched – all pointing to problems in the health system, the Congress or the judiciary -- that ultimately led to the resignation and loss of liberty of the President and Vice-President, beyond the initial case of customs fraud.
Can the CICIG model be replicated elsewhere?
I think one has to take each country’s reality, the specific conditions of its system of justice, independence of the judiciary, its commitment to fight impunity. With that as a basis, and without automatically transferring a model identical to the one in Guatemala, I believe the essential elements of CICIG can be useful elsewhere. The aspect of international cooperation with national systems of justice, working together with national systems against impunity, which sometimes require to be reinforced, to get additional support that would allow them to act more independently. In that respect I think the model is useful. I think it’s helpful to bring together in an organization like CICIG international experience, which means looking at investigations from a perspective that is informed by various national experiences. The ability to conduct in-depth, independent investigations regardless of who is affected is very important, as has been demonstrated in Guatemala. What CICIG has been able to do, along with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, since 16 April but even before then is to demonstrate that no one is above the law. And that principle is spreading throughout society; inasmuch as it does, in Guatemala and our region, this is a good thing.
Why is impunity an obstacle to lasting peace?
This is a hugely important question. There is definitely a link. The fight against impunity is a fight for human rights, because the fight against impunity is a struggle for a life of dignity. The struggle for human rights is also a struggle for a life of dignity. Therefore, the fight against impunity is not an end in itself, but a way of establishing real, social and democratic rule of law, which in the Latin American reality is an aspiration of all peoples, and a goal that also requires justice as an institution. And I believe that social and democratic rule of law is the ideal state for sustainable peace. So, contributing to the fight against impunity will allow us to live in conditions of dignity and in a state of peaceful coexistence that is more durable.
In your earlier career you investigated links between members of the Colombian congress and paramilitaries, which led to the conviction of 50 members of congress and revealed ties between more than 130 of them and criminal structures linked to the drug cartels. How has that prepared you for the position as head of CICIG?
I think that experience was really useful. When one investigates very powerful structures such as the “narco-paramilitaries” in Colombia, that necessitates the design of investigations, methodologies and approaches that are very different to what it takes to investigate an individual suspect. I think if one looks at my experience, from the General Prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court in Colombia to my work in Guatemala, you’ll see a common thread. All these experiences required great strength from the investigators, adequate technological means and having well defined groups to investigate in a “thematic” manner, which enables one to have a more contextual vision and not focus purely on individual events.