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Confronting Racism from within the Guatemalan State: The Challenges Faced by the Defender of Indigenous Rights of Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman's Office

  • Law
  • Political Science


This paper analyzes the development of legal mechanisms and micro-level institutional reforms aimed at consolidating the rights of indigenous peoples in post-conflict Guatemala. The research is based on prolonged fieldwork carried out with the Office of the Defender of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (PDH), established in 1998. The paper argues that the establishment of state institutions and institutional reforms oriented towards the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights since the end of hostilities in Guatemala's internal armed conflict in 1996 represent important advances, although they occurred within a broader context in which the peace process failed to tackle structural inequalities effectively or enduringly. On the surface, the PDH and related reforms appear to provide indigenous people with unprecedented access to forms of legal redress for human rights violations, including both individual and collective rights. However, given the structural, interpersonal and institutional racism that plagues Guatemalan state and society, such measures remain little more than symbolic, as inadequate funding, racist attitudes within PDH mid- to high-level functionaries, and a lack of institutional will to train functionaries to understand, identify and process systematic violations of indigenous peoples’ rights sufficiently impede the effective addressing of profound structural inequalities. The norms and behavior within state institutions and the attitudes of state functionaries operating from within Guatemala's post-conflict multicultural state are today, then, shaped by more subtle forms of exclusion and marginalization of indigenous populations, leading us to question the impact of institutional change on transformations in the political culture.

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