As I promised last month, this month's blog features the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, the organization for which my amazingly dedicated, passionate and incredibly knowledgeable cousin Kelsey Alford-Jones is the Director. Although not directly related to Mother's Day or Memorial Day (special days in the U.S. on which we commemorate mothers and military veterans), I believe the issues facing the Guatemalan people are deeply intertwined with the lives of those who experience challenge and loss in any form - partners, children and other loved ones, communities, ecosystems - the list goes on. And, although we all process our challenges and losses in our own ways, we more often than not stand strong and resolute in the face of living in these tumultuous and uncertain times.
In many places around the world, men, women and children are denied their basic human rights on a daily basis… working for slave wages in sweatshops, walking for miles to obtain dirty water for washing and drinking, suffering from diseases due to an imbalanced distribution of the healthy food and clean water that is available to all of us. Many are beaten, tortured or killed simply for being who they are or for speaking out against these situations… and their families may never find out what actually happened to them.
Guatemala is one of those places where countless thousands of men, women and children just like you and me have died at the hands of their own government. The Guatemalan people have faced indescribable horrors, and bravely continue to fight against multi-national corporations which plague communities like San Antonio Las Trojes 1 and San Rafael Las Flores with environmental degredation, increasing health concerns and escalated social injustices. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), however, continues to support the people there in reclaiming their way of life.
Kelsey works out of their Washington D.C. office and makes numerous trips on behalf of the Guatemalan people each year. As she wrote in an email to our family last fall, "professionally, I am learning something new every day and have gotten to participate in some amazing activities. And personally, I am continually humbled and inspired by the people I have the honor of working with." She shared about how she and others at GHRC have been working tirelessly to ensure the rights of all citizens in Guatemala, which include the following:
- Closely monitoring and reporting on the recent trial, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity of ex-dictator Efraín Rios Montt, the mastermind behind Guatemala's scorched earth policy, hundreds of massacres in indigenous communities, and the "disappearances" of over 45,000 native Guatemalans. Kelsey has been at the forefront of this campaign, and had the opportunity to comment on camera for a piece by Al Jazeera [about 2:41 minutes in]. As GHRC stated, "we hope [this unprecedented historical event] will send a strong message to the world about the victory of human rights over impunity." If you want to stay informed about the progress of this critical situation, you can find updates here.
- Arguing her way into an active exhumation inside the Coban military base with a group of indigenous Guatemalans hoping to find any remains of "disappeared" family members. (Although she was unable to bring her phone or camera, a photojournalist later got in and took some powerful photos.)
- Supporting Guatemalan human rights lawyer Edgar Perez, known for his work on most of the nation's emblematic human rights cases from the internal armed conflict such as the Dos Erres Massacre case, which was the topic of a recent This American Life episode.
- Supporting land rights and community leaders who are threatened, attacked or assassinated due to their resistance to transnational development "megaprojects," such as Rubén Herrera, a human rights defender and member of the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango for the Defense of Natural Resources, unjustly imprisoned for alleged crimes committed in relation to community resistance to the Cambalam hydroelectric dam in Santa Cruz Barillas.
- Accompanying two community leaders to meetings with the Director of the Inter-American Development Bank and representatives of the World Bank to continue to push for just reparations.
- Meeting with women who had been gang raped by the private security of a Canadian nickel mining company, and accompanying community leader Maria Choc on a mid-west speaking tour. This short video gives a glimpse into the challenges faced by that community.
- Meeting with anti-mining activist Yolanda Oqueli (who was shot in the back but survived), and securing pro-bono legal assistance for her husband, detained by I.C.E. in Louisiana the same week, who has since applied for political asylum. GHRC continues to support his case, as well as push for investigation and justice in the shooting of Yolanda.
- Working with a journalist from the AP to contribute to an article that raised some human rights concerns with the militarization of the war on drugs in response to the deployment of 200 US Marines in Guatemala to fight drug trafficking.
Kelsey concluded her letter by stating, "events and circumstances change quickly in Guatemala, but GHRC has been able to maintain much-needed support for our Guatemalan partners. We hear over and over again that international support is more important now than ever, and I feel really lucky to be in a position to provide concrete support. More often than not, that support feels like simply keeping things from getting worse. But every once in a while we are able to contribute to positive steps forward in the defense of human rights, historic memory, justice, and accountability…. Those moments are really exciting, and make all the stress, long hours, and emotional challenges of the job more than worthwhile."
GHRC wrote in their 2013 Earth Day newsletter, "We would like to honor this important holiday by reiterating our support for the communities in resistance to mining and other projects that exploit Guatemala’s natural resources. The companies that are responsible for these projects have shown a pattern of disrespect for the Earth and the rights of the Guatemalan people. Through referendums, consultations and peaceful protests, communities throughout the country have shown their commitment to protecting their land and natural resources." And, as they stated recently in regards to the Rios Montt case, "As the trial draws to a close, international attention and solidarity are as important as ever. The danger of violence if the accused are found guilty is very real, as is the need for ongoing psycho-social support for the survivors. This case is also just one of several against Guatemalan military officials for crimes committed during the internal armed conflict. Please continue to keep Guatemala in your thoughts and prayers, and keep spreading the word about this historic process and its importance for the Guatemalan people."
The Guatemalan people are not the only ones who face situations like this on a daily basis. There are numerous countries and countless communities where multitudes of people and our planet, our very home, are sacrificed for the profit of a few. And we all know that there are actions to be taken - petitions to sign, phone calls to make and letters to write, choices to make - in our every day lives. When we take these actions which have an effect on the policies and decisions made by a few, we can make a difference. But we must choose to take them. We must choose to change.
As Lynne Twist, co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance stated, “These are the people, this is the generation of humankind, that made the changes that went through a transformation that made the future of life possible. These are the people who had the courage to make profound changes in the way they were thinking--as well as in the way that they were behaving--that gave the future to life itself."
Let's pray that the mothers in Guatemala do not have to Dance Alone (like the mothers in Chile written about so poignantly in this song by Sting) any longer, that they know they are loved, supported and held by mothers and everyone around the globe, and that this Mothers Day and Memorial Day bring us ever close to a day when we can say, "There was a time when we humans forgot who we were, but that time is long since gone."
You can learn more about what's happening in Guatemala by watching this video, subscribing to the GHRC listserve, and reading El Quetzal. If you feel moved to support their work, please join me in "liking" their facebook page, following them on twitter, or or making a tax-deductible donation to their worthy cause here.