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A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.
The Wall Street Journal
Mary Anastasia O’Grady
Sunday, April 22, 2018

In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary.

This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security.

The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy.

CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia.

As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences.

Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs.

Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions.

It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide.

CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.”

This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.”

Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations.

Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars.

There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

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All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results.  Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike.  Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today.  Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.

  • Max Kampelman Fellowships

    The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe seeks candidates for its Max Kampelman Fellowship program. Named for a longtime U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kampelman Fellows represent the next generation of American leaders in security policy, human rights, and strategic communications. Kampelman Fellows join a team of world-class experts at an independent, bicameral, bipartisan, inter-branch federal agency. The Helsinki Commission advances American national security and national interests by promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries. Fellows regularly interact and work on policy with Congressional offices, executive branch officials, foreign diplomats, civil society, and the broader policy community. Kampelman Fellowships last up to six months, with a minimum of three days per week. Fellows are paid hourly and are offered ongoing enrichment, professional development, and networking opportunities facilitated by senior commission staff. Policy Fellowships Policy fellows will work in political and military affairs, economic and environmental matters, or respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, based on their areas of interest, expertise, and needs of the Commission. Under the direction of commission policy advisors, policy fellows research policies and trends relating to international military, economic, and human rights commitments throughout the 57-country OSCE region; assist staff advisors with hearings, briefings, congressional delegations, legislation, and publications; attend congressional hearings, panels, and events; and perform administrative duties. Each fellow is expected to write at least one article for potential publication on the commission website during his or her fellowship period. Communications Fellowships Under the direction of the communications director, communications fellows support projects and initiatives in all areas of the commission’s portfolio. Communications fellows assist with media outreach activities; help publicize Commission hearings and briefings; staff Commission events; develop web content; and craft creative and engaging content to be shared on social media. They also assist with other special communications projects and perform administrative duties. Each fellow is expected to write at least one article for publication on the commission website during his or her fellowship period. Qualifications The Kampelman Fellowship program is open to recent undergraduates, current graduate students, and undergraduate students with previous internship experience. All Kampelman Fellowship candidates should have a keen interest in learning more about international affairs, the inner workings of Congress, and the relationship between the legislative and executive branches in the realm of foreign policy. Proficiency in a second OSCE language is an asset. Pursuant to Section 704 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-31 (May 5, 2017), as amended, an applicant must be one of the following: (1) a citizen of the United States; (2) a person who is lawfully admitted for permanent residence and is seeking citizenship as outlined in 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3)(B); (3) a person who is admitted as a refugee under 8 U.S.C. 1157 or is granted asylum under 8 U.S.C. 1158 and has filed a declaration of intention to become a lawful permanent resident and then a citizen when eligible; or (4) a person who owes allegiance to the United States. Policy Fellows: A broad liberal arts education is ideal. Applicants should demonstrate excellent writing, analysis, research, and oral presentation skills, as well as an interest in government, international relations, and human rights. Communications Fellows: Candidates with a focus on marketing, communications, journalism, public relations, or related disciplines are encouraged to apply. Applicants should demonstrate excellent writing and editing skills; a good working knowledge of photography, cutting-edge web content management systems, and new media platforms; and an interest in government, international relations, and human rights. How to Apply Please send the following application package to csce[dot]fellowships[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov. Brief cover letter indicating the following: Why you want to work for the Commission, including relevant background or personal experiences Your specific areas of interest as they relate to the work of the Commission Your availability (start and end dates, as well as hours per week) Résumé of no more than one page Academic transcript(s) (official or unofficial) Writing sample of three pages or less In the subject line of your e-mail application, please indicate whether you are applying for a policy fellowship or a communications fellowship. Only complete applications will be considered. Please do not contact the commission to inquire about the status of your application; finalists will be notified if they have been selected for an interview. Deadlines The deadline to apply for our next cohort of fellows is Friday, March 12, 2021. Applications received after the deadline will be considered for the following cohort. Please make sure to include the month and year that would like your fellowship to commence in your cover letter. 

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