Guatemalan state systematically violates economic and social rights of citizens

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MADRID and GUATEMALA CITY--By failing to implement a fair and progressive tax policy, the Guatemalan state systematically violates the economic and social rights of its citizens, according to the results of a two-year independent human rights investigation. The report comes just as the national general budget for 2010 is being debated in the Guatemalan Congress.

The new report focuses on the analyses of three rights: food, health and education, and three serious obstacles that threaten them: child malnutrition, maternal mortality and failure to complete primary school. These indicators of social progress and rights in Guatemala are among the worst in Latin America, despite being declared a national priority in the Guatemalan peace agreements of 1996 and commitments under the international Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Some indicators measured in the report put Guatemala on a par with sub-Saharan African countries.

The study "Derechos o Privilegios? El compromiso fiscal con la salud, la educación y la alimentación en Guatemala," (Rights or Privileges? Fiscal Commitment to the Rights to Health, Education and Food in Guatemala) was jointly researched and written by the Spain- and U.S.-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and the Guatemala-based Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI). Both are international non-governmental organizations.

The lack of fiscal commitment to uphold human rights in Guatemala has had the most negative impacts in the areas of food, health and education, according to the report, particularly on the rights of women, children and indigenous peoples.

The report claims that the poor performance of Guatemala to ensure basic levels of social rights of all people is due in large part to lack of political will by governments in the past decade to invest in social policies. The proportion of GDP devoted to social spending is among the lowest in Latin America.

Despite being the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala generates comparatively little income from taxation, curtailing the ability of the government to respond adequately to the needs of the population through the public budget process. Guatemala has one of the lowest tax burdens in Latin America, as well as one of the most generous regimes of exemptions and tax breaks. The study attributes the low tax collection and expenditure to the state's historic control by elite sectors of the economy.

"This makes health, nutrition and education privileges of the few instead of universal rights," said Ignacio Saiz, executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Guatemala has some of the worst social outcomes in Latin America. About 50 per cent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition; almost one in three children does not complete primary school; and 290 women die from complications in pregnancy or childbirth (for every 100,000 live births), the worst rate in Latin America along with Bolivia.

Despite being the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala has the lowest human development index (a composite measure of life expectancy, health and education outcomes) of any country in the region.

In countries where major structural inequalities, high levels of poverty and unstable economic growth continue to persist, as with Guatemala, fiscal policy represents a major ability of the state to generate and redirect resources to the enforcement of economic, social and cultural rights in a universal and progressive way, reducing inequality gaps in their enjoyment by people. Such enforcement is required under Guatemala's commitment to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Researchers relied on international and national data as well as fieldwork in reaching their conclusions and recommendations. Among the recommendations:

  • Increase public spending on health by between 0.1 percent and 0.6 percent of GDP as a first step to achieving universal access to primary health services, and to create an integrated health service with universal coverage, which guarantees all people, without discrimination, access to quality care services that are culturally relevant.
  • Reduce maternal mortality by establishing and adequately funding interventions and policies needed to ensure availability, accessibility, relevance and quality of emergency obstetric care, skilled birth attendance and referral networks, in order to reach at least the MDG target by 2015.
  • Perform a thorough review of resources allocated to policies of food security and nutrition, to ensure consistency with principles of universality, progressive realization and non-discrimination and to reach at least the MDG target by 2015.
  • Design a participatory education strategy that will attract and keep children and young people who have been traditionally excluded from the education system; promote multiculturalism, gender equity and educational quality.
  • Gradually increase the education budget from the current two percent of GDP to about 3.9 percent in 2010, reaching 4.5 percent in 2015. This increase would meet the goals promoted by Guatemalan society to ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.
  • Eliminate tax priviliges and reduce tax incentives which respond to vested interests of the most powerful business sectors, to achieve an increased tax burden of at least 0.4 percent of GDP in 2010 and one percent of GDP in 2014.
  • Increase tax revenues more equitably by increasing the rate of incometax (from the current five percent to nine percent), and strengtheningthe Single Tax on Buildings (IUSI).
  • Improve the system of tax administration, transparency and accountability mechanisms; strengthen programs against tax evasion, as well as coordinated programs for pursuing tax non-compliance.
  • Improve transparency and accountability in expenditure, to tackle both corruption and inefficiency in public spending.
  • Consider using debt as a viable mechanism to increase funds available for the realization of human rights, and evaluate the use of loans to fund future education and health priorities.