On 25 May 1993, President Jorge Serrano Elías suspended Guatemala’s constitution. As is described by Francisco Villagrán de León on pp. 117-24 above, the Court of Constitutionality and leaders of civil society played key roles in reversing this attempted presidential coup. Key documents issued by these groups are excerpted below:
Resolution of the Court of Constitutionality (25 May 1993):
We have examined the rulings issued by the president of the Republic today, which were broadcast on radio and television; through these rulings he announced that the dispositions contained in the Political Constitution of the Republic were no longer in effect, dissolved the Congress of the Republic, dismissed the Supreme Court, and assumed legislative powers for himself, acts which are embodied in a decree entitled “Provisional Regulations of the Government”….
4) The acts referred to above that were carried out by the president of the Republic, and the actions that have derived from them, not only transgress specific constitutional articles, but represent the disruption of the constitutional order, a situation that cannot pass unnoticed by this Court, whose essential function is the defense of the constitutional order. Consequently, we proceed to declare that the acts performed by the president of the Republic become null ipso jure, and therefore completely lack any juridical validity. Thus it is imperative for this tribunal to declare these [presidential] rulings without effect, and in this way to reestablish the juridical order that has been violated.
Declaration from a Group of Guatemalan Citizens (31 May 1992):
We the undersigned, civic leaders of the Republic of Guatemala, in view of the political crisis that is afflicting the country, declare:
- That we repudiate the grave violations to the Constitution of the Republic that have been perpetrated by Mr. Jorge Serrano Elías, who by placing under his authority the three branches of the state, has become, in effect, a dictator.
- That we recognize as legitimate and just the verdict of the Court of Constitutionality . . . .
- That, in virtue of said judgment, the institutions which Mr. Serrano Elías seeks to dissolve continue in force, although it is evident that some deputies of Congress, as well as some of the magistrates of the Supreme Court, have lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the public as a result of their dishonorable acts.
Therefore . . . We demand:
- The immediate and irrevocable resignation of Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías and Gustavo Adolfo Espína Salguero from the offices of president and vice president of the Republic, respectively.
- The immediate and irrevocable resignation of the leadership of the Congress of the Republic, including first of all its president, José Fernando Lobo Dubón.
- The immediate and irrevocable resignation of the Supreme Court, including first of all its president, José Rodil Peralta.
- The issuing of a legislative decree by which the Congress of the Republic will expel those deputies who, as a result of their contemptible and dishonorable conduct, have lost all legitimacy to represent the Guatemalan people.
- In strict adherence to the constitution that is in force, the Congress, once purged, should then select the authorities of the organs here cited and reestablish the complete operation of the State of Law.
- The authorities, once legally and legitimately reestablished, should bring to justice those officials and ex-officials of the three branches of the state against whom there is reasonable evidence of illicit enrichment, in strictest accordance with the law.
The UN World Conference on Human Rights, the first such gathering in 25 years, was hem in Vienna on 14-25 June 1993 to discuss and examine the status of international human rights. The conference’s concluding statement, “The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action,” which provoked some controversy in other respects, contained many more explicit references to democracy and democratization than had previous UN declarations. Selected paragraphs from this document appear below:
Democracy, development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. [End Page 134] Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social, and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. In the context of the above, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international level should be universal and conducted without conditions attached. The international community should support the strengthening and promoting of democracy, development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the entire world.
The World Conference on Human Rights reaffirms that least developed countries committed to the process of democratization and economic reforms, many of which are in Africa, should be supported by the international community in order to succeed in their transition to democracy and economic development.
. . . Governments, the United Nations system, as well as other multilateral organizations, are urged to considerably increase the resources allocated to programs aiming at the establishment and strengthening of: national legislation, national institutions, and related infrastructures which uphold the rule of law and democracy; electoral assistance; human rights awareness through training, teaching, and education; popular participation; and civil society.
On August 3, in response to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the annulled June 12 elections and the succession to General Ibrahim Babangida’s authoritarian regime, Abdul Oroh, executive director of the Civil Liberties Organisation, one of Nigeria’s leading human rights groups, issued a statement, excerpts of which appear below:
The June 12 presidential election marked the final phase in the Transition-to-Civil-Rule program. The elected civilian president was billed to succeed General Babangida on August 27, the eighth anniversary of the coup that brought him to power . . . .
The election was held on June 12 as scheduled. The various observers and monitors, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), and the press (both local and foreign) adjudged the election to be the freest, fairest, and most peaceful election in the history of Nigeria. The democratic aspirations of the Nigerian people were freely expressed. The result came in promptly and the nation was set to break with dictatorship and neofascism. Nigeria was set to join the comity of free and democratic nations. But the final results of that election were not to be published, as General Babangida announced the annulment of the election. The ostensible reason given by the regime was that the [End Page 135] integrity of the judiciary had been put on the line, in reference to a court order obtained by the Association for a Better Nigeria, widely believed to be a surrogate of the military regime, prohibiting the conduct of elections. NEC, relying on an earlier decree which ousted the jurisdiction of the courts over electoral matters, ignored the court order and released some of the results.
However, Nigerians were to hear in the week that followed more ludicrous reasons for the annulment . . . .
It is now common knowledge among our people that the regime is intent on perpetuating itself in office. Its insistence on an interim government despite widespread opposition and heightened political tension is a desperate attempt to further complicate the political situation, dissolve the two government parties, declare a state of emergency and unfold a new political framework that would enable it to cling to power.
On August 8, Dr. Sein Winn, prime minister of the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), gave a radio address marking the fifth anniversary of the bloody suppression of the nationwide “four-eight” (8/8/88) protest against the dictatorship of the Burmese Socialist Program Party. Excerpts from his address follow:
Today, 8 August 1993, is the fifth anniversary of the “four-eight” uprising, which has become a milestone in the history of Burma’s democratic movement. Has a democratic system emerged in Burma yet? Has the one-party system totally vanished in Burma yet?
There is no democratic system or any democratic rights in Burma. Although the Burmese Socialist Program Party was disbanded, it was replaced by the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s (SLORC) military dictatorial rule. We should not forget this fact . . . .
We should all analyze the changes in the world and in Burma during this five-year period, as well as the subsequent consequences since 1988. The multiparty election in 1990 is the most significant. . . . The SLORC military clique was ostracized by the international community and became isolated for ignoring the 1990 election result. Furthermore, due to international pressure, the SLORC military clique has had to release some political prisoners and halted its large-scale offensives in some regions. But to maintain its power, SLORC is striving for the emergence of a constitution that will suit its needs.
Dear parents and people, the fate of Burma must be decided by its citizens and all races represented in the country. The world continues to respect and admire the Burmese people’s diligence, perseverance, spirit, and strength shown during the 1990 election. We may well face [End Page 136] this kind of scenario again. Also this time, you must show your strength. Boycott all activities directly linked to the SLORC military clique and oppose the military dictatorial system mentally and physically . . . .
Dear parents and people, our NCGUB, and the representatives elected during the 1990 election, promise that we will continue to strive for democracy, peace, and the emergence of a genuine federal union until we complete the political procedures initiated by the “four-eight” uprising.
On July 4 in Philadelphia, in a ceremony attended by U.S. president Bill Clinton, South African president F.W. de Klerk and African National Congress president Nelson Mandela were both presented with the 1993 Liberty Medal in recognition of their efforts to promote peace and democracy in South Africa. Excerpts from the acceptance speeches of the two South African leaders follow:
Mandela: It will have seemed strange to some that we, as fighters for liberation, are, together with those who have been the captains of apartheid, involved in processes leading to the democratic transformation of South Africa. Some have also made the point that it was strange, 200 years ago, that those who designed the world’s first democratic constitution in this very city should have permitted the system of slavery to continue.
Strange though all these things might be, and evocative of different responses, they nevertheless speak to one issue. They speak to the durability of the glorious vision that gave birth to the independence of this country and to the United States Constitution . . . .
It would be a rare honor to those who will draw up our own constitution that they should thus be described by the democratic commentators and freedom activists of our own age and of the future.
. . . In the struggle for real change and a just peace, we will have to overcome the terrible heritage of the insult to human dignity, the inequalities, the conflicts and antagonisms that are the true expression of the apartheid system.
To overcome them we will have to succeed to build one nation in which all South Africans will be to one another sister and brother, sharing a common destiny and shorn of the terrible curse of having to define themselves in racial and ethnic terms.
We must therefore negotiate and agree on a constitution and a bill of rights that are both truly democratic and fully guarantee the fundamental human rights of all our citizens. [End Page 137]
We must engage in the challenging process of the fundamental reconstruction of our country in all spheres of human endeavor . . . so that the emancipation of our people, for which you also struggled, becomes a manifest and genuine continuation of what you sought to achieve when you declared your independence, adopted your Constitution, your Bill of Rights and your civil rights instruments; of what you tried to realize when you went to war for the unity of your country, the emancipation of the slaves and, later, the destruction of fascism . . . .
You, the peoples of the United States of America and of the world, stood with us as we fought for our political emancipation. We urge you to stay the course until freedom is won.
We call on you to invest in the new South Africa, to share with us your expertise and technology so that we come together in a joint venture that will produce the mutually beneficial results of democracy, prosperity, peace, and stability for both countries, friendship and cooperation between our peoples, and enable us both to own the liberation of South Africa as a common prize.
De Klerk: It is appropriate that two South African leaders should be here in Philadelphia on Independence Day. And it is symbolic that we, who are so greatly honored today, represent two powerful forces which have decided to break out of the cycle of conflict and to join hands in a quest for peace and democracy.
Philadelphia was the birthplace of the great democracy of the United States of America . . . . At this very moment, we in South Africa are giving birth to a new democracy.
Far from here in distance—but not in spirit—the representatives of 26 South African parties are locked in negotiations on the future of the new nation.
They are wrestling with the same issues that your Founding Fathers debated for almost 11 years: high among these is the question of federalism and the appropriate balance between states and the central government. Another is the care that should be taken to devise checks and balances which will prevent misuse of power. Yet another is the role which a bill of rights should play in protecting individuals and minorities, with a constitutional court acting as the watchdog of liberty.
These are all questions with which the framers of your constitution wrestled. We intend to succeed, as your forefathers did, in bringing forth a constitition and bill of rights which can ensure liberty, justice, and security for all our people.
It is significant that during the past week our negotiators have reached substantial agreement on many of these key issues. On this basis we are now poised to move forward to the next step in the process of the birth of our new nation—the preparations for our first national elections in which all South Africans will participate. [End Page 138]