Official Language and Symbol: Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace

Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Mexico City, 31 March 1995)

III. Cultural Rights: A. Language

1. Language is one of the mainstays of culture since, in particular, it is the vehicle for learning and passing on the indigenous view of the world, and indigenous knowledge and cultural values. Thus, all the languages spoken in Guatemala deserve equal respect. In that context provision must be made to recover and protect indigenous languages and to promote the development and use of those languages.

2. To that end, the Government shall take the following measures:

(a) Promote a constitutional reform calling for the listing of all languages existing in Guatemala which the State is constitutionally required to recognize, respect and promote;

(b) Promote the use of all indigenous languages in the educational system, to enable children to read and write in their own tongue or in the language most commonly spoken in the community to which they belong and, in particular, protect bilingual and intercultural education and institutions such as the Mayan Schools and other indigenous educational projects;

(c) Promote the use of the languages of the indigenous people when providing State social services at the community level;

(d) Inform indigenous communities, in their own languages in keeping with the traditions of the indigenous peoples and by adequate means, of their rights, obligations and opportunities in various areas of national life. Recourse shall be had, if necessary, to written translations and the use of mass communications media in the languages of those peoples;

(e) Promote programmes for the training of bilingual judges and court interpreters from and into indigenous languages;

(f) Enhance the status of indigenous languages, opening up new opportunities for them in the mass communications and cultural transmission media, strengthening such organizations as the Academy of Mayan Languages and other similar institutions; and

(g) Promote the granting of official status to indigenous languages. To that end an officialization commission will be set up with the participation of representatives of the linguistic communities and the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, which shall study arrangements for granting official status, taking account of linguistic and territorial criteria. The Government shall promote, in the Guatemalan Congress, a reform of article 143 of the Constitution to reflect the results of the officialization commission’s work.

Agreement on Constitutional Reforms and the Electoral Regime (Stockholm, 7 December 1996)

I. Constitutional Reforms: A. Constitutional reforms contained in the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples

List of the languages existing in the country

6. Sponsor in the Congress of the Republic an amendment to the Constitution incorporating in its article 143 a list of all languages existing in the Republic, which the Government is required to recognize, respect and promote.

Official recognition of indigenous languages

7. Sponsor in the Congress of the Republic, in accordance with the conclusions of the Official Recognition Commission established under the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the necessary constitutional amendments arising out of the Commission's work.

Implementation History

1997

Minimum Implementation

The Government established the Commission for the Officialization of Indigenous Languages in April 1997.1

  • 1. “The Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala: Overcoming Discrimination in the Framework of the Peace Agreements, Verification Report," United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), September 2001.
1998

Minimum Implementation

In March 1998, the Commission for the Officialization of Indigenous Languages presented a plan to recognize territorial, community and special languages at the regional level in all service sectors. These proposals were incorporated into the draft constitutional reforms and the Commission dissolved.2

1999

Minimum Implementation

The referendum for the full package of constitutional amendments occurred on 16 May 1999. With low turnout, voters denied the proposed amendments related to the redefinition of the nation and the formal recognition of indigenous peoples—including adding indigenous languages to Spanish as official languages of the country—along with all other proposed amendments. While this vote prevented the complete fulfillment of many components of the peace agreements, the parties to the agreements for their part showed good faith by drafting, submitting and approving the reforms. As provisions for improved rights and protections for indigenous peoples were featured prominently in the referendum, this outcome indicated that the country was far from reconciled after the formal end of the civil war.3

The Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala picked up the work of advocating to make indigenous languages official.4

  • 3. “United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala: Report of the Secretary-General,” United Nations General Assembly (A/54/526), November 11, 1999.
  • 4. “The Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala: Overcoming Discrimination in the Framework of the Peace Agreements, Verification Report," United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), September 2001.
2000

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2001

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2002

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2003

Minimum Implementation

Legislative Decree No. 19-2003 established the National Languages Act, which was intended to promote the provision of bilingual public services. Government Agreement No. 526-2003 established the Vice-Ministry for Bilingual Intercultural Education.5

  • 5. “Information Received from Governments: Guatemala,” Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, United Nations Economic and Social Council (E/C.19/2010/12/Add.8), March 3, 2010.
2004

Minimum Implementation

Government Agreement No. 22-2004 expanded bilingual education.6

2005

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2006

Minimum Implementation

Government officials in community offices often forced indigenous persons to converse in Spanish, despite the provisions in the National Languages Act.7 As such, implementing the indigenous language for government business purpose remained a problem. 

As of 2009, only 17% of judicial bodies in the country had Maya language interpreters.8

  • 7. “Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala,” United Nations Economic and Social Council (E/CN.4/2006/10/Add.1), February 1, 2006.
  • 8. “Information Received from Governments: Guatemala,” Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, United Nations Economic and Social Council (E/C.19/2010/12/Add.8), March 3, 2010.