From Genocide to Justice: Upholding Human Rights in Guatemala

The news from Guatemala on Friday evening, May 10 stunned the world—a Guatemalan court sentenced former general José Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for genocide. While we are deeply gratified by this historic verdict, we know that much work remains to be done to ensure justice in Guatemala.

Supporters of human rights across the globe had been watching for months as the Guatemalan courts pursued this landmark case. As the trial unfolded, it exposed the genocide of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and attempted to hold former military leaders accountable for the atrocities committed during the country’s bloody and decades-long civil war.

Never before has a case of genocide been tried in a national court in Latin America, and through the complexities of this historic trial, it is important to not lose sight of the indigenous people at the center of the tragic crimes being addressed.

After years of anticipation, I was relieved to learn that the court said, yes, it was genocide (si, hubo genocidio). AJWS supports local communities in Guatemala and other countries that are directly affected by the atrocities of war. These local communities engage in strong grassroots efforts to uphold human rights in conflict and post-conflict countries such as Colombia, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While my colleagues and our partners in Guatemala celebrate this verdict, we understand that we must continue to support efforts to achieve justice for all Guatemalans because we understand that this genocide was about more than the actions of one man.

The civil war began in 1960 and lasted for 36 years, ending in1996. During this time, entire villages were exterminated and more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or “went missing.” In January 2013, former general José Efraín Ríos Montt—who took power in a 1982 coup and was toppled the following year–became the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court. Ríos Montt is a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas, a US-run training center that promotes violent military tactics and which counts many Latin American dictators among its alumnae, including the current Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina.

For 15 years, Ríos Montt had held immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity while he was serving as a member of Guatemala’s Congress. After losing his seat, he was put under house arrest in January of 2012. The trial against Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez, began on March 19, 2013. Hundreds of witnesses and survivors of the atrocities gave testimony to the massacres, forced displacements, rape and sexual violence. Yet, from the beginning, the trial has been plagued with false starts, complications, and temporary suspensions which have woven a sticky web of confusion and obstruction to justice for the Guatemalan people.

Guatemala’s notorious history of persecution, violence, and assassination of human rights defenders  makes for a truly treacherous environment for providing testimony against the infamous ex-general.

Since 2000, our partner in Guatemala, Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), has been monitoring the persecution of human rights defenders, and has reported almost 2,500 cases of violence directed at them to date. UDEFEGUA helps at-risk human rights defenders, community leaders, and their organizations to prevent and respond to security threats through education, monitoring and psychosocial support. Moreover, UDEFEGUA calls upon government institutions and the international community to protect defenders. During this historic trial the local efforts of organizations like UDEFEGUA have been crucial in protecting witnesses, lawyers and human rights defenders who have testified in the trial against the human rights abuses committed during the civil war. In fact, UDEFEGUA’s staff experienced retaliation for its work to protect witnesses. The organization’s office in Guatemala City was broken into and vandalized on April 18, 2013, only a month into the trial.

UDEFEGUA’s work is courageous and challenging, and crucial for advancing the civil and political rights of marginalized communities in Guatemala and ensuring a more secure environment in which witnesses can tell their stories without recrimination.

The witnesses have already spoken. The atrocities committed against the Mayan indigenous people during the civil war are now officially recognized as part of the historical memory of Guatemala, an act that provides symbolic reparations to those most affected and holds the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

This is only the beginning. Guatemalan civil society has demanded and delivered a down payment on justice. And here at AJWS, we agree with the local communities in Guatemala when they proclaim, “without justice there is no peace.”

Corinne Goldenberg is a program associate for the Americas at American Jewish World Service.

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