Transitional Justice Measures in Guatemala: A positive for human rights?


Following a brutal civil war which ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords, Guatemala has experienced a relative period of calm as a new but fragile democracy. Many argue that this, in large part is due to the transitional justice measures in the form of truth commissions, which were put in place during the 1990s. However, it is evident that Guatemala is still experiencing many problems, from huge wealth disparity and gang violence to discrimination against minorities.

 Moving forward to the present day, Guatemala is currently in the middle of a second stage of transitional justice measures, seen through the turbulent and at times chaotic trial of the former president, Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

 While these measures should rightly be applauded, have these forms of transitional justice had any effect on the human rights situation for ordinary citizens in Guatemala?

 The Civil War

 After a US sponsored coup in 1954, Guatemala was under the control of a right-wing military backed government, who responded to rural uprisings with force. These uprisings quickly gained support from labour unionists, student activists and opposing political parties, and so began a period of civil war from the early 1960s to the 1990s.

 While the leftist rebel forces committed large-scale human rights violations, responsibility for the large majority of the death count lay at the feet of the military forces.  Between 1981 and 1983, the military moved to a veritable “scorched earth policy”, targeting mainly the rural, indigenous population, with the eventual genocide of 50,000[i] indigenous people.

 The Truth Commission

 Due to international pressure and a withdrawal of public support for the government by the US[ii], an official ceasefire was signed in December 1996 and the UN Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was created. The CEH was tasked with drafting a report detailing the human rights abuses during the civil war and collected over 8,000 testimonies. In 1999, the CEH final report concluded that agents of the state had carried out acts of genocide against the Mayan people.

 Transitional justice mechanisms are generally meant to meet two overriding objectives; to prevent the repeat of human rights abuses, and repair the damage that has been caused. By identifying the causes of past wrongs, a new democracy must come up with ways to avoid situations where these violations can occur again. In the case of Guatemala, racism and economic inequality stand out as the overriding reasons for the civil war. Therefore it was argued that a truth commission would be an excellent framework in which to recommend democratic, institutional and judicial reforms, which could bring about changes in the distribution of wealth. Furthermore, by using the commission as a public forum to share information and to educate, it was hoped that a society could start to move past the racism and hatred of the past.

Today in Guatemala

It is important to remember Guatemala is still a relatively new democracy and therefore transitional justice measures such as truth commissions should not be expected to have an immediate and striking impact on the human rights of individuals. This is a country which has traditionally suffered from massive inequalities and for 55 years was under the control of a right wing military government. However, even when you consider those factors, the truth commission has not had the effect on individual lives one would have hoped for. People are generally poorer, the political system is still run by the elites, racism and discrimination against indigenous persons is a massive problem, while the economy in parts is controlled by landowners and drug dealers.

The picture however is not entirely bad. There have been major improvements in Guatemala since the publication of the truth commission, through the strengthening of the indigenous movement and the birth of grass roots NGO networks. Large Mayan movements and indigenous women’s movements have been one of the main positives to come out of the transition from civil war to democracy and have played an important role in pressing for the trials of war criminals.

The Trial of Ríos Montt

 On 19 March 2013, Guatemala witnessed the first day of the trial of former president Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Indigenous communities, civil society and international human rights organisations had been campaigning for trials of this kind to begin in Guatemala for over 35 years.

 For many, this form of retributive justice was the next vital step in moving past the atrocities and genocide that occurred in Guatemala between the 1960s and 1990s. With a guilty verdict delivered by the trial court on 10 May 2013, the indigenous communities of Guatemala and human rights campaigners rejoiced, believing that finally justice would be received for the thousands of families and villages that were destroyed by a brutal regime.

 However, things became less clear when on 20 May 2013 the Constitutional Court of Guatemala annulled the verdict on a point of order and effectively sent the trial back a month. While there is still much confusion surrounding the trial, the decision of the Court does not mean the trial is over and Ríos Montt is free to go. Ignoring the defence’s plea to acquit Ríos Montt, the Court still has him under house arrest and there is the real possibility that the trial will resume. As Mac Margolis recently noted[iii], if you look beyond some of the recent hysteria surrounding the decision, you could actually praise the Court’s decision for upholding democratic ideals of the right to a fair trial.

 So where does all this leave us? On one side you have mass protests seen throughout Guatemala over the Court’s decision, and international reaction generally expressing grave concern over the effect this all has on the rights of the victims. On the other you have the supporters of Ríos Montt within the country (which isn’t insignificant), the Guatemala’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs describing the Constitutional Court’s ruling as a means to rectify “serious irregularities in the trial procedures” and some international commentators coming to the perplexing opinion that a conviction of genocide was “more a score-settling exercise by the international left than a search for truth and justice”. It is therefore fair to say tensions remain high.

Looking to the Future 

Guatemala is currently experiencing a critical and turbulent stage of its democratic history. Much will depend on how the judiciary and the government act over the next few months. Civil society and international pressure should both play their part in pushing for the international standards of a fair trial so that Guatemalans can be convinced justice is achievable in a fair and transparent way. If this occurs then there is hope that the trial could be the start of a new era in Guatemala, where human rights of all citizens are guaranteed and respected.

  For those who wish to follow the future developments of the Rios Montt trial, please see the excellent for regular updates.

Nicholas Maple

[i] The total loss of life during the conflict is estimated at over 200,000

[ii] NSA documents actually show that millions were actually still given by the CIA


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