Global perspective Human stories

Justice in Guatemala vital for preventing recurrence of heinous crimes, say UN experts

Credit: OHCHR
Credit: OHCHR

Justice in Guatemala vital for preventing recurrence of heinous crimes, say UN experts

Establishing truth and justice in Guatemala is essential to ensuring that heinous crimes such as arbitrary executions, rape and forced displacement – committed during the country’s civil war – do not take place again and to ending impunity, a group of independent United Nations experts said today.

“Justice is the best guarantee to prevent the recurrence of these crimes,” the experts stressed in a news release, following last Friday’s court ruling that sentenced the former head of State, José Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Mr. Ríos Montt was sentenced on Friday to 80 years for his leading role in the killing of 1,771 people during his time in office between 1982 and 1983, as well as for the forced displacement, starvation, torture, and systematic rape and sexual assault that were deliberately inflicted on Guatemala’s Mayan Ixil communities.

A three-judge panel concluded that Mr. Ríos Montt had ordered the plans that led to the genocide, had full knowledge of the atrocities committed, and did nothing to stop them despite having the power to do so. In all, some 200,000 people – over 80 per cent of them of indigenous Mayan origin – were killed during the 36-year-long civil war, but the period of Ríos Montt’s rule is considered one of the bloodiest in the conflict.

The conviction was welcomed by UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay, who hailed Guatemala for making history by becoming the first country in the world to convict a former head of State for genocide in its own national court.

For the UN experts, the decision represents “a profoundly significant milestone” in the long process of transitional justice in Guatemala, stated today’s news release.

“The judgment is an example for many other countries struggling to address the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence after periods of mass atrocities,” said the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff.

“This decision reflects the principle that the most marginalized people have the same right to justice as the most powerful, one of the most fundamental principles of the rule of law,” he added.

The members of the UN Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances recalled the large number of enforced disappearances during the bloodiest years of the civil war, noting that “this verdict represents a breakthrough in the fight against impunity and demonstrates that no one today can be above the law.”

“Our thoughts are with the victims of the heinous crimes committed during the civil war and their families,” they said. “We also have in mind the women and men who testified during the hearings of this trial on the massive violations of which they were victims.”

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, welcomed the outcome of the trial, calling it “a long awaited first step” towards ending impunity in Guatemala.

“It is particularly significant that the legal system of the State in question has investigated, prosecuted and punished one of its former highest office bearers,” he said.

In addition, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, noted that “the historic judgement against Rios Montt for genocide against indigenous Maya Ixil people during the 1980s represents an important step towards reconciliation and the building of new relations between the Government of Guatemala and the indigenous peoples of the country.”

The Special Rapporteurs dealing with violence against women and torture also welcomed the ruling, hailing it has an important step in the fight to end impunity and in addressing the suffering of victims, as well as in providing an example on how countries can comply with the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights violations.

Also applauding the delivery of justice were the Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers and on human rights defenders.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. They work in an unpaid capacity.