Blog post

The genocide judgement and its aftermath in Guatemala

Wolfgang Kaleck
Blog post

Guatemala City, 10 May 2015: It’s the second anniversary of the judgment in the genocide trial of military dictator Efraín Rios Montt. I’m sitting next to Edgar Pérez on the podium at a debate. The sturdy lawyer, a former boxer, represented most of the indigenous survivors and witnesses in that historic trial. During his speech he waves in his hand a bound copy of the 2013 court decision, a thick tome setting out why the murders and massacres carried out by General Rios Montt and his subordinates against the Ixil Maya peoples qualify as genocide – and why Rios Montt bears direct responsibility.

Pérez gets to the heart of the problem: “I represent the downtrodden of yesterday – and today.” He is referring to the fact that most of the indigenous population continue to suffer significantly, even after the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the guerrilla organizations, and that many industrial projects, particularly mining operations, continually violate the rights of indigenous peoples. Pérez is sympathetic to their plight, but as a lawyer he has no choice but to put his faith in the Guatemalan legal system and assess it in terms of its fairness and adherence to the rule of law.

I’m in Guatemala City at the invitation of human rights organizations and lawyers and am speaking at various events dealing with the historical significance of the 2013 court decision. But there’s another topic that should be on the agenda too, namely the corruption within the Guatemalan legal system. The corruption that led, for instance, to the decision by the Constitutional Court in May 2013 to overturn the judgment against Rios Montt.

The news reports are coming in thick and fast in Guatemala right now. The International Commission against Impunity, co-established by the UN in 2006, played a key role in the genocide case and continues to play an important role today. So much so that it’s become a thorn in the side of the current government, led by former military officer Otto Pérez, particularly after allegations of human rights violations were leveled against President Pérez himself. If the President has his way, the Commission’s mandate will run out in September.

But the UN lawyers are fighting back. They are carrying out comprehensive investigations with a focus on the endemic corruption – and are finding plenty of it. The Vice President was forced to resign while senior officials within the judiciary have come under fire in the wake of phone tapping revelations.

There are, however, several lawyers involved in the corruption, as well as in the underhanded maneuvers that led to the – not yet final – overturning of the genocide decision. Rodolfo Rohrmoser, highly-regarded former President of the Constitutional Court, describes how one of his former students approached him with an offer of a job at his law firm, warning Rohrmoser that: “You need to wind down your high ethical standards, we deal in the lex mercatoria.” Rohrmoser learnt exactly what that meant in the course of his work, where he was continually called on to collaborate in rights violations. The rule was: “if you don’t join in, you’re out of the game.”

While there were principled prosecutors and judges working on the genocide trial, these were soon subjected to disciplinary proceedings and travel bans or driven from the country like Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. But these legal officials remain just as determined as the lawyers and are defending the decision against Rios Montt – a judgment that, we are all certain, will one day be looked at in the same historical vein as the Nuremberg decision against the Nazi war criminals or the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The recent developments in Guatemala give reason to hope that legal officials with integrity like Edgar Pérez, Rodolfo Rohrmoser and Claudia Paz y Paz can continue to work on uncovering past crimes as well as preventing present day injustices.