Category Archives: genocide

The Case of José Efraín Ríos Montt: Hitting the Reset Button on Justice in Guatemala

When former Guatemalan leader, José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty of genocide on 10 May, it was a historical moment not only in the country, but for the world. It was the first time a former leader had been put on trial and convicted of genocide – one of the four crimes and violations within the Responsibility to Protect frameworkby a national, rather than international, court. For the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a Guatemala-based organization founded by survivors of the state’s military campaign against indigenous villages 12 years ago, the conviction was “an opportunity to recuperate the truth that has been denied to our families and to the Guatemalan society…it was an opportunity to confront the past and address the root causes of the discrimination” they had suffered. Human Right Watch‘s Americas Director, José Miguel Vicanco, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) also welcomed the verdict, with USHMM stating that it “sent a powerful message…to the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide.” It was a victory for justice and the ongoing fight against impunity as well as another step towards healing for the victims and society – until the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on 20 May . We are now left to wonder where the case stands, what this will mean for the victims and what effect this will have on justice and reconciliation in Guatemala.

Atrocities committed – the crimes and the verdict

First Phase Digital

A woman from the Mayan population of Quiche region of Guatemala – an indigenous group in Guatemala who have felt persecuted for decades. UN Photo/John Olsson

An estimated 200,000 people were killed and over 1 million displaced during Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war, which spanned from 1960-1996, with some 83% of the victims being indigenous Ixil Maya. Ríos Montt was sentenced by Guatemala’s top court to 80 years in prison for his role as the “intellectual author” of the killing of 1,771 people and the displacement of tens of thousands during his 17 months as president between 1982 and 1983. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the key question throughout the trial was whether Ríos Montt intentionally targeted Ixil Mayan communities while conducting the counterinsurgency campaign waged against guerillas operating in the Ixil region. Despite strong evidence against him, which included testimony by over 100 witnesses – including psychologists, military personnel, and victims -who told horrific stories of killings, sexual violence and the destruction of communities, Ríos Montt denied his role in ordering the genocide of the Mayan population, saying, “I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group.” Nonetheless, on 10 May, Judge Jazmin Barrios, announced that the court found Ríos Montt did plan and order the brutal campaign. In reading the summary of the verdict, Judge Barrios statedWe are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group” which had been considered public enemies of the state and an inferior race, and concluded that the “violence against them, was not spontaneous but planned.

An imperfect trial? Prosecution challenges the Ríos Montt proceedings

With Ixil Mayan witnesses and victims testifying about massacres, torture, systematic sexual violence and the destruction of the Mayan culture, the trial, which began on 19 March, stirred up much interest and debate in Guatemala and abroad. While international human rights organizations celebrated the conviction, it was met with some controversy at home. The Constitutional Court was the target of lobbying by opponents to the verdict, including the state’s powerful business federation, Cacif, because they believed such a case tarnished the reputation of Guatemalans, equating them with the Nazis.

The trial proceedings themselves were also rife with drama and complications. From the beginning, one of Ríos Montt’s lawyers, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, challenged Judge Barrios’ legitimacy, accusing her of bias and partiality. This claim that the court was unable to deliver a fair verdict and the attempt to challenge the judges led Mr. Garcia Gudiel to be expelled on the first day, although he would be later reinstated. The issues didn’t stop there, as the rest of the defense team stormed out of the court on 18 April in protest at what they called “illegal proceedings”. The next day Mr. Garcia Gudiel was again expelled, this time for a few hours, after accusing Judge Barrios of failing to hear his legal challenges. The defense team used the second expulsion to declare to the Constitutional Court that their client was deprived of the lawyer of his choice, leading to an order that there be no sentencing until the issues had been resolved. The tribunal, however, disobeyed that order and issued their sentence of Ríos Montt’s case.According to Geoff Thale, an expert on Guatemala at the Washington Office on Latin America, as evidence presented during the trial clearly showed that Ríos Montt had ordered soldiers to burn indigenous villages and kill members of the Ixil group, his legal team’s only “tactic was to go after the judges who presided over the case.” The prosecutors consistently asserted that the defense strategy relied on constitutional challenges to delay or obstruct the trial. As the trial came to an end, defense lawyers announced that they would appeal, and appeal they did. This led to the three-to-two ruling by a panel of Constitutional judges to annul everything that had happened during the proceedings since 19 April, when Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defense lawyer and the trial should have come to a halt until the unresolved defense appeals had been resolved.

Hitting the reset button on justice?

The details of the annulment and how the trial plans to “hit the reset button” to 19 April remain unclear. The Constitutional Court has said that statements delivered in court before 19 April would stand, but all testimonies after that would be invalid, and the closing arguments would have to be given again but, as legal experts have said, repeating the final days before the same tribunal would amount to double jeopardy. As we wait to understand the possible outcomes of the Constitutional Court decision what is certain is that the decision was a blow to human rights advocates everywhere who “had called his conviction a sign that Guatemala’s courts would no longer allow impunity for the country’s powerful.” The Inter-American Court of Human Rights criticized the “abusive use of the appeal [for legal protection] as a delaying practice” to prevent human rights prosecutions. According to Minority Rights Group International, “this ruling of the Constitutional Court shows the weakness in Guatemala’s justice system,” and serves as a barrier to achieving accountability. Impunity Watch also released a critical statement on the situation, saying, “The decision of the Constitutional Court legitimizes the systematic and abusive legal procedures and formalities, widely condemned by Guatemalan society and international organizations…The politicized environment that is serving as a framework for the decision of the Constitutional Court only reinforces the country’s existing social perception that justice in Guatemala is neither independent nor impartial and that it favors those with the power and money to position themselves above the legal system.” While the attempt to seek justice is not over, the survivors and victims who gave evidence of the systematic violence may have to face a return to court, presenting a potentially serious challenge as “they may have lost their faith in the country’s legal system.”

Breakdown in trust: what does this mean for Guatemalan society?

Civil society representatives work on issues of justice and security for indigenous people in Guatemala City. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Finding Ríos Montt guilty of genocide showed the Ixil Mayan population that the violence and brutal crimes committed against them would not be accepted and that perpetrators, regardless of their level of power, would be held to account. It offered hope to victims of atrocities around the world that justice can be served. Before the announcement of the annulment, Impunity Watch celebrated and declared that “this is an example of how justice should be the vehicle to generate social trust in the state. It can end violence, polarization and conflict.”

Amnesty International believes that, by overturning the historical verdict, the Constitutional Court has snatched away the rights of the Ixil Mayan people to truth, justice and reparations. According to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the annulment has taken place in the context where business elites and groups linked to the military, which was responsible for carrying out the violence, rejected the sentence. By rejecting the original verdict, and in turn supporting human rights perpetrators, these groups have encouraged social polarization, and present another barrier to reconciliation within the country. As Manfredo Marroquin, the President of Accion Cuidadana, a non-governmental organization committed to building democracy in Guatemala, puts it, “Impunity remains the only law of force in Guatemala” where the extreme weakness of the justice system makes the country “a major threat to regional democratic coexistence.”

The future of the Ríos Montt case

While no one knows what will happen next, we do know, as UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, reiterated, that ”the victims of the atrocities committed during the civil war in Guatemala and their families have waited many years for justice…[and] Justice delayed is justice denied.” We have seen in far too many countries what happens when states fail to bring those responsible for serious and massive human rights violations to justice – tensions, discrimination, and continued conflict. As Mr. Dieng reminded us, only with justice and accountability for atrocity crimes “can Guatemala consolidate its peace process and build trust and confidence among its diverse population. Such trust and the credibility of its institutions are indispensable for the prevention of future abuses”.

For more information on the trial, visit the Ríos Montt Trial website.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under genocide, Guatemala, Human Rights, Justice, Reconciliation, Tribunal

Genocide Awareness Month: Creating the Will to Act

The ongoing crises and threats to civilians in Syria and Mali, in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) serve as reminders that mass atrocities are continuing the world over, and that more needs to be done to prevent and protect from these horrific crimes if we are to live up to the promise of “Never Again” . With the unanimous endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P) at the 2005 World Summit, world leaders took a historic step by declaring that all governments have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. During the month of April, which serves as ‘Genocide Awareness Month’, civil society across the globe brings attention to ongoing atrocities and educates on what individuals, organizations, and stakeholders at all levels can do to stand up in the face of genocide. While governments have committed to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes, it is up to civil society and the general public to demand that world leaders uphold these responsibilities. Public demand, however, depends on public understanding and awareness of the ongoing crimes and available prevention tools. The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protects global membership works to raise awareness on the prevention of genocide and other atrocities, not only in April but in their activities throughout the year. ICRtoP spoke with several Coalition members and close partners to gain insight on how they’re educating on genocide and how individuals and other NGOs can get involved. 

International and local efforts to build networks of advocates

The work of ICRtoP members and partners demonstrates the creative initiatives that civil society undertakes to increase understanding and knowledge on genocide prevention. United to End Genocide (UEG), and Vision GRAM-International, are two of the many organizations that believe building partnerships and working in networks builds the impact of individual activists, communities and organizations working to prevent atrocities across the globe. When we spoke with UEG, one of the largest activist organizations in the United States dedicated to preventing and ending genocide, our colleagues noted that their organization “believe[s] the only way to prevent mass atrocities and to end genocide once and for all, is to build a large, powerful activist network – a sustainable movement – that will sound the alarm and demand action by our elected leaders to protect all who face these threats, anywhere in the world.” They do this by rallying their network of hundreds of thousands of activists around what UEG calls  “action opportunities”, which have included circulating “a global petition calling for greater awareness and action to address ongoing abuses and suffering in Darfur“, and also , “ sounding the alarms about ominous warning signs of genocide by testifying before the U.S. Congress” on the situation in Burma. Meanwhile, Vision GRAM-International, a human rights organization working to promote and defend the rights of children and women in conflict zones in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, is currently recruiting local authorities, influential community members, former child soldiers, victims of genocide, churches, schools and other members of civil society to build a network of human rights activists within their local and regional constituency.  Vision Gram will then work to train their growing network “in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and actions to prevent genocide,” to ensure that “actions of advocacy and lobbying are organized at local, national and international level in collaboration with several associations…to remind governments of their responsibilities to protect people against atrocities.” 

Educating actors at all levels through seminars, conferences and publications

Seminars, conferences and publications are useful tools for NGOs to educate and promote discussion amongst civil society, governments, regional and international bodies, and the UN to prioritize the prevention of, and identify strategies to, halt genocide and other atrocity crimes. One group that carries out this crucial and influential work is the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), based in New York City. AIPR, which is dedicated to training and assisting governments to fulfill their responsibility to prevent atrocity crimes, created the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention and established intergovernmental networks, in Latin America and Africa, to educate policymakers from around the world on the causes of and tools available to halt genocide. Additionally, AIPR releases publications and holds events, as explained by their Communications Officer and Alumni Network Director, Alex Zucker, “We co-organized ‘Deconstructing Prevention’ a public conference at Cardozo Law School in New York, and we are currently preparing a volume on the theory, policy, and practice of mass atrocity prevention, with contributions from leading scholars and practitioners, that we hope will become required reading for policymakers, scholars, activists, and students.” Furthermore, they have organized a panel on incorporating genocide prevention into the development agenda, which will be held on 18 April.

The reach of these global education efforts can be expanded through the translation of materials, and release of publications and briefings in numerous languages. These activities allow NGOs to broaden their audience when educating on country specific situations and atrocity crimes. Genocide Alert, based in Germany, uses it’s German-language platform on the Responsibility to Protect to provide an online “space for articles that relate to RtoP and Germany and current events, interviews and conference outcomes relating to RtoP.” They recently published a short German-language summary of the European Union Task Force Report on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities to engage German politicians on the report’s recommendations targeting how the European Union can improve its genocide prevention capabilities. Additionally Genocide Alert, who is “working with German politicians to integrate the responsibility to protect and related issues into the party platforms”, is using publications to ‘name and shame’, and plans to “publish a ranking of political parties in Germany evaluating their activities on genocide prevention and response in the past four years.” 

New and innovative tools for prevention: social media and technology

In the last couple of years we have witnessed the power of social media as an essential tool for bringing the world’s attention to a range of topics, but civil society is pushing the boundaries of technology by going beyond Facebook and Twitter to create new, interactive and innovative ways to carry out their work. Christopher Tuckwood, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, explains how his organization uses technology, saying that “Wherever possible and appropriate, we seek to incorporate new technologies (especially web-based and mobile ones) into our work. For example, we recently launched Hatebase, which is the world’s largest online database of hate speech.” With the database, they’ve developed risk assessments to identify concerning situations and threats of genocide, and then use that information to inform and advocate for other organizations to take preventive action. It is important to acknowledge that their work, however, does not just occur in cyberspace – but is complemented by on-the-ground action. For example they recently sent their first field mission to Kenya during the recent presidential elections where, as accredited election observers, they monitored first hand developments on the ground. Meanwhile, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global member-led network of civil society organizations who are actively working on conflict prevention and peace-building, has a set-up a the Peace Portal, which serves as “a unique online platform for learning, sharing and collaborating in the conflict prevention and peace-building field…The Portal encourages information sharing and participation from civil society and grassroots organisations, whose voices often can not find the online visibility they need.” 

Creating space for and promoting dialogue

Many of these organizations’ programs aim to encourage dialogue amongst different stakeholders to prevent atrocities. Dialogue between minority populations, civil society, government officials, and other actors can help reduce tensions between groups at an early and preventive stage, long before the escalation of a conflict, thus finding a peaceful and inclusive resolution before the risk of atrocity crimes becomes imminent. It can also build the confidence, skills, and capacity of all of these actors with the ultimate result of creating an environment for solving tensions and problems together. The Foundation for Peace and Democracy (FUNPADEM), an organization based in Costa Rica working to develop regional capacity for atrocity prevention through research analysis and advocacy campaigns, is just one example of an organization creating space for such dialogue. While the organization also relies on social media and technology to communicate its awareness message, an essential element of all four of its main projects is the promotion of dialogue as a tool for prevention. For example, its program “Dialogando” which literally means talking in Spanish, provides forums for discussions between civil society and governments to improve the capacity of law enforcement of the Ministry of Labour, and in turn the civilian protection framework, in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Similarly, Lebanon-based organization, the Permanent Peace Movement, promotes peace throughout the Middle East and North African through their dialogue and awareness raising projects. Their program “Non-violence and Reconciliation in the Lebanese Mountains” uses dialogue to promote conflict resolution and reconciliation amongst local Lebanese communities in the mountain areas where violence that erupted in 2008 between different religious groups created a rift between previously peaceful villages. Working together, members of these communities produced a book to educate others and share successful stories about the co-existence between villages, which in turn reduced the likelihood of renewed violence.

Engaging national and regional actors

Preventing atrocity crimes does not stop at educating and raising awareness. It is essential to engage with national and regional actors in order to implement policies aimed at protecting civilians. As mentioned above, Genocide Alert’s primary focus is to engage directly with national political actors, and their programs include regular discussions on “genocide prevention, R2P and related issues with German parliamentarians and experts and make specific recommendations for a more effective German policy in regard to the responsibility to protect.”  In addition, United Nations Association-United Kingdom (UNA-UK) has a R2P Program, which seeks to put the Responsibility to Protect on the political agenda by galvanizing political support for RtoP and fostering an understanding of the concept within the public domain. They are attempting to consolidate a UK national RtoP policy network and build support within the UK government and national and regional political parties by engaging policy makers through reports and high-level round tables targeting decision makers. In South America, Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales, (CRIES) is working hard to bring the issue of RtoP amongst all actors in Latin America and Caribbean. In 2012 alone, through the release of their academic journal on RtoP and subsequent conferences, they engaged with a range of actors from representatives for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and politicians to academia and representatives of civil society organizations in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and at UN Headquarters in New York. This is not unlike GPPAC’s programs which strive “for multi-actor collaboration and local ownership of strategies for peace and security” by connecting “members with relevant individuals and institutions such as the UN, regional intergovernmental organisations, state actors, the media and academia.” An important element of their work is building the capacity of civil society organizations on how they can reach out and engage better with media and policy makers on these issues. Engaging regional, sub-regional and national actors in discussions on preventing atrocities ensures greater collaboration to build a stronger more comprehensive policy framework for protecting civilians from these most terrible crimes.

How can you or your organization get involved in raising awareness on genocide and RtoP?

There are a number of ways you or your organization can get involved in raising awareness of and preventing genocide and other RtoP crimes. You or your organization can:

  • Use Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms to instantly distribute your work and message. Genocide Awareness Month has a Facebook page where events and activities to promote awareness around the world are posted.
  • Stay informed of genocide prevention and advocacy campaigns by reading blogs and signing up for newletter updates; or get directly involved in the work of an organization, like joining one of United to End Genocide‘s action opportunities or contacting the Sentinel Project about becoming part of their team.
  • Connect with other groups and learn more on the work of civil society by using GPPAC’s Peace Portal, where users have the opportunity to publish material and reports – contributing to increasing the global conflict prevention and peace building knowledge base.
  • Contribute to the work of NGOs and discussions on mass atrocities by drafting articles on current situations, or organizing events. Genocide Prevention Network, an international organization, has created a directory of organizations involved in genocide awareness around the world. Find out who is working on genocide awareness in your country and region. 
  • Become part of the global movement advocating for the prevention of mass atrocities and advancement of RtoP by joining the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, a network of organizations dedicated to amplifying the voice of civil society as we push for governments, regional organizations, and the international community to strengthen their capacities to prevent and halt genocide.
  • You don’t have to be an adult or NGO to work to prevent mass atrocities. Youth can participate on a local level – for example in Costa Rica or the DRC: FUNPADEM involves youth in their programs, using art and sports to prevent atrocities, while Vision GRAM-International encourages communities to participate in awareness programs held at schools, health centers, social centers and churches. The Holocaust Museum in Houston, US provides a list of 30 things you can do for Genocide Awareness Month. 

It is now up to all of us to play a part, not only in April but all year round, to raise awareness to create the public and political will needed to prevent atrocities and act in the face of escalating violence.

Learn more on and connect with the organizations featured in this blog!

 

1 Comment

Filed under CivSoc, genocide, ICRtoP Members, Prevention, RtoP