Dictators who believe that they are immune from being brought to justice for the crimes that they commit should take a long, hard look at what is happening around us in the wider global community. And let me add a caveat right at the start. This is not a precursor to a discussion on the mechanisms of international justice by the United Nations, the workings of which (it must be conceded) have a long way more to go before they can be a sufficient deterrent to abusive leaders.
Persistent demands by the Guatemalan people
On the contrary, the focus of this reflection is to look at the realities of domestic justice. Guatemala is an interesting case in point. Horrific human rights abuses committed by the administration (with the covert support of the United States) against its own people more than thirty years ago, are now before the domestic justice institutions.
Led by a courageous prosecutor and former human rights activist, this process has resulted not only in charges of war crimes being brought against soldiers who had tortured and murdered civilians but also, most remarkably, the prosecution of a former military leader and president of the country.
Certainly, International attention in regard to the plight of the victims played its part in bringing about this demand for justice. But make no mistake about the fact that it was the persistent cries of the Guatemalan people which led to this transformation of a long standing culture of impunity for abusive state agents and political leaders. The process has been laborious, painfully slow and at times, frustrating. However, current events show that the wait has been worth the while. The voices of those whose loves ones were slaughtered without mercy are ultimately having their proverbial day in the sun, however bitter sweet and tormenting this may be.
Voices for justice
Indeed, these voices for justice never lost their power throughout the dreary years when it seemed that the abusive and the powerful would triumph. When a most extensive report detailing the abuses that took place was compiled by Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification, (the body was mandated not to judge but rather to clarify the history of the civil war), their findings were prefaced by an appeal from a survivor’s testimony that “Let the history we lived, be taught in the schools so that it is never forgotten, so that our children may know it”.
Instructively for Sri Lanka as we mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances this week, this Commission documents an exceptionally moving account of three decades of agony. It expresses the hope that the violence and horrors described in the report should leave no room for despair. That, ” (on the contrary), despite the shock that that the nation should suffer upon seeing itself reflected in the mirror of its past, it was to be hoped that the truth would lead to reconciliation the victims whose past had been degraded and manipulated will be dignified (while) the perpetrators, through the recognition of their immoral and criminal acts, will be able to recover the dignity of which they had deprived themselves.”
Its main purpose was to place on record Guatemala’s bloody past. The country’s armed confrontation, largely between its ruling elite and the ethnic Mayan people, had caused death and destruction. But the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by the people had yet to become part of the national consciousness.
Questions of key import
Its mandate was to seek answers to questions of key import. Why were innocent people compelled to live under the shadow of fear, death and disappearances for more than 34 years? Why were there daily threats in the lives of ordinary citizens having no connection with armed groups or paramilitary groups? Who can explain the extreme human rights abuses committed by both forces and specially by the State? Why did defenceless children suffer acts of savagery? Why did these acts of outrageous brutality, which showed no respect for the most basic rules of humanitarian law, religious ethics and cultural spirituality, take place? No doubt many in Sri Lanka would feel immediate empathy with these searching questions that go to the very core of a country’s moral and legal dilemmas.
In Guatemala’s case, persons killed since the outbreak of the internal armed confrontation in 1962 were estimated to be over two hundred thousand with state forces and related paramilitary being responsible for 93% of the deaths. Guerrilla forces were held accountable for 3% of these atrocities while the remaining 4% concerned deaths where it had not been possible to determine responsibility. The victims included men, women and children of all social strata, working professionals, church members, politicians, peasants, students and academics. In ethnic terms, the vast majority were Mayans.
Complicity of high political authorities
The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state. Drawing important parallels with current conflicts and in a forerunner to the determined efforts of state prosecutors decades later, the Commission on Historical Clarification dismissed the excuse that lower ranking army officers were acting with a wide margin of autonomy without orders from their superiors. It reminded relevantly that, up to that point, no high commander, officer or person in the mid level command of the Army or state security forces had been tried or convicted for human rights abuses. Only significantly lower ranking personnel, whose trials were attended with monumental publicity, had been tried and convicted. These violations were determined to be the result of an institutional policy, with impunity handed down by high officials for those aberrant state agents.
The high military commanders of the insurgents were meanwhile cited for deliberate attacks on civilians. Interestingly, the role of the Church in the Guatemalan conflict was severely critiqued with the Commission observing that the divisive policies it adopted led to a further fragmentation of the national identity.
The mills of justice grind exceedingly well
The discussions that evolved around the findings of this Commission and other similar bodies were the primary impetus that led to Guatemalan state prosecutors ultimately bringing high political leaders to trial.
True, problems remain regarding the reach of the law to those who are still powerful on the political stage but the trials that are taking place are a good reminder that the mills of domestic justice in some countries may grind slow but do indeed grind exceedingly well. Certainly, these are apt warnings to political leaders who dismiss the need for accountability in governance with disdain and contempt, believing themselves to be invincible.