Seeking Justice Abroad

While the abuses at Guatanamo Bay and other setbacks for human rights are often in today’s headlines, one of the most important international victories for the respect of human rights in recent years is going largely unreported. On July 7, a Spanish judge issued arrest warrants for eight former Guatemalan military leaders, including three ex-presidents, who are responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity committed in the hemisphere in the last century. Controlling the government at the height of Guatemala’s 36 year-long internal armed conflict, these men orchestrated a scorched earth campaign that included the torture, murder and forced disappearances of over 200,000 people. More than two decades later, they are finally facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Remarkably, the arrest warrants are not the culmination of some Spanish official’s judicial activism, but rather stem from the perseverance of Guatemalan survivors of genocide fighting for justice. In 1999, under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, a group of plaintiffs filed the case in the Spanish legal system. Survivors have also continued to pursue similar cases in the domestic legal system and the Inter-American system in hopes of finding that justice delayed does not have to mean justice denied.

In a significant move towards strengthening the application of international human rights law, Spanish National Court judge Santiago Pedraz heeded both Guatemalan and Spanish calls for justice by issuing international warrants for the arrest of former military rulers Efraín Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, in addition to six others. Pedraz also ordered that the defendants’ assets be frozen both in Spain and internationally, lodging the warrants with Interpol to alert countries across the world.

The Spanish-issued warrants are a major setback to Guatemala’s efforts to reform its international image. The current administration of President Óscar Berger, a former businessman and wealthy landowner, has pleased Western countries by deregulating the economy and liberalizing trade, at the same time promoting an international image that his government is concerned with human rights issues. But while the Berger administration strongly enforces its economic agenda, most noticeably by enacting the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), it has only paid lip service to respecting human rights, maintaining impunity for past and current abuses by the country’s security forces and allied criminal groups.

President Berger has incorporated prominent human rights figures into his administration, including Eduardo Stein (Vice President), Frank LaRue (head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission), Rosalina Tuyuc (coordinator of the National Reparations Program), and Rigoberta Menchú, for whom he even created the special post of Goodwill Ambassador to the Peace Accords. In its actions, however, his administration has prioritized the wealth of few over the well-being of many, increased land evictions against poor farmers, allowed an increase in threats and attacks against human rights defenders, and failed to seriously address an alarming rise in murders of women and girls.

Guatemala has sought to compensate for its domestic human rights shortcomings by bolstering its image in international forums. As of May, Guatemala holds one of the 47 seats on the United Nations’ new Human Rights Council, the highest international human rights body. Guatemala has also recently sent peacekeepers to Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, claiming that “10 years after the signing of the Peace Accords, we’re exporting peace!” Ironic for a country that reported 5,338 cases of homicide in 2005 (a 60% increase from 2001) to serve as a model of peace and justice for others. After a May visit to Guatemala, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour was blunt in expressing dismay “that not only reforms are progressing slowly, but that more and more people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the State’s inability to deliver the promised security, equality and justice.”

Despite this recent censure from the U.N., Guatemala is now also vying for a seat on the Security Council. Guatemala’s bid for the rotating two-year seat comes mainly from the Bush administration, which has launched a diplomatic offensive to ensure that Guatemala ­ and not the first declared candidate, Venezuela ­ takes over the seat. The U.S. is conveniently overlooking the myriad problems and challenges that the Guatemalan government has failed to address, claiming Guatemala is a “viable candidate” solely to thwart Venezuela’s bid.

Concerns about Guatemala have dominated the Inter-American human rights system for several years. Nonetheless, as part of the Berger administration’s efforts to boost its international image, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission has been invited to hold a special session in Guatemala this summer. The hosting country, however, has chosen to only comply with certain elements of verdicts handed down by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR). In July 2005, Vice President Stein accepted state responsibility for a 1982 massacre in the community of Plan de Sánchez and issued a tearful apology to the survivors there, as mandated by an IACHR verdict. But those responsible for the massacre, as well as the hundreds of other massacres of Maya people, have yet to be held accountable by a court of law, as this same IACHR verdict demands. Berger may have incorporated Frank LaRue into his administration, who headed the human rights organization CALDH when it began pursuing genocide cases against Ríos Montt and others in the domestic legal system, but the genocide cases continue to languish in the preliminary investigative phase six years after their filing.

While the genocide cases stalled in the Guatemalan system, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled last September that “the principle of universal jurisdiction takes precedence over the existence or not of national interests,” allowing the case to proceed in Spain. Initially, Guatemalan courts agreed to cooperate with a visit of a Spanish Investigative Commission lead by Judge Pedraz and several prosecutors. However, when the Commission arrived on June 24, 2006, it was stopped by the Guatemalan courts. Based on appeals filed by Ríos Montt and other accused officials, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court prevented Pedraz from collecting any testimony during his visit.

Shortly after returning to Spain, Judge Pedraz issued arrest warrants for all eight of the accused (this included the former President Lucas García who had died just weeks earlier). In the order, Judge Pedraz made special note of “the obstructionist attitude of the defendants,” while the Spanish prosecutor commented on “a clear, constant and voluntary lack of cooperation with the Spanish judicial authority in investigating these crimes.” The very public failure of the Guatemalan judiciary to comply with the requests of the Spanish commission underscores the pervasive impunity gripping Guatemala, as well as the lack of political will to come to terms with crimes of the past, and thus the need to try the genocide case internationally.

If the Berger administration was concerned with actively combating impunity and ensuring the proper functioning of the justice system, Guatemalan human rights defenders could depend on their own courts instead of resorting to cumbersome and expensive international systems to enforce the law. As things stand now, if the arrest warrants for Ríos Montt, Mejía Víctores and others work their way through the Spanish and Guatemalan diplomatic channels and arrests are made as they should be, the extradition agreements will mandate that the accused either be tried domestically or extradited to Spain to stand trial.

The Berger administration now has two options to finally back up its rhetoric with action. First, Berger could make the domestic cases against the former dictators and their military high commands a true priority by ensuring that the investigative phase draws to a close and the cases go to trial. Or alternately, the administration can acknowledge the shortcomings of Guatemala’s legal system and extradite the accused to Spain for trial. In either scenario, the government has a responsibility to ensure the security of the witnesses and human rights defenders involved in the case, many of whom are subject to threats and intimidation.

Rather than lobbying for Guatemala’s entrance to the Security Council, the U.S. has the opportunity to better serve the people of Guatemala, as well as the ideals of democracy and justice it purports to hold so dear, by complying with Judge Pedraz’s arrest and asset freezing orders for those accused of genocide. If any of the accused enters the U.S., arrests must be made, and if the defendants hold financial assets in the U.S., as many wealthy Central American officials tend to, the accounts should be frozen immediately.

When another Spanish judge issued a similar warrant for the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet, a 2004 U.S. Senate investigation found Riggs Bank culpable of helping hide multiple accounts and millions of dollars on behalf of the dictator. U.S. financial institutions should be alert to avoid a similar scandal this time around. The other countries with which Guatemala maintains important strategic relationships, including Mexico and Panama, must also take the issuance of the arrest and asset freezing orders seriously.

Although much still needs to be done for justice to ultimately prevail before the Spanish and Guatemalan courts, human rights activists can already begin to celebrate at least a partial victory. The fact that international arrest warrants have been issued for individuals so long cloaked in impunity provides hope not only for Guatemalan survivors, but also for others clamoring for justice worldwide. After decades of being denied their day in court, survivors in Guatemala have been heard across the Atlantic, a testament to their persistence and ability to overcome enormous obstacles. The Berger administration and its allies now have the opportunity and obligation to put into practice their much touted commitments to human rights.

CATHERINE NORRIS works with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) as the U.S. Coordinator for the Guatemala Accompaniment Project.