Will Guatemala face its past as it votes for its future?

Illustration by Global Voices

The year 2023 is, without a doubt, decisive for Guatemala. And, as many wonder what lies ahead for the country, looking to its past is also imperative.

The general presidential elections are due to be held on June 25, and polls show a high level of pessimism among Guatemalans. This context for this is severe human rights violations, the curtailed state of press freedom, violent deaths because of organized crime, excessive use of force by the military and private security agents, and the exclusion of three candidates from the electoral race.

More critically, none of the presidential candidates has included the implementation of the Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace signed between the State and the guerrillas represented by the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit in 1996, nor the transitional justice process that has been underway in the country for more than a decade.

In order to move into the future, the country must first resolve its past. Between 1990 and 1996, Guatemala was immersed in an internal armed conflict that brought gruesome human rights violations to thousands of victims, primarily peasants, members of Indigenous communities, and women. In the context of the Cold War disputes, the Mayan peoples became internal enemies of the State, being internally displaced in a framework of violence and disproportionate use of state force. This led to multiple cases of arbitrary executions, enforced disappearances, and excessive use of violence against women, most of them happening during the dictatorships of General Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt. Subsequently, a critical transitional justice process was established in 1996 to investigate the abuses committed during that time, provide reparations to the victims, and prosecute those responsible for such atrocities.

Nevertheless, in the last five years, on three different occasions, new legislation has been discussed. These initiatives seek to prohibit the prosecution of members of the army, state security forces, and members of the insurgent groups, in addition to releasing people who were convicted or are facing criminal proceedings for any act committed during the armed conflict. If approved, this legislation would represent a drastic setback for survivors, victims, and their relatives. The press and human rights advocates have called it an “amnesty law.”

Transitional justice is crucial to peacebuilding

The case of Guatemala is one of many illustrating the complexity of transitional justice in Latin America, a pioneer continent in the application of such approaches aimed at responding to the legacies of massive human rights violations through the establishment of truth commissions, the granting of reparations to the victims, and in many cases judicial proceedings against the perpetrators.

According to the United Nations, transitional justice covers the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past conflict, repression, violations, and abuses to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation through four fundamental pillars: truth, justice, reparation and measures of non-recurrence, with a primary focus on recognizing the dignity and fulfilling the rights of the victims.

The first countries to implement transitional justice models in the region were Argentina in 1984 and Chile in 1990, two nations that suffered the impact of military dictatorships. Afterwards, Peru began a transition period by mitigating a systematic campaign of abuses under an emergency law enacted a few years later. Colombia was the latest country to sign an ambitious General Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace in 2016, ending the continent’s oldest internal armed conflict. Thus, transitional justice is fundamental to advancing peacebuilding, as it points the way toward a democratic society in which citizens are treated with dignity.

Amnesty laws jeopardize Guatemala’s transitional justice advancements

Initiatives that seek to approve amnesty laws promote impunity, deny the rights of those who have suffered the consequences of the conflict, seriously undermine efforts to advance peacebuilding and the recognition of the truth, and ignore the complexity of the armed conflict and the abuses committed against local communities.

Guatemala has made substantial progress, such as establishing the National Reparations Program created in 2003 to compensate the victims. Regarding truth-seeking initiatives, the report of the Commission on Historical Clarification (CEH) set up to clarify the facts and circumstances surrounding the armed confrontations, in its 1999 report “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” has given an account of the atrocities perpetrated during the decades of war that left more than 200.000 people affected. The report issued a series of recommendations (one of them, precisely, on the lack of truth mechanisms and proper investigations of the crimes and wrongdoers) to make the four pillars of transitional justice more accessible, although at present only a few have been fully implemented.

Likewise, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has reiterated in various rulings that the lack of investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for gross human rights violations contributes to impunity and limits reparations for the damages caused. To date, the Court has issued 29 judgments in cases involving human rights violations in Guatemala, 15 of which for cases that took place during the internal armed conflict. Besides, the court has even granted precautionary measures to the victims, ordering the State to suspend the processing of the reform of the National Reconciliation Law, a proposal that is still in Congress pending approval.

Human rights experts, international civil society organizations, victims’ organizations, and survivors of the warfare have reiterated the risks to be derived from the possible approval of this amnesty law. On the one hand, it poses a significant obstacle to the progress achieved in the fight against impunity for human rights breaches, and especially for the evolution of transitional justice, accountability, and the necessary construction of historical memory, as it would contribute to the repetition of these aggressions and would promote a cycle of violence and despotism in the country. The lack of investigation and prosecution of these atrocious acts would also violate international human rights law principles. Finally, it would greatly hinder Guatemala's justice system and the rule of law.

A challenge and an opportunity

The upcoming elections represent an enormous challenge for transitional justice in Guatemala but also a noteworthy opportunity to make visible the magnitude and gravity of the violence, as well as to draw attention to the importance of state intervention to ensure that the outrages committed in the context of the armed conflict are not repeated.

Therefore, the development of concrete public policies aimed at ratifying the State’s responsibility in administering justice and creating government programs primarily targeting those who need them most are key. Once elected, the new president must reiterate the commitment to implement, without further delay, the peace accords, intensify the work of the truth commission in search of missing persons, make reparations to the victims, and ensure the events that fomented the atrocities of the war do not ever occur again, and that the structural problems that gave rise to the conflict, including racism, inequalities and lack of political participation, do not contribute to the longed-for peace becoming merely a distant dream.


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