Success without Victory: Taking the Long View on Justice in Guatemala

Former military leader Efrain Rios Montt's conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity has been overturned, but there is reason to hope (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).

Former military leader Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity has been overturned, but there is reason to hope (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).

Update: This post was updated on May 23, 2013 to provide more context for the significance of the overturned conviction of Rios Montt.

Amnesty International joined human rights organizations from Guatemala and all around the world in applauding former Guatemalan Dictator Rios Montt’s historic conviction on charges of genocide on May 10. The trial established his responsibility as intellectual author for the murder of 1,771 Ixil indigenous people and the forced displacement of tens of thousands from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché Department.

It took over thirty years to bring Rios Montt to justice. The trial faced numerous delays and obstacles, including many procedural appeals and challenges by the defense and a ten day suspension of the trial in April during which an annulment of the proceedings by a lower court was resolved.


In the Name of My Grandfather: My Personal Search For a Lifesaving Arms Trade Treaty

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images).

By Alberto Estévez, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Coordinator for the Arms
Trade Treaty

It was a special moment I’ll never forget.

On Wednesday, March 27, as I walked towards the UN official giving out copies of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), I held my breath wondering how the Golden Rule principle of “No Arms for Atrocities” had been worded in the final treaty text.

I glanced at the preamble, scope and implementation articles and rushed to read
articles 6 and 7, encompassing the Golden Rule. I read it again, in case I had
missed something. Then I had a look at the provisions on reporting, diversion
and how the treaty can be changed in the future. I took a deep breath and said
to myself: “Well done to Amnesty, we’ve got the Golden Rule in.”


Rios Montt Trial is Reason to Celebrate at AGM!

Relatives of victims of Guatemala's civil war attend the trial against former Guatemalan de facto President and retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt  for genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime. Rios Montt is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the indigenous Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region. The trial marks the first time genocide proceedings have been brought in relation to the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).

Relatives of victims of Guatemala’s civil war attend the trial against Rios Montt for genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).

Tuesday, March 19 marks the beginning of the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt for the deaths of 1,771 individuals and the forced displacement of tens of thousands more from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché department.

It is important to remember that the crimes covered in this trial are only a fraction of the widespread, systematic human rights abuses that the Guatemalan military committed under Rios Montt’s brief reign in 1982 and 1983. The military massacred or disappeared tens of thousands of Guatemalan civilians in the months following the coup that brought Rios Montt to power. Furthermore, the Commission on Historical Clarification (CEH) blamed the Guatemalan government for acts of genocide because:


The “Terminator,” War Crimes, and the Obama Administration: All Roads Lead to Rome

DJ-Fugitives-Infographic BOSCO

Click on the image above to access the full-size infographic

As news breaks about the surrender of the “Terminator,” Bosco Ntaganda, to the United States embassy in Kigali today, the US State Department was quick to note that it “strongly support[s] the ICC and their investigations on the atrocities committed in the DRC.” Further, Ambassador Stephen Rapp, head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, tweeted “Bosco #Ntaganda surrenders in #Rwanda and asks to the taken to the #ICC. We are helping to facilitate his transfer.”

This development, and the U.S. administration’s quick signaling of its intent to adhere to obligations to transfer Ntaganda to the court to answer charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity is welcome, and encouraging. Thus, I will not start with the call that “the US should take all steps to ensure the speedy transfer of Ntaganda to The Hague.”


Why Do We Need to Keep Up the Pressure to Prosecute Rios Montt for Genocide?

Brigadier General José Efraín Rios Montt, flanked by General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, at first press conference on 23 March 1982, National Palace, Guatemala City.

Brigadier General José Efraín Rios Montt, flanked by General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, at first press conference on 23 March 1982, National Palace, Guatemala City. Photo courtesy of Jean-Marie Simon.

Monday’s ruling that General Efraín Ríos Montt and his former head of military intelligence, General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, should stand trial for the massacre of almost 2,000 people in the 1980s is an encouraging sign in the quest for justice and accountability in Guatemala. But we must keep up our vigilance to make sure justice moves forward!

A little over a month after I wrote a post on this blog about the need to bring Rios Montt to justice, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina—a former general who served under Rios Montt—issued a decree that said the State of Guatemala would no longer recognize the competence of the Inter American Court of Human Right’s rulings regarding crimes that took place before 1987.  The decree was published on December 28, 2012 – over the holidays when most people are out of their offices.


Justice Denied for 30 Years: Six Reasons Guatemala Must Bring Rios Montt to Justice!


As our families come together for Thanksgiving, please remember of the countless Guatemalans who have never learned the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

November 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of General Efrain Rios Montt launching the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s civil war after seizing power in a coup.  The victims and their families are still waiting for justice.  Thankfully, some of them are finally getting their day in court as Rios Montt stands accused in the Dos Erres Massacre of 1982.

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#DemandJustice: The Website War Criminals Don’t Want You To Share

Six years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda. Today, the effect of the failure to arrest him can be seen in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he and other members of armed groups remain free to commit further human rights violations against civilians.

The DRC is one of several situations featured on our new Demand Justice website. It was launched on International Justice Day earlier this week in order to provide us with a more powerful tool to mobilize  activists around the globe to bring Bosco Ntaganda and others to trial.

If convicted war criminals, such as Thomas Lubanga Dyilo had a Twitter account, he probably would not share our new site. If war crimes suspects Joseph Kony and Omar al-Bashir were active on Facebook, they would hardly “Like” our Fugitives from International Justice infographic. Why not?

5 Steps Forward, 5 Steps Back: Catching and Convicting War Criminals

international justice fugatives

Click image to view full infographic and list of wanted fugatives

Today, supporters of human rights mark the Global Day for International Justice, an anniversary the need for which makes ‘celebration’ difficult, if not impossible.  A cursory look over last year of developments as it relates to securing justice for the most egregious of crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—might yield cause for optimism, however.

Five Steps Forward for Justice

  1. Over the last year, following a UN Security Council referral of Libya, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found reasonable grounds for issuing arrest warrants for top Libyan officials, even as conflict was ongoing, demonstrating the ability and importance of the court in active crises.
  2. The ICC saw the first verdict and sentence handed down as Thomas Lubanga answered for conscription of children in devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  3. Also over the last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the former head of state of Cote d’Ivoire, became the first head of state to be surrendered to the ICC for alleged crimes, only one week after his indictment.
  4. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic finally faces prosecution for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the largest mass murder in Europe since the end of World War II.
  5. The first conviction of a former head of state since the Nuremburg trials, as my colleague Angela Chang describes, was a historic step for international justice.


A Turkish Spring? Freedom To Decide, Freedom To Remember

Spring is a time for optimism and so, despite all the troubling news coming out of Turkey, let me call attention to some positive signs.

The week started badly, when the Turkish Higher Election Board declared that a number of mostly Kurdish candidates for parliament, including Leyla Zana and other former prisoners of conscience, had been disqualified from running.   The decision led to massive protests in Istanbul, Van, Diyarbakir, and elsewhere. In the wake of these protests, however, the Higher Election Board has reversed itself and most, if not all, of the candidates, including Ms. Zana, will be able to run for office.

The coming week promises an event which holds reason for optimism of another sort: on Monday, April 24th a number of Turkish NGOs, will be holding a march to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and call attention to continued issues of bigotry in Turkey. This brave action is a part of a larger effort to deal forthrightly with Turkey’s past.  For example, in ways that were unimaginable only ten years ago, there are now open discussions of the Turkey’s open warfare against the Kurds of Dersim in 1937 – 38, which left tens of thousands killed and uprooted many thousands more.  What is particularly remarkable about these discussions, which have gone on for decades in intellectual circles is that they are now entering into the popular consciousness: as one taboo falters, others are weakened.


Sudan’s President Al Bashir Accused of Genocide by the ICC

Today, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a second arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir for three counts of genocide. An arrest warrant was first issued for Al Bashir in March 2009 for five counts of crimes against humanity (which includes murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (for intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and pillaging).

Satellite images provide evidence of the destruction of villages in Darfur. See more at Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe

While a trial is the only way to determine whether or not Al Bashir is responsible for the crimes he is accused of, this second arrest warrant shows the determination of the ICC to ensure that those who have suffered the most from conflict in Darfur – civilians – have access to justice.

And while President Al Bashir will most certainly continue trying to evade justice and is unlikely to surrender himself in the near future, this new arrest warrant will certainly not make his life any easier. Even since the first arrest warrant was issued, his travel has been heavily restricted as he has been uninvited or at the very least, discouraged from attending many events in foreign countries.

This new arrest warrant, as the very least, reminds us that there is a still a lot to be done to ensure justice for the people of Darfur. That’s why we’re continuing to ask the US government to do all that they can to assist and cooperate with the ICC, especially on the Sudan cases. The Obama administration has stated that it supports international efforts to bring those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Darfur to justice. It’s time to put those words into action.

This coming Saturday, July 17th, the world will be celebrating International Justice Day, which provides us with a great opportunity to remind the US government that international justice should be a priority and to urge support for the ICC’s cases in Sudan. You can also celebrate by participating and hosting a variety of events. The American NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (AMICC), which AIUSA is a part of, has an extensive list of great ideas for activities you can plan in celebration of International Justice Day.