Wading uncharted waters: The trial of Rios Montt

The events in Guatemala are exceptional because they are happening at home, in the nation where the crimes occurred.

Jose Efrain Rios Montt
Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt is the latest of several ex-officers in Guatemala to face the law concerning crimes committed during the country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 [AP]

When a judge ruled last week that former general and Guatemalan head of state Jose Efrain Rios Montt will, finally, stand trial for the crime of genocide, the news resounded profoundly at home and abroad. These events in Guatemala mark the first time a national court, anywhere, prosecutes its own former head of state for the crime of genocide. 

Several international courts established in the last 20 years have prosecuted people involved in genocide. The events in Guatemala are exceptional because they are happening at home, in the nation where the crimes occurred.

Rios Montt, 86, is the latest of several ex-officers in Guatemala to face the law concerning crimes committed during the country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. His arrest in January 2012 – the judge ordered the former army general confined to his home – represented an extraordinary break with impunity in the Central American country; the decision to proceed with the trial, despite attempts to have the charges dropped, is of even greater significance. No ranking officer has been held responsible for the violence in which some 200,000 people, almost all civilians, lost their lives. 

The Rios Montt trial is also an important development in an evolving arena of international human rights.

Aside from a few problematic cases, genocide has been prosecuted in international jurisdictions. In Ethiopia, for example, a former dictator was tried for genocide in absentia. In Iraq, a purportedly “national court”, heavily influenced by the United States, then occupying the country, convicted and executed “Chemical Ali”. The Nuremberg trials of Nazis in the aftermath of the Holocaust were conducted by a multinational body composed of the allied powers and formally prosecuted crimes against humanity. Rwanda has had genocide trials for its nationals, but none of such high stature. 

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Guatemala: Struggling for justice

Holding trials “away” has been deemed appropriate when conducting a trial at home carries considerable risks. The rationale behind establishing international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, The Netherlands, and for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, was that holding trials in the country where the violence occurred would put participants at risk and potentially disrupt other fragile socio-political conditions.  

Even the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a so-called “hybrid” tribunal (the Court sits in Freetown but is made up of foreign judges), was compelled to move its highest profile defendant, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, to trial in The Hague for fear of sparking new violence in Sierra Leone. (Taylor was not charged with genocide.)

More than a decade has passed since a truth commission in Guatemala determined that the elements of the violence constituted genocide, particularly the brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the highlands in the early 1980s, including under Rios Montt’s rule. For years, efforts to bring charges in Guatemalan courts have been stonewalled or met with threats and outright violence. As a result, Guatemalan survivors have sought justice, reparations and recognition in courts abroad. 

An evolving international network with increasingly sophisticated advocates found sympathetic jurisdictions outside of Guatemala, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in San Jose, Costa Rica. Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum and other activists have brought cases before the Spanish National Court under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which considers some crimes so heinous as to be of universal concern and therefore appropriate for many jurisdictions, even outside the nation where the crimes occurred.

With cases before international and now, its own national judiciary, Guatemala presents an important opportunity to explore the efficacy of each of these mechanisms in a world increasingly aware of and concerned with war crimes. Legal experts, perpetrators and those affected by state violence are watching to see how these geographically diverse jurisdictions function. The stakes are significant not only for Guatemala, but for all of humanity. What are the advantages of prosecuting genocide cases in the nation where the crimes occurred? What are the dangers?

Guatemala’s security situation remains precarious. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz issued indictments and arrest warrants in 2011 against other senior members of the armed forces. Soon a group of retired military officers published an announcement in Guatemala’s largest newspaper warning: “We are ready to fight again if the circumstances require it.” 

Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina must ensure safety for the process and its protagonists. A former general, Perez Molina served in a conflict zone where some of the most egregious massacres of the period took place. 

We should pay close attention to these legal proceedings in Guatemala. In the US, evidence of torture, disappearances and other crimes against humanity committed by US service members is denied, ignored or disposed of with minimal punishment. We might well need lessons from the brave lawyers in Guatemala. 

Amy Ross is associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, specialising in human rights.