The struggle for justice : The report entitled ’Remembrance of silence’ or the truth restored

13/03/1999
Report

The Commission for truth or ‘the Unveiling of History’ (Comision de Esclarecimiento Historico - CEH) mandated to shed light on the human rights violations committed during the 36 years of civil war in Guatemala, published its report entitled ‘Guatemala, remembrance of silence’* on 25th February. The publication of this report was immediately followed by demonstrations against the armed forces.

The human rights violations perpetrated by the army against some ethnic groups, particularly the Maya Indians, are described by the report as ‘acts of genocide’ and 93 % of violations committed during the civil war are attributed to the different security forces. 4 % are attributed to unidentified forces and 3 % to the guerilla forces. The Commission identified a total of 42,275 victims, 23,671 of which were victims of random executions and 6,159 victims of enforced disappearances. 83 % of those victims identified were Maya Indians.According to the Commission, the total number of victims of this ‘dirty war’ is more than 200,000.

For the Commission, the roots of internal armed conflict can be explained by the very nature of the Guatemalan state which is described as ‘authoritarian, exclusive and racist ... its exclusive aim consisting of protecting the interests of some privileged minorities’, which has been the case since its very foundation. The report, in support of this statement, deplores the fact that ‘the violence perpetrated by the government has been directed against the poor, the excluded and the Maya population in particular, and against those who were fighting for justice and social equality’. It further deplores the fact that the government, confronted with demonstration movements, did not hesitate to step up terror and violence to keep the society under control.

Other causes of the violence are : the ineffectiveness of the legal system and the influence of the military power on the judiciary, which has been the case throughout the country’s history, resulting in the country’s being caught in a spiral of impunity.

The report further points out that ‘the country’s legal system, as a result of its deliberate ineffectiveness, is no guarantee that the law is implemented ; indeed it tolerated or even favoured violence’. In this context, the phenonemon of impunity has become very widespread, to an extent that it undermines the whole state edifice.

Moreover, according to the CEH ‘a whole network of parallel systems of repression has been substituted for the role of the courts, encroaching on their functions and prerogatives, so that the system currently in place can be described as an illegal secret system of repression, orchestrated and governed by the Military Intelligence units’ and the ‘direct or indirect collaboration of dominant economic and political sectors’ makes the system complete.

At the end of its 3,600-page report, the Commission issues a series of recommendations to strengthen ‘the hope of the people of Guatemala that its history of violence will never be repeated’. The aim of these recommendations is to urge the government to adopt the necessary measures to guarantee compensation to victims of violence, the remembrance of those who died and the establishment of a culture of peace and the strenghtening of democracy.

The government’s position on the report, which became known on 16th March, was well short of the expectations of civil society. Apart from the fact that it did not breathe one word about the methods proposed by the Commission as regards the location of the victims of disappearances and compensation to their families, the government rejected the idea proposed by the report that a special body should be mandated to investigate the behaviour of the armed forces, under the pretext that the institution has already ‘been reformed’. All the government did was to make a promise to reduce their size and make them more professional and it did not voice any objections against the possibility of bringing perpetrators of grave human rights violations to justice.

The government’s statements fall well short of people’s expectations. True, the process of establishing the Rule of Law in Guatemala is slow and difficult, but the authorities should have made a commitment to implementing all the recommendations of the Commission. The impartiality and objectivity of the report cannot be questioned, since the report was written 18 months after an independent investigation consisting of the analysis and cross-checking of a large amount of testimonies, the examination of situation reports and field visits. Moreover, whilst under its initial mandate the Commission was not allowed to identify precisely those responsible for the perpetration of human rights violations, the work it has done is so remarkable that the reservations expressed at the time when it was set up have now become virtually insignificant.

The publication of this report was a very important moment for the people of Guatemala. The Commission, which acknowledges the gravity and extent of suffering inflicted on the victims, has restored their dignity, which is already a kind of moral compensation in itself. Where civil society is concerned, the report has made its contribution to making the fight for truth and justice more legitimate, and finally, through its exemplary nature, the report may help to stimulate thoughts about the truth and remembrance of history as quintessential elements for genuine national reconciliation and lasting peace.

To ensure that this ‘lesson learnt from the suffering of the nation’ bears fruit, it is now necessary - and this responsibility is above all on the government of Guatemala - that the conclusions of this report should be widely disseminated and that civil society should make every effort to urge the government to implement its recommendations. The people of Guatemala are not interested in political revenge ; only, now that the truth has been acknowledged, they hope that the hangmen will be brought to justice.

*This Commission was set up within the framework of the peace agreement under the auspices of the United Nations between the government of Guatemala and the National Revolutionary Unit of Guatemala (guerilla movement) in 1996. It was presided over by Dr. Christian Tomushat (Germany) together with Otlia Lux and Alfred Balselle Tojo (Guatemala) and a team made up of a number of people of 31 different nationalities.

Read more
rapport