Monday, September 10, 2001
Experts on justice and human rights in Guatemala discuss the cases of former presidents General Romeo Lucas Garcia and General Efrain Rios Montt, who are being tried in domestic courts for crimes against humanity and genocide. The panel included Frank La Rue, Paul Seils, and Maggi Popkin.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, thank you all for coming. My name is Jerry Fowler, and I’m the staff director of the Committee on Conscience here at the museum. The Committee on Conscience was part of the original vision of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1979. The President’s Commission was chaired by Elie Wiesel, it first recommended the creation of a national memorial to victims of the Holocaust, and they felt very strongly that a memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past. So they recommended creation of a Committee on Conscience to address contemporary mass violence with the goal of trying to stimulate responses to mass violence.
The Committee on Conscience was founded in 1995 with the mandate of alerting the national conscience, influencing policymakers, and stimulating response to contemporary acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity. As part of that general mandate, the Committee on Conscience has had a long-standing interest in what happens to societies that have suffered mass violence, how they reconstruct themselves, especially the challenge of justice and accountability after mass violence.
As you probably know, in terms of justice, if there is justice, there are three basic possibilities. One is an international mechanism, or a mixed international domestic mechanism. In recent years we’ve seen that happen with the creation of ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. A variant along those lines is in the process of being created for Cambodia. And of course, there is a movement to create a permanent international criminal court that would have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes.
A second possibility is what you might call universal jurisdiction, which is using the domestic courts of one nation to try those accused of these crimes that occurred in another nation. Recent examples of that are the Pinochet case where Spain tried to extradite, ultimately unsuccessfully, Augusto Pinochet from England. Just recently, Belgian courts prosecuted Rwandan nuns for participation in the Rwandan genocide.
And then the third possibility is the use of domestic judicial mechanisms in the country where the violence occurred. And that is the topic of our discussion today, focusing specifically on the case of Guatemala.
As I’m sure this audience knows, the Commission on Historical Clarification -- or the so-called Truth Commission -- that was formed as part of the ending of the war in Guatemala in the mid-1990s concluded that in the course of the 30-year civil war in Guatemala, acts of genocide were committed by the Guatemalan state in the period of 1981 to 1983. We visited that topic in March of 2000, where we held a program called “Memory and Truth After Genocide: Guatemala,” and the participants in that were Christian Tomaschat, who had been the chair of the Historical Clarification Commission; Rosalina Tuyuc, who is a leader of the Mayan Widows Organization, women who had been widowed by the war; Roberto Cabrera, who at that time was with the Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala, which had produced a separate accounting of the violence called the Recovery of Historical Memory Project; and then Neil Kritz of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
That program, the audio and the transcript, is available on our website. I think much of the information that came out there is still very relevant -- which is at www.USHMM.org/conscience, and then this particular program is /Guatemala.
One of the things that I think came out of the Memory and Truth After Genocide program was, at least at that point in time, the prospects for justice as part of the recovery process were very dim. Since that time, cases have been filed, criminal complaints, alleging genocide and crimes against humanity against both former president General Romeo Lucas Garcia and former president General Efrain Rios Montt. We’re very privileged today to have with us the lawyers who are spearheading those cases.
We have Frank La Rue, who is the executive director of CALDH, the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights, and Paul Seils, who is the legal director and director of the prosecution project for CALDH. Frank has been a human rights lawyer for many years, since 1981. He was in exile here in Washington from 1981 to 1993. During that time, he founded CALDH with the purpose of working on human rights in Guatemala. But at the time that he founded it, of course, there was not space, really, available in Guatemala for him to do the work there. He returned to Guatemala in 1993.
Paul Seils is the legal director of CALDH and has been so since 1997. He’s a specialist in international humanitarian law. Just recently, he’s been appointed as a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, which many of you may know of, an organization that has recently been founded by Alex Borraine, who served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But I understand that Paul will be continuing to work on the cases in Guatemala as part of his duties at the ICTG.
After we have presentations by Frank and Paul, we will have discussion commentary by Maggi Popkin, who is probably known to all of you. She’s the executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation here in Washington and author of “Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador,” which, unless it’s sold out, which is highly possible, should be available in the museum bookstore upstairs.
So we’re very happy to have all three of our guests today, and without further ado, I will turn it over to Frank.