Tuesday, March 21, 2000
Guatemala’s civil war claimed over 200,000 lives, mostly Mayan civilians. A UN-sponsored truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, created after the war ended in 1996, documented unspeakable atrocities: murder, mutilation, rape, torture. And it held the Guatemalan state responsible for acts of genocide against Mayan communities. The Catholic Church also sponsored an on-going effort to use memory as an instrument of social reconstruction, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project. Now, after the country’s first post-war elections, a new government confronts the challenge posed by the memory and truth of mass violence. Can a society that has suffered such physical and moral devastation achieve reconciliation and lasting peace? On March 21, 2000, a panel, featuring Kate Doyle, Christian Tomuschat, Roberto Cabrera, Rosalina Tuyuc, and Neil Kritz, addressed this question.
Kate Doyle: Thank you, Mr. Shestack. And thanks very much on behalf of all the panelists today to the Committee on Conscience of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, to the Due Process of Law Foundation and to the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. Before giving some introductory remarks, let me go over a few housekeeping notes that I’ve been handed.
You all should have found index cards stapled to evaluation forms in your seats when you came in. The index cards are for questions. If you think of a question during the course of the presentation and want our panelists to answer it, please write your question on the card and staff members will be in the aisles to collect them at the end of the formal presentations.
The evaluation forms, which you must detach from said index cards, are for filling out after the program and turning them in as you exit the theater. If you turn your evaluation form in, you will then be given a pass to the permanent exhibit in the Museum in return, and these passes are good for anytime between now and the end of the year and aren’t dated or timed which, as any of you who have tried to get into the Museum know, is a great advantage. One final note, the audio tape and ultimately the transcript of this evening’s proceedings will be on the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s web site, sometime, I guess, tomorrow or this week.
After 35 years of bloodshed and violence, after the deaths of some 150,000 men, women and children, after the abduction and disappearance of 40,000 more, after the displacement of upwards of one million people, after the torture, after the rape, the assassinations, the mutilations, after the wounds suffered by more than a generation of Guatemalans, after the war that took so much from so many, Guatemala has begun the long journey to peace. That journey has proven to be a struggle in its own right.
Shortly after the Human Rights Accord was signed by the Guatemalan Government and Rebel leaders in mid-1994, in anticipation of the final peace agreement which would be signed some two years later in December of ’96, senior military officers held a meeting. One of the clauses in the Accord called for the establishment of a truth commissioner, the Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala, which would have the right to request documents, testimony and other information from the parties to the armed conflict.
I brought a page from a declassified US document to show to you tonight, and with the help of Kathy Ogle, I will illuminate it up here. This document, which was written by a US Defense Attaché and posted in Guatemala in 1994, describes the meeting of the Senior Military Commanders, at which the National Defense Staff of the Guatemalan Army ordered its officers to search their files and destroy, and I quote: “Any incriminating evidence, whether a written order or other information, which could be used to identify or help trace individuals who might be viewed as responsible for any activity that could be deemed illegal in any way.” Information that could, as the document says, “compromise the security or status of any member of the Guatemala military.”
The document goes on to declare that these orders have, in fact, already been carefully overseen and accomplished at one military base on the country’s southern coast. There, in addition to the removal of incrementing files, the facilities that were used during the 1980’s as interrogation areas, read ‘torture chambers,’ “have been totally demolished and pits which existed to bury guerillas in have been filled and covered over with cement.” Within four months of the signing of the Human Rights Accord which created the Clarification Commission, the Army had a strategy of deception and denial well in place according to this document.
Such was the dilemma faced by the state mandated Historical Clarification Commission when it began its human rights investigations in the summer of 1997 and by the church supported project to Recover Historical Memory, one year earlier. Such was the terrible reality, confronted by the tens of thousands of families who have, in the wake of the war’s end, tried to recover the bodies of their fathers, brothers, mothers and daughters, or to obtain official recognition by the state of the torture, murder or disappearance of their loved ones. The evidence was, for the most part, totally demolished and covered over with cement.
The four people who appear before you this evening will testify to the trials and tribulations of a society seeking to exhume the truth about Guatemala’s past and heal the wounds of a terrible war. In the order in which they will speak, Professor Christian Tomuschat, an expert in International Human Rights Law and Professor of Public Law at Humboldt University in Berlin, served as the Coordinator for the Historical Clarification Commission during it’s two years of investigations.
Dr. Roberto Cabrera, a physician, is the Coordinator of the Guatemalan Catholic Churches Recovery of Historical Memory Project, an ongoing effort to use memory as an instrument of social reconstruction. Ms. Rosalina Tuyuc is the Founder and General Coordinator of the National Council of Widows of Guatemala or CONAVIGUA, a human rights organization of Mayan women widowed by the political violence. And Mr. Neil Kritz is the Director of the Rule of Law Program at the United States Institute of Peace, here in Washington, and an analyst of the ways in which emerging democratic states come to terms with former regimes. Special thanks should also go to Kathy Ogle from the Ecumenical Program in Central America for interpreting for Ms. Tuyuc.
If you know nothing else about Guatemala’s war, you should know one thing: that the United States Government helped create the conditions that produced the war, when our own Central Intelligence Agency engineered a cue in 1954 against the democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. We helped create the conditions, and then we supported the Guatemalan military in its scorched earth campaign to cleanse the state of real and imagined enemies for more than three decades. Although the triumphant attitude of the United States about it’s role in the Cold War has so far precluded any serious reckoning of our role in places like Guatemala, we cling to the hope that an United States Truth Commission remains a possibility sometime in our future.
I want to end my introduction by showing you another document. As those of you who studied the European Holocaust know, history has proven that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes tend to keep good records. Kathy, if I could ask you to show this other document. It is true that in Guatemala the military steadfastly lied about it’s role and attempted to obliterate the truth and outlive memory, but there were records chronicling it’s brutal operations in the archives of the Pentagon and the CIA. Shortly after the Clarification Commission released it’s report in 1999, an extraordinary and unique document was smuggled out of the Guatemalan army’s own secret archives that confirmed the worst about the repressive operations of the countries military intelligence services.
What you see here is the first page, not a very good reproduction, but you can make it out, of fifty-two pages of victims that are listed in this document. This is the original. It’s a kind of logbook-- sort of productivity report, a rare glimpse of organized political murder from the perspective of the perpetrators. It chronicles the fates of scores of Guatemalan citizens who were disappeared by the security forces in the mid-1980’s. It contains the names and the photographs, as you can see from this original, that were torn or cut from personal identification cards, student ID’s, passports, driver licenses of some 183 men, women and children, included references to their executions.
Although the document is unsigned, it is laced with references to the Guatemalan Intelligence Director at military intelligence offices on rural bases and various security services. It was, of course, exactly the kind of information sought by the Historical Clarification Commission, the REMHI Project and Guatemala’s widows and denied to them.
These are Guatemala’s ghosts. They represent just a few of the tens of thousands of Guatemalan citizens who disappeared or were killed during the war. If nothing else, their faces and indeed the document itself, remind us that history will always return to haunt.
Christian Tomuschat, Roberto Cabrera, Rosalina Tuyuc and Neil Kritz are here this evening to talk to us about life and about the life affirming struggle in which Guatemala has been engaged since 1996: to create a truly civil society. Such a society would honor it’s ghosts, but look ahead as well to a future that gives voice to the silenced, a future of peace and justice and human rights for all their people. Thank you.
Prof. Tomuschat outlines the Commission’s composition and mandate, and discusses its operational difficulties and triumphs. Although it could not force anyone to testify, it nonetheless uncovered much evidence of the extent and severity of atrocities. He details how the Commission came to the conclusion that the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide. The Commissions’s recommendations for the future included specific steps the government should take and left open the possibility of future legal proceedings. He sums up the achievement of the truth commission process: “Lies have been brushed aside, and myths have been destroyed. Nobody can say any more that the time of the armed confrontation was a tremendous victory.”
Christian Tomuschat: Ladies and gentleman, it is a great honor to be here in the Holocaust Museum to talk about our experiences in Guatemala during the Historical Clarification Commission, which was a truth commission. The name was different, but essentially it was a truth commission. The legal basis of the Commission was an agreement that was concluded in June 1994, between the guerrillas, the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), and the government of Guatemala. On the basis of the place where this agreement was concluded it is called the Oslo Agreement, which also testifies to the great efforts made by the government of Norway in helping negotiate the peace agreements.
There was no involvement of the Congress of Guatemala, the Parliamentary body. Therefore, it was a purely executive agreement and for that reason it was also challenged many times in Guatemala. It was said that this was a purely political act and that it had no legal value at all. This could have hampered the work of the Historical Clarification Commission, but fortunately there was no direct challenge before the courts of Guatemala. I can say that the Commission could carry out its work as provided for under the Oslo Agreement.
No attempt was made by the government of Guatemala to end the work of the Commission. This is not to say that the government was enthusiastic in assisting and cooperating. Cooperation was fairly weak and fairly modest. On the other hand, I have to admit that indeed no attempt was made to hinder our work.
The composition was very strange, if you realize that it was made up of three persons, two Guatemalans and one foreigner, that was myself. There was one woman, Otilia Lux de Coti, of Mayan origin and the lawyer of Guatemala, Edgar Balsells Tojo. I was appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, and it was my task to appoint the two Guatemalan members. One was to be a citizen of irreproachable conduct and the other one was to be appointed from a list that the rectors of the National Universities had established.
While this combination contrasted with what had happened in Chile and in Argentina, on one hand, where the Commission was composed only of nationals of the countries concerned. On the other hand, it was also in contrast to what happened in El Salvador, where the members of the Commission were three foreigners. At that time the quality of climate in El Salvador did not permit the presence of a Salvadoran citizen, because that person would have had to fear for his or her life.
The mandate of the Commission was essentially threefold: First of all, clarify the human rights violations and acts of violence which had been committed to the extent that they were linked to the armed confrontation. For that purpose, we had to open our offices to every person who wished to make a declaration. The second objective was to collect the findings in a report, which was then to be submitted to the parties of the Oslo Agreement and to the Secretary General of the United Nations. And, finally, it was the task of the Commission to pronounce recommendations on the basis of these findings.
There were many expectations related to the report and to the verdict of the Commission. The recommendations, in particular, were to foster peace and national harmony. They were to promote a culture of mutual respect and tolerance, and they were to strengthen the democratic process. These were indeed high-flying expectations.
The Commission succeeded in carrying out its mandate, although the initial stage was difficult. There was no budget for the Commission, and the members of the Commission had to go around and request friends of Guatemala to provide the necessary funds. I have to pay tribute, in particular, to the Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and to the United States and Canada, which were extremely helpful in providing the necessary financial basis for the Commission’s work. We started our work on the 31st of July, 1997. We handed in our report on the 25th of February, 1999.
Now a few words about the results of the work of the Commission. Roughly 9,000 witnesses appeared before the Commission. They were mostly victims or relatives of victims. Very few of the officers of crimes appeared before the Commission, which was understandable. There was no incentive or offers to make declarations. It was all voluntary. No more amnesty could be gained by officers. We had no legal remedies, no mechanism of enforcement to subpoena persons whom we wished to hear. Therefore, members of the police, of the Army, of the security forces, who were invited by the Commission to testify generally did not come. They did not even present any apologies. They simply abstained from making an appearance.
On the other hand, for the people in the countryside, for the victims, in particular, it was an act of emancipation from repression. There was now an institution, the Historical Clarification, before which they could speak out without having to fear any reprisals. This was new for them, it was a new experience.
They were sometimes threatened by former holders of factual power, by the chiefs of the voluntary defense patrols, but the strategy of threatening potential witnesses very rarely worked. In particular women resisted the pressure, and the women realized that to speak up was an act of liberation, because after they had spoken about their experiences in great numbers nobody could threaten them any more that they should remain silent.
The Commission was not able to establish a general statistical breakdown of what had happened, because, as I said, we had to rely on the declarations of those who chose to appear before the Commission. But we tried to establish estimates, on the basis of the findings, and these estimates show that more or less 200,000 people were left dead -- not counting all the other violations. It is one of the most characteristic findings of the Commission that roughly ninety-three percent of the atrocities were committed by governmental forces and about seven percent by the guerilla forces.
One of the main features of the findings is the unspeakable cruelty that characterized most of the crimes. During the time when the military governments persecuted any opponents by terrorist message, the victims were not only shot or killed but they were generally tortured. Tongues were torn out, genital parts were crushed or cut off. It was horrible.
When the conflict moved to the Mayan territories in the northwest of the country, the war was fought not so much against combatants but against women, children and elderly men. Pregnant women were a preferred target and babies were killed by slamming them against walls and trees. One of the most distressing chapters of the report is the section that details sexual assaults against women.
This deliberate attempt to kill, in some communities, every human being led the Commission to conclude that genocide had been committed -- not generally, but at certain times and in certain places. Children are not enemies. They are not combatants. Killing them could only be explained by a will to exterminate the communities affected as such, because of their ethic background.
The Commission formulated recommendations. I will just give you some of the most important ones. The President should extend his apologies to the victims, assuming responsibility of the State of Guatemala. This was not done because a few weeks before the report was handed over, the President deliberately, in a ceremony on the second anniversary of the conclusion of the final peace agreement -- which happened in 1996, so it was on the 29th of December 1998 -- made some apology, but at a time when our report had not yet come out and when the dimensions of the atrocities committed by the state operators had not yet been clarified.
An additional recommendation was to open the mass graves so that the victims could be given a burial in dignity and in accordance with their religious faith. Further, the Army should be purged of those who had command responsibility during the most atrocious years, and in accordance with the terms of the ley de reconciliacion naciònal a criminal prosecution shall be started.
Now what happened afterwards? The Commission was to collect evidence and report on the atrocities committed, but it was not to assign individual responsibility. That was one of the terms of reference enshrined in the Oslo Agreement. So our task was not to act in the way of a traditional institution. We were to highlight and identify institutional responsibilities. We found, contrary to criticism voiced by human rights organizations, that this might have been the proper message, because it was impossible for the Commission in the time allotted to it to know whether some crime had been perpetrated by units of the military of Guatemala or by the guerillas.
There was an additional difficulty, because if you name some one in an official report, it is a very serious accusation. It would require that the person named be given an opportunity to present his or her defense, which we could not do. We could not possibly, within the short time allotted to us -- which was one year -- conduct a quasi-traditional proceeding. This was absolutely excluded. Therefore, we felt that it was right to limit the mandate of the Commission to institutional responsibility.
The report, of course, is not the last word, and it does not exclude judicial proceedings. On the contrary, as I said, one of our recommendations is that judicial proceedings should be started, in particular regarding cases of genocide and torture and other crimes which do not permit any amnesty. This is also provided for in the ley de reconciliacion naciònal, the law that was enacted by the National Congress of Guatemala shortly before the conclusion of the final peace agreement.
Now on the whole it is tragic if we try to find why it could happen in Guatemala-- that there was such a display of cruelty, that so many atrocities were committed. It is mentioned that the idea of fighting Communism overshadowed the armed conflict. Unfortunately, the United States, as has already been pointed out by Kate Doyle, played a decisive role in bringing about destabilization and thereby death, suffering and chaos.
It was said that in 1954, most of you know it, the United States supported right wing army units that toppled a democratically elected government, the government of President Arbenz. In later years, except for the time of President Carter, the military government of Guatemala had the full support of the United States, which knew perfectly well what was going on in the highlands of Guatemala.
The official reaction by the government of Guatemala was cool. The day when the report was handed over, the people of Guatemala were jubilant, but the government was not very happy about the report and one month later they published an advertisement in one of the newspapers of Guatemala stating that no action was called for. The army, they said, had already been purged -- something that nobody had ever known, nobody had ever learned anything about purging of the army. They said nothing about prosecutions on account of genocide, and the government also said that there was no need to establish a follow-up mechanism.
The new President, Alfonso Portillo, has pledged to implement the recommendations. We still do not know whether he will be able to live up to that pledge, because he is in office only for two months now.
Nonetheless the situation in Guatemala is not the same as before. It is new. It is transparent what happened. Lies have been brushed aside, and myths have been destroyed. Nobody can say any more that the time of the armed confrontation was a tremendous victory. Indeed there were people in Guatemala who held that the country had been saved from communism, that this armed confrontation was a great victory of the forces of democracy and freedom. Now it has to be realized that this was a national tragedy, that mourning is called for, and that nobody should be triumphant about what happened during those years.
It is now incumbent upon Guatemalans to build a better future, but the international community is called upon to assist them in that very difficult endeavor. Thank you very much.
Mr. Cabrera presents the work of the REMHI project as an attempt by the Catholic Church to create a space where people who previously had been silenced could speak about what had happened to them. The goal was to further the prospects for reconciliation and for creating a new Guatemala. Breaking the silence was only the first step along a road towards reconciliation that would also address structural changes, land reform, poverty, injustice, as well as memorializing the dead. Such efforts, he argues, demand the cooperation of both national and international forces.
Roberto Cabrera: This morning I was going around this museum, and I was thinking about the parallels between the Holocaust back in the Second World War and the holocaust that my country has had to suffer in the last four years. I couldn’t help to think how come mankind can specialize in evil? How can humankind destroy itself? And why does history seem to be repeated everywhere? In the 1930’s and 1940’s it was Germany. Then it was Latin America, with a peak of horror in Guatemala just in the backyard of the United States. Now it’s Colombia. Yesterday it was Bosnia.
My current reflection is on how the REMHI project in Guatemala tried to break the silence of those who didn’t have the chance to speak for a long time. When this project started in late 1994, it was meant to facilitate the work of the Historical Clarification Commission. It was meant to be a very legal approach to the problem in Guatemala. Soon we found that it was something more profound: that the task the Catholic Church had undertaken was to create a space where people could break the silence. It was to be a space where simple people could gather the statements, the testimonies of their community and their neighbors, and try to tell the whole world what had happened in Guatemala, what had been kept silent for so long.
The REMHI Project took three years to produce a report. The report, in our case, was not an ending point but a starting point. Two days before the one report was presented to the media, Mr. Gerardi said that this was a report not just to give some idea of the horror of Guatemala, but a report that will try to accompany the hope of the whole country.
It was the dream of Guatemalans that we could build a new country. We could find new ways of living together. The report was released one year before the Historical Clarification Commissions Report, and it made some recommendations that were taken also by the Historical Clarification Commission Report. We had already prepared some strategies, not from our own minds, but strategies that were asked by the victims themselves.
Reconciliation was the objective. But how could we achieve such a dream? Soon we knew that it was just the beginning of a huge struggle. A priest said in private, there are still too many human questions to give spiritual answers. The recommendations tried to address what we have been asking for, as a society, over many years. First of all, there should be structural changes: the need to address poverty, to address injustice, to address the land problems, and also trying to propose ways of healing the wounds caused by the war.
The first step was taken by breaking the silence. But still, as many victims have stated in their testimonies, we are caught inside ourselves, we are caught between ourselves -- that means in the families and in the society. We are caught within our memories of dead people. How can we reconcile with the living if we are still waiting for the disappeared or waiting for those mass graves to be excavated?
So the aim of the report was to give the facts. How such political violence can impact the poor society -- even those who didn’t hear one gunshot were affected. How this whole mechanism was used in Guatemala. How the military mind was introduced to every single person in our country. How violence was used, not only in the war fields, but everywhere. What was the historical context of that war-and that recognizes internal actors and also international actors who have benefited from the war.
If we are going to have reconciliation, we have to bear in mind that those 55,000 victims that we could list and also those victims that the Historical Clarification Commission could document, issue a common cry, a common demand that we -- everybody, everywhere -- should commit ourselves so that all these atrocities will not happen again.
As the process has gone on, we felt very, very disappointed that the former president did not attend to the Truth Commission’s recommendations. We are still struggling in our country for these recommendations to be implemented.
This should be foremost an effort within civil society. I think we are taking the right steps in Guatemala. But still we think that international awareness of the Guatemalan case should be stressed. No changes that will be made within the country will be stable if the international community is not aware. Those who have the power to make political commitments and to take the right political and diplomatic actions are either supporting the perpetrators or just being indifferent. This is something we want to stress: this has to be a common effort -- those who are out of the country and those who are working within the country.
With respect to the work needed in order to heal the wounds of war, we in the country are still calling for justice, giving some social support to the victims, exhuming mass graves, but we’re also calling for international awareness, so that the atrocity that happened in Guatemala will not be repeated in any other place of the world. Thank you.
Ms. Tuyuc describes her struggles for reform of the military, redress for human rights violations, and an end to discrimination against indigenous women. Having lost both her father and her husband, she has joined with other women in a search for clandestine graves and information about the disappeared. Past Guatemalan governments have not been forthcoming in helping these efforts. There has also been little progress towards legal proceedings, so she and others have begun a suit in Spain (following the Pinochet precedent). She concludes by saying that while peace exists on paper, it still needs to be built within Guatemalan society.
Rosalina Tuyuc: Good evening to all of you. I would like to begin by thanking all of those who organized this event and also thank those who are with me at the table here, and to thank all of you for being here as well.
I represent an organization of women who are victims of the genocide that occurred in Guatemala. Most of us in great majority are Mayan women who in some way have been discriminated against by the State.
Our struggle has been against the abuses committed by members of the military and also members of the paramilitary. We are also working to exhume the clandestine graves, the secret graves where many of our family members lie.
We gave been struggling to end forced recruitment into the military, and we’ve also been trying to work towards bringing people who are responsible for human rights abuses to justice. We’ve also been struggling to end discrimination against us as women, indigenous women. We are discriminated against not only for being women but also for being poor and for being victims of the violence.
In terms of my own experience as a victim of the violence of the war, I would like to tell you that my own father was kidnapped in 1982 by the military and to this day we do not know yet whether he is dead or alive. We don’t have specific information about his death. We do know that he was buried and that he was buried on the grounds of the military establishment over which a highway has since been built. So we don’t have very many hopes of being able to find his remains, but we do have hopes of being able to find remains of many other people.
Also, my husband was kidnapped in 1983. I had two very young children at the time, and they don’t remember him. In the same way that we don’t have any information about my father, we also don’t have any information about the father of my children. We have hopes that someday, perhaps, just even a fragment of clothing will be found that will help to identify him.
Just as I was left a widow and lost my father, there are so many other women who have lost their husbands and lost their family members. We hope that someday someone will be held accountable for the violence against them. In my organization, CONAVIGUA, we say that we don’t harbor hatred against the army, rather we have hope that justice will be done.
No matter which governments have been in power, whether the military government, those who call themselves Christian democrats or defenders of human rights, we have always had the same message for them and that was that there should be accountability in terms of who was responsible for the extra-judicial executions that have taken place. No government has been willing to assume responsibility for those crimes. Even though it is true that President Arzú did make a public declaration apologizing for any harm that might have been done by government forces against us, he has not taken a single step towards making any reparation for the harm done.
The new government, as you may know, is made up of many people, both from the military and civilians, who have been accused of crimes against human rights. Even though it may not be the party as a whole, there are many, many military people and many people who have responsibility for the violence that are part of this new government.
We have given the government a certain amount of time to show us what they’re going to do. So far the speeches have been very beautiful, but in practice there is a lot left to be done. We are hoping that they will take the recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission seriously and really move forward.
There’s an official document that’s been circulating at the level of the OAS, the Organization of American States, which includes three very important elements: one is reparations for the victims; two is that there should be exhumations of the secret graves where the bodies are laying; and the third is that they should support the recommendations of the Clarification Commission. However, there’s nothing in this document that talks about recommending that there should be a legal process, judicial processes, against those who committed human rights violations.
There is very little hope that justice will be carried out inside the country, so we have taken our cases to the international level. We’ll have to see what kind of results this gives. We’re hoping now that the courts in Spain have accepted a case we’ve presented, that something will come out of that, and it won’t end in the same way the Pinochet case ended.
But even if justice never happens completely, we do have the force of conscience on our side. This is shown clearly by the reports of the REMHI Commission and the Historical Clarification Commission, which complement each other very nicely, and in so many other ways that testimonies have been collected. But I also need to say that there are many, many victims who have not yet had a chance to tell their story.
I think activities like these are very important, activities that are designed to elevate the level of conscious and consciousness that we have of these kinds of situations. In this way, everyone -- not only at high levels of government -- can be involved in knowing about what happened. All of the people should know the truth about what happened. People should know not only the truth about the past, but they should also be committed in the present time to work for a future in which violence like this will never happen again.
For a true reconciliation and a lasting peace in Guatemala, there need to be a few people who are taken to trial. One, two or three people are going to have to pay for the crimes that were committed. Putting money into development projects is not enough. There also have to be some people who are held responsible for the crimes that were committed, because if they aren’t, the blood that is shed by our people will have been in vain. Because we’ve also learned over the years that we haven’t learned just to suffer, we’ve also learned to dream, we’ve also learned to have hope. I want to thank all of you here who have, through the years, accompanied our people in some way and we ask you to stay with us in this process.
Peace is now signed, and it’s on paper, but real peace still has to be built. The question is how much more will we have to give as a people to be able to have that peace. Even though the arms of war have been silenced, the problems that led to the war are still unresolved. That’s why solidarity is still important today. We should have solidarity in times of peace, not only in times of war. Thank you.
Increasingly truth and reconciliation are seen as integral parts of establishing peace, Mr. Kritz asserts, as he discusses the case of Guatemala in the context of other societies coping with the aftermath of massive human rights abuses and violence. He outlines both perpetrator focused strategies, such as criminal proceedings and reform measures, as well as victim focused strategies, such as reparations and memorials. Truth commissions fall somewhere in between. Often several methods are used, with varying degrees of national and international involvement. From South Africa, El Salvador, Bosnia, Guatemala and elsewhere, countries are learning from each other how best to face a difficult past. Each country confront the unique challenge of deciding which methods suit its needs and when a method becomes most feasible.
Neil Kritz: Thank you. I think a part of my role here is to look at the Guatemalan case in the broader context of how these situations are dealt with elsewhere as well. It’s fairly broadly accepted in common parlance today that an individual emerging from massive abuse or trauma needs to develop appropriate mechanisms to come to terms with that past, not to repress it. If you repress it, it will come out and haunt in all sorts of unhealthy and unpredictable ways. Increasingly, there is growing recognition that societies emerging from massive abuse and trauma similarly need to develop those appropriate mechanisms.
As a consequence, we have seen something of a paradigm shift, and Guatemala is one example of this shift. Whereas not that long ago the standard wisdom among negotiators attempting to end wars would be that the issue of dealing with past atrocities and abuses needs to be consciously kept out of the negotiating room, out of the process, because they would be an obstacle to the achievement of peace. This view is increasingly being replaced by the recognition that unless the process actually focuses on acknowledging past abuses and on finding ways of helping society to deal with those abuses, peace will be fragile and short term.
While people will argue as to whether various provisions have enough teeth to them, whether you look at peace accords for El Salvador, for Guatemala, for Bosnia, for any number of other cases, there’s a conscious effort, often pushed by those in society and by victims of abuses, to ensure that the peace process does incorporate these processes.
In addition, over the past century of major violent conflicts we have seen a shift from international conflicts to intra-national conflicts -- conflicts within states -- to the point that over 98 percent of all major violent conflicts are within states. The tools that are needed to achieve a lasting peace have to change along with this shift. The kinds of processes that we’re talking about tonight are among those tools.
It’s useful, I would suggest, to put the process in a functional and conceptional framework. To deal with past abuses, there are obviously criminal trials which serve a number of functions: establishing basic principals of the rule of law where the absence of the rule of law has made these atrocities so possible; establishing the principal that individuals who commit these kinds of abuses will be held accountable and hopefully that trials will serve as a deterrent to those who are considered in the future; establishing the credibility of the courts as a venue where victims can get justice and can recognize that they can get justice not through vigilante means but through a process that functions within the state.
In situations where we see abuses driven by notations of collective blame and guilt -- particularly in ethnic and religious conflicts -- criminal processes make the clear point that entire ethnic, religious or political groups don’t commit these kinds of atrocities. Specific individuals do and specific individuals need to be held accountable. The rest of society is therefore more easily able to reconcile.
That’s not possible in the immediate term of the Guatemalan transition. At the time of the initial transition, the courts did not have that level of credibility to take on this kind of role. As a consequence, processes like the Historical Clarification Commission served several important functions in allowing society to begin the process.
In many cases there is a debate as to whether this should be a national process or whether the international community should take it on instead. We have international tribunals -- ad hoc tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda -- recognizing that at times societies cannot do this on their own. However, I would point out that often -- and many of my colleagues have been put in this category - too quickly attempts are made to internationalize the entire response without recognizing the importance of ownership. I’m regularly humbled when I am in the presence of people, particularly like our past speakers, who recognize the importance of taking on the initiative and ensuring that their own society faces these issues.
Non-criminal sanctions also focus on perpetrators. Even when trials are not possible, it’s necessary to change the guard. It’s necessary to find appropriate ways to make sure that those who were a part of the machinery of abuse are not able to do it again. For example, the Truth Commission in El Salvador perhaps received the most attention, but another important example is the Ad Hoc Commission in El Salvador. The Ad Hoc Commission, established under the peace agreements, included provisions whereby three Salvadorans investigated and compiled a list of 100 senior military officers, who, even though they were not put on trial, were forced out of the military structures.
In Bosnia, the International Police Task Force today has the role of reconstructing the police forces in Bosnia. Again, the International Tribunal in the Hague will only touch the tip of the iceberg. But even if people are not prosecuted, what kind of confidence or sense of security can a returning refugee have if the same policeman on the block is the individual who raped their daughter or burned down their house during a period of ethic cleansing? Different processes need to be found to protect the rights of all, to allow due process to alleged perpetrators, as well as to remove people even if trials are not possible or cannot be held on such a wide scale.
Victim focused mechanisms are also necessary: compensation, but more than compensation, restitution of property, establishment of memorials for victims or days of remembrance. Many such recommendations were included in the report of the Historical Clarification Commission. In some countries, these measures don’t always have a price tag. For example, being put further ahead in the queue for access to housing by virtue of being a victim of pass state abuse, being given educational benefits, medical, sociological benefits, all the things that are necessary to focus on victims and focus on them in a way that the state can attempt to do its best, in whatever minimal way, to make them closer to whole once again.
Truth Commissions arguably fall in between the purely perpetrator focused and victim focused approaches by creating a possibility, as in Guatemala, for society to come together and give a forum for all victims. Trials, even when they’re held in the best of circumstances, will allow a small number of victims to have their day in court and to tell their story and have it publicly recorded. Truth Commissions provide a forum to ensure that everyone, as many people as possible can tell their stories. It has been pointed out that there are many victims in Guatemala who have still not been able to tell their story, but the Historical Clarification Commission began the process of ensuring that many people were able to have what happened to them and to their relatives made part of the official history of Guatemala.
When Truth Commissions were first established in Latin America, they were established in the context -- and derived their name of a truth mission -- because truth was hidden. The nature of abuses in many places, the whole notion of a crime like ‘disappearance’ was to ensure that there was no trace of a crime having been committed. Truth was hidden and made deniable. Therefore truth needed to be recaptured.
What we’re seeing today is also the situation in some countries where truth commissions are needed not only because truth is hidden, but because there are multiple versions of truth. In a place like Bosnia, for example, there are at least three versions of truth each pushed by a nationalist or ethnic group determined to show that their group is the victim and the other two are the monsters and aggressors in the atrocities that were committed.
Many of them have come together recently and recognized that if they continue down that path, in the words of the head of one of the War Crimes Commissions in Bosnia, they’re guaranteeing that their children and grandchildren will be locked into conflict and will fight the next war in a few decades. So they’re coming together to establish a process similar to that in Guatemala.
Commissions like the Historical Clarification Commission are also important not only in looking at individual perpetrators and individual victims, but in enabling a society to look at it’s broader illnesses, to look at broad sectors. What was the role of the military and the various elements within the military? What was wrong within the political structure, within the economic structure, within the educational system that made these kinds of abuses possible in the first place? What was the role of religious leaders? In some places, what was the role of religious liturgy in making these kinds of things possible and making it possible for neighbor to commit crime against neighbor?
Arguably, this was one of the strengths of the Guatemalan Commission. The fact that it was not able to focus on and identify individual perpetrators was viewed by some as a weakness. But one consequence was that it strengthened the focus of the Commission on looking at the broad sectoral problems, on analyzing and pointing fingers not at individuals but at institutions, and on developing detailed analysis and recommendations on what kinds of reforms need to be undertaken.
In all cases there is the question of sequencing and that varies from country to country: what’s necessary and what’s possible, when in the process, and if this is going to be a multi-layered long-term process of reconciliation and reconstruction. In some cases, arguably including cases like Guatemala, another function served by a truth commission is the preservation of evidence for a future time when society is stronger, when institutions are rebuilt, so that further steps can be taken, including the possibility of criminal accountability and of establishing justice on the individual level.
The Historical Clarification Commission served an important function in that regard by going a step farther and actually determining that the crime of genocide was committed. This creates a much greater degree of pressure on Guatemalan society and on the international community to ensure that when that kind of crime occurs, the possibility is kept alive that justice will actually be pursued.
Other positive innovations will continue in each country and in each society. We hope to have learning from one case to the next, so that this process will be adapted appropriately and strengthened. We’ve seen this in country after country.
For a truth commission to function well there is a need for there to be a significantly robust civil society. In a country like Rwanda, for example, where in 1994, up to a million people were slaughtered in 100 days, where society and the institutions of society were decimated, where there were well over 100,000 potential defendants who actually participated in the genocide, and where the country was left with fewer than 20 lawyers at the end of the period. There were calls for a truth commission. But if a truth commission is to be established in a situation where there is no civil society functioning you can have a good historical research project, you can have a few individuals get together, you can create a credible and objectively accurate historical report that will be useful for someone’s shelf. But if the truth commission is really to function, it needs society to participate in the process. It needs everyone to be involved, to own this process.
In Guatemala civil society was strong enough that it ensured that the Historical Clarification Commission had to be a part of the peace accords. Civil society put this on the agenda in the negotiating room and through the work of the REMHI Project and other projects, made sure that this would move forward. Once the Historical Clarification Commission was established, the records, evidence and organization that had preceded it through these various projects, the ability of various organizations to organize victims and to enable them to tell their stories was vitally important.
In the case of the Bosnian Commission that I mentioned, civil society in Bosnia has arguably been so passive in allowing abuses to take place without any strong objection. They have waited for state officials to take action and that kind of a process has not been possible until recently. It’s only in recent months that civil society has become strong enough to finally say, we have waited long enough, now we need to seize the initiative. At a conference just some weeks ago, a broad range of organizations from around the country came together and said we need to do this and make sure it happens and force the government to do it.
In 1946, the German Theologian Karl Jaspers wrote an important small book called The Question of German Guilt, in which he articulated what was needed for German society to come to terms with its past. Jaspers articulated several different kinds of guilt.
Criminal guilt has to be part of the process. That’s the process that gets dealt with through the courts and through the criminal justice process. Political guilt has to be dealt with as well. The political process over the course of time will hold people accountable through political means. Moral guilt, Jaspers suggested, has to be dealt with at the level at which society needs to undertake serious introspection -- look at what’s wrong with itself, look at itself in the mirror and have each individual look at themselves and their neighbor and figure out what was it that we did, through inaction, through turning the other way, through participating in societal institutions and the process, that allowed these kinds of abuses to take place. Arguably, it’s at that level that institutions like the Historical Clarification Commission serve their most important function.
There is a growing recognition that one simple solution doesn’t work. What is needed is a holistic, nuanced approach that combines these various aspects and mechanisms adapted to each country.
What we see as well is a transnational impact. The way this process ensued in Argentina had an impact in Chile. The process in El Salvador made a difference in Guatemala. The Indonesians today are talking about a commission and looking at each of these cases.
The negative example applies as well. When Hitler was asked whether he was concerned about reactions to the Final Solution, he’s reputed to have scoffed and said, “Who remembers the Armenians?” referring to a genocide only 20 years earlier for which there had been no accountability.
We also see that truth and reconciliation is a long-term process. When we look at Chile, we see that the solution was not complete. What was not possible at the beginning of the transition close to a decade ago, is now becoming increasingly possible. When we look at Cambodia, we see that 20 years later there’s still a need to deal with these issues if society is going to move forward.
Lastly, the international role in these processes becomes extremely important. As was suggested, there are different models. In some cases like El Salvador the international community has felt it necessary that they play the entire role. In a case like Argentina or Chile or South Africa, they may play a minor role but still help. In Guatemala there’s a hybrid. But in each of these cases -- and in Guatemala -- to move forward, the international community must remain engaged, recognize that this will take years and years, and recognize the responsibility to assist over the long term.