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The Truth Commission in Guatemala

30 April 1999

By Helen Collinson

The report of Guatemala’s official truth commission was widely expected to lack punch. Set up under the terms of the 1996 peace agreements (see Outsider no. 49, May 1997), the Commission for Historical Clarification was not allowed to name the perpetrators of human rights abuses, had no legal or judicial authority, and was given a mere 12 months to investigate violations that took place during 36 years of civil war.

But when the final report was presented to the Guatemalan government on 26 February 1999 in the presidential palace, the words of the Commission’s chair, Christian Tomouschat, could not have been harder hitting. From the evidence of the 8,000 testimonies it collected, the Commission concluded that more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the conflict; that between 1981 and 1983 a deliberate policy of genocide against the Mayan indigenous population was carried out by the Guatemalan state; that 93 per cent of all cases investigated are attributable to the armed forces and their paramilitary agents; and that the US government and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were involved in supporting the structures of repression in Guatemala.

The audience in the presidential palace was stunned. Relatives of the victims of the army’s abuses broke down in tears; others shouted ‘Justicia! Justicia!’. After years of silence and denial, here at last was official acknowledgement of the agony of so many thousands of Guatemalans. One reason why the report was so hard-hitting may have been that it drew on painstaking research, including thousands of testimonies collected by the Guatemalan Catholic Church’s Interdiocesan Recovery of the Historic Memory Project (REMHI), whose coordinator, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered in April 1998.

The report’s recommendations

Contrary to the standard protocol on such occasions Guatemala’s President Alvaro Arzú made no comment on Tomouschat’s address, and quickly left the palace. Three weeks were to pass before the authorities made any substantive response to the report, which contained 14 key recommendations for the government.

These recommendations include: the establishment of an official commission with the aim of removing those army officers implicated in human rights violations; the elaboration of a new military code; the prosecution, trial and punishment of all those found guilty of internationally proscribed violations (particularly genocide, forced disappearance and torture) for which there is no amnesty; the provision of psychological and economic assistance to the victims of violations; the investigation of the whereabouts of the ‘disappeared’ and the location and exhumation of clandestine graves.

The government’s response

Eventually, on 16 March 1999, the Guatemalan government placed an advertisement in the national newspapers. This focused on the amount of work the government had done to implement the peace accords rather than the truth commission’s recommendations. It made no reference to the recommendation to find the disappeared or locate and exhume clandestine graves; it stated that it would not investigate military officers accused of human rights violations, nor would it take any further measures to purge the armed forces.

Guatemalan human rights organizations were disgusted with the government’s response. They were also alarmed by unofficial comments made by the Defence Minister, General Hector Mario Barrios, who claimed that the army had simply been following the 1956 Constitution, which had outlawed communism, implying that the army had done nothing wrong.

The government’s response has prompted many to conclude that President Arzú remains under the influence of sectors of the armed forces. The military’s continuing hold over Guatemala, coupled with the fact that no officers have been prosecuted either for past or recent abuses, threatens to undermine the entire peace agreement of December 1996.

For this reason it is vital that the international community, including the UK government (which gave financial support to the truth commission), does everything possible to ensure that the Guatemalan government implements the truth commission’s recommendations as soon as possible and that it does not use forthcoming presidential elections as an excuse for stalling.

Helen Collinson is the Latin America Policy Officer at CIIR in the UK. This article also appeared in CIIR News.

This article was first published in the 53rd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on 1 May 1999.