Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at the Asser Institute by two Judges from Guatemala, who were visiting the Netherlands, where discussed their work in Guatemala, a country which was plagued by civil war from 1960-1996. The two judges were Judge Yassmin Barrios, President of Guatemalan High Risk Tribunal “A” and Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, President of Guatemalan High Risk Tribunal “B”.
You may wonder what these High Risk Tribunals (Tribunales de Mayor Riesgo) are. Established in 2012, they have the authority to hear cases that pose a serious risk to the individuals involved in the case. The Courts only have competency to hear cases involving specific crimes such as genocide, torture, crimes against humanity, crimes related to organized crime laws such as money laundering, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the financing of terrorism.
Among the cases spoken of, the most interesting (and somewhat controversial) was the Ríos Montt Genocide Trial. In 2013 the High Risk Tribunal “A” tried and sentenced the ex-dictator to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Mayan Ixils during his rule (1982-1983). This case was hailed as a breakthrough as it was the first time in history that an ex-head of state was found guilty of genocide by their own country. Unfortunately only 10 days after the initial judgment, the ruling was overturned by the Constitutional Court, which cited procedural irregularities when the defendant was left without his attorney during part of the proceedings. Judge Barrios however, believes that the reason behind this was due to political and economic pressures. However, she believes that the ruling is still valid. Judge Gálvez also talked about several cases, including the Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case, 1980 Spanish Embassy Fire, and the La Línea corruption case against former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
One aspect of the Guatemalan judiciary system that caught my attention was the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) established in 2007 with UN assistance. It functions as an independent, international body designed to assist and provide technical advice to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Civil Police and other State institutions into the investigations of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures. It also was able to push for judicial and institutional reforms, such as the in implementation of the Law to Enhanced Criminal Prosecutions and the Law Against Organized Crime.
The CICIG is unprecedented among UN or other international efforts to promote accountability and strengthen the rule of law. It has many of the attributes of an international prosecutor, but it operates under Guatemalan law in Guatemalan courts. The CICIG has been quite successful, and maybe a similar structure could be even look into by Sri Lanka in its move towards transitional justice. Especially, since President Sirisena has refused to allow foreign judges in any judicial proceedings over the Civil Conflict. Thus, having an advisory body such as the CICIG may enhance Sri Lankan’s international standing while maintaining its sovereignty.
I will not dwell into the exact details of the cases as that they discussed, as all the information can be found online for those who have further interest. Instead I would like to draw some points on how the work of these Judges (especially on incidents occurring during the Civil war) affected the Guatemalan (and even International) justice system.
1.As international standards were followed the Guatemalan justice system was able to grow, as well as develop procedural law. Overall, through the trials the credibility of the judicial system was strengthened.
2.Showed how the international and domestic law, and organizations could collaborate together towards the greater good.
3.The victims were granted access to justice and thus were able to break their silence.
4.Showed the commitment of all parties involved to ensure such atrocities are “never again” committed, as well as the importance of ensuring that the truth is told. To commemorate the victims of armed conflict, Guatemala annually celebrates Día de la Dignidad de las Víctimas del Conflicto Armado on February 25, thus showing the importance of “never forget”.
However the tribunals was accused of polarizing the society (between the victims and former perpetrators). Yet these Judges continued their work despite this and numerous death threats and even attempts on their life. They even said that they it was a relief to be in the Netherlands, since they could move freely and did not have to worry for their life. There were also public accusations laid against them, with attempts made to sued them as well as impeach them. The judges should clearly be commended for going ahead with their trials and maintaining their dignity despite all these pressures and doing their best to defend the rights of all Guatemalan citizens. Clearly, the rest of the world can learn a thing or two from Guatemala!