GENEVA (15 May 2013) – A group of United Nations experts said today that the establishment of truth and justice in Guatemala, as well as being fundamental elements for reparation for the victims, are essential to ensure the non-recurrence of the heinous crimes that characterized the civil war in the country, including enforced disappearance, arbitrary executions, rape and forced displacement of people.
“Justice is the best guarantee to prevent the recurrence of these crimes,” stressed the UN experts after last Friday’s court ruling that sentenced the former head of State José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity.
For the experts, this decision not only addresses the State’s international obligations, but also represents a profoundly significant milestone in the long process of transitional justice in Guatemala.
“The judgment is an example for many other countries struggling to address the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence after periods of mass atrocities,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff.
“This decision reflects the principle that the most marginalized people have the same right to justice as the most powerful, one of the most fundamental principles of the rule of law,” he added.
Meanwhile, the experts of the UN Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances recalled the large number of enforced disappearances during the bloodiest years of the civil war, noting that “this verdict represents a breakthrough in the fight against impunity and demonstrates that no one today can be above the law.”
“Our thoughts are with the victims of the heinous crimes committed during the civil war and their families,” they said. “We also have in mind the women and men who testified during the hearings of this trial on the massive violations of which they were victims.”
The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, welcomed the outcome of the trial. “This is a long awaited first step towards ending impunity in Guatemala”, he said. “It is particularly significant that the legal system of the State in question has investigated, prosecuted and punished one of its former highest office bearers.”
“Ending impunity independently of the political or governmental position of the perpetrator in this way sends a powerful message worldwide about accountability at the local level, which is the first line of defence for the protection of the right to life,” Mr. Heyns added.
Likewise, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples noted that “the historic judgement against Rios Montt for genocide against indigenous maya Ixil people during the 1980s represents an important step towards reconciliation and the building of new relations between the Government of Guatemala and the indigenous peoples of the country.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, also welcomed the sentence recalling how rape and violence against women was at the core of the atrocities committed against the Ixil community.
“Numerous women and girls were frequent targets of violent abuses by the military,” she said. “I am pleased that the plight of these women for justice has not been in vain.”
“Guatemala’s decision constitutes an important step in putting an end to impunity and paving the way for the legitimate recognition of the suffering of the victims of these crimes,” emphasized the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez.
“In addition, it constitutes an important example that States have in their domestic systems the tools to fully comply with the obligation to investigate, prosecute and, when applicable, punish those responsible for human rights violations, including torture,” he added. “I believe that Guatemala has embarked on a path which should be an example for many other countries.”
“Impunity undermines democracy and trust in state institutions, including the justice system,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul. “This trial is an important step in strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the fundamental role that the judiciary plays in the protection and promotion of human rights in all sectors of the population, without any discrimination.”
Ms. Knaul commended the demonstration of judicial independence as well as the impartiality of the Guatemalan Public Ministry, in spite of the pressure to which they were reportedly subjected. “I call on the Guatemalan authorities to provide adequate protection to all judicial officers involved in this trial,” she said.
“I would also like to applaud the communities, victims and civil society organizations for their commitment and tireless work in bringing the case to trial,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya. “Their demand for justice was the engine and inspiration for all those involved.”
“We hope that this trial also serves as an example to continue the fight against impunity and to guarantee the right of victims”, concluded the experts.