This week 87 members of the Guatemalan Congress passed a resolution denying the existence of genocide during the country’s internal armed conflict. The statement is not legally binding, but is the latest attempt to delegitimize the genocide case and create a de facto amnesty; it also raises concerns that the Congress may be looking to legislate new amnesty provisions.
The resolution was proposed by Congressman Luis Fernando Pérez of the PRI (formerly FRG), the party founded by General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was tried last year on charges of genocide. The statement describes national discussion surrounding genocide as polarizing, as well as an impediment to reconciliation. The resolution also states, “We are committed to study the legislation issued within the framework of the peace agreements.”
The Peace Accords, however, clearly prohibit attempts to deny justice. The Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights of 1994, the first of a series of agreements signed by the Guatemala government during the peace process, states that the Government “shall not sponsor the adoption of legislative or any other type of measures designed to prevent the prosecution and punishment of persons responsible for human rights violations. […] No special law or exclusive jurisdiction may be invoked to uphold impunity with respect to human rights violations.”
The 1996 Peace Accords reiterated: “It is a right of the Guatemalan people to know the complete truth about the human rights violations and acts of violence committed during the internal armed conflict.”
By seeking to deny victims the right to trial, the Congress perpetuates impunity and infringes on judicial independence, undermining the letter and spirit of the Peace Accords (and possibly violating the Guatemalan constitution).
This is even more alarming when considered in the context of other, similar actions taken in all branches of government to deny access to truth and justice for genocide and other crimes from the internal conflict – a phenomenon that Guatemalan organizations have called a “pact of impunity.”
President Pérez Molina and members of his administration have publicly and repeatedly stated that genocide wasn’t committed in Guatemala, and Pérez Molina said he “respected” the Congressional resolution. Administration officials have also stated an express policy of non-compliance with sentences issued by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has ruled against the Guatemalan state in over 17 cases of egregious human rights violations from the conflict. At the same time, the government has shut down public archives designed to promote historic memory and further classified Defense Ministry documents from 1982.
Justice was denied in the courts as well, when, in 2013, the Constitutional Court reversed the sentence finding Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and war crimes. The same Court then called for lower courts to re-assess the question of amnesty for grave human rights violations and, in early 2014, ruled to remove Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz from office seven months before the end of the term. Almost a hundred judges have now excused themselves from presiding over the next stage of the genocide trial.
Guatemala’s own laws, and its obligations under regional and international human rights agreements, expressly prohibit amnesty for grave human rights violations. National reconciliation and the construction of peace in Guatemala must be built on the commitments stated in the Peace Accords, democratic principles of rule of law, and access to justice for all Guatemalan citizens.