US War Crimes Ambassador Speaks at Forum in Guatemala City

Following the two-year anniversary of the genocide sentence in Guatemala, experts on transitional justice and rule of law – including US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp – gathered on May 11 to share reflections and analysis about the genocide case.

In Ambassador Rapp’s comments, he highlighted the importance of the case and the ongoing commitment of the US government to support victims’ struggle for justice and an independent judiciary:


“My role With President Obama’s administration is to work with these international courts, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), so that they can be effective – but recognizing always that it’s better when justice happens near the scene of the crime, near where the victims live, near the affected communities.

Even in the principles now of international justice, we’ve established that certainly it’s important that we hold responsible — if the evidence is there — the most powerful people in societies. And if it we can do that at the national level, that’s where it should be done. At the ICC they call that complementarity – that the international system is only a complement; it only fills in the gaps where the national system fails.

But we know, and you know, how challenging it can be to establish justice against powerful forces in society; power does not yield willingly, it doesn’t yield to orders, necessarily, on a piece of paper, and can use the kind of power and violence they’re accused of to intimidate and destroy the possibility of fair justice.

My job and the job of others working in other countries involves working with victims, with civil society, with advocates, and the honest judges, lawyers and prosecutors, to try to empower them to be able to achieve justice at the national level.

Sometimes that can be done after a long period of time without international assistance, but usually it does involve international assistance. It may involve international interventions, the decisions of international courts, or programs like CICIG here in Guatemala. We’re so pleased to see it’s mandate extended here for two more years and to see the candidates for president say that they will extend its mandate though the end of their terms, if they are elected. The local forces, the local population needs the assistance, and the public ministries need the assistance of the international community. That’s why we engage here and elsewhere.

The last time I was in Guatemala was just over two years ago, and it was at a dramatic moment. I was here between April 24 and April 26, 2013, and that was at a time when the case against Ríos Montt and his co-accused – which had begun on March 19 — had been interrupted by a court order that appeared likely to abort the case, to send it back to an investigative phase a year and a half earlier and prevent judgment from ever being rendered. I was here at that time meeting with the public minister and with judges and others, but I found there was a narrative out there, how broadly it was felt — and I even read it in the press — how people were saying, ‘it’s a bad thing that in Guatemala there’s a case being presented that could find an individual guilty of the crime of crimes, of genocide.’

The message I wanted to give, and the message of a diplomat, of a judge certainly is never to jump to conclusions and say someone is guilty or innocent before they’ve heard all the evidence. But that a process like this is one — Guatemala should not feel shame for engaging in, but should feel great pride. Because when a country confronts its own past and shows strength and courage, the kind of strength and courage that a country that has gone through a horrible conflict, with the ethnic dimension that this one has, is necessary to build a peaceful and a democratic country. And I saw a great reason for pride in what was happening here, that Guatemala’s commitment to shedding light on the crimes of the past was actually serving as an example for other countries that need to build the will necessary to address their own past in a way that will help them assure a peaceful and prosperous future.

We know what is necessary after these horrible crimes have been committed. Part of it is criminal justice. We can’t prosecute everyone, but certainly we can focus on those who bore the greatest responsibility – the true authors of these crimes and the people who committed them with great cruelty. But you also need programs of truth telling. You need officials to apologize. You need programs to repair the injuries of the victims and to their survivors. You need institutional reforms and other guarantees of non-recurrence. That’s all part of, as they say, a holistic approach to engaging with the past in a way that builds a foundation for a strong and stable future.

And we’ve seen it happening here. It’s never perfect, but we’ve seen it happening in Guatemala.

I return here because of this anniversary, because of this conference (I received an invitation over two months ago), but also at a very historic time when we’ve seen an overwhelming public demand for an end to corruption, for an end of the abuse of the system by those with power and wealth who would use that to corrupt and bend the ends of justice. And with the people in the judicial process, with the assistance of the CICIG program, it has been possible to bring down those who thought they were above the law.

We know that challenges remain. Corruption, violence criminality, and impunity trouble this society, and others. And these issues are all connected. I’ll admit that my jurisdiction is on those worst crimes known to humankind, but there is a relationship: corruption, violence and criminality grow together, and impunity allows them to flourish.

In countries throughout the world, I’ve seen that individuals and networks that place their own interests above the common good, by corrupting government institutions, by trafficking in narcotics, by even trafficking in people, are often the same people that often support and sometime commit acts of grave violations of human rights, of targeting innocent people because they are perceived to be their political enemy, for murder, for rape, and for other horrendous acts of violence. Impunity is contagious, when those committing serious crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished, regardless of what side they’re on, it sends a signal to others that the rules are no longer being enforced, and therefore people can do whatever they want. There is a clear link between failing to hold individuals accountable for past crimes, and ongoing corruption, violence and criminality. Even where some justice has been achieved, the links between corruption and this behavior that violates human rights remain.

During my last trip to Guatemala in April 2013, I visited the Central Plaza and saw the wreaths laid and the murals painted in sand, commemorating the murder committed 14 years earlier of Bishop Gerardi, the head of the historical memory project. He was assassinated just days after the release of his human rights report charging massive human rights violations by the military during the internal armed conflict. Byron Lima was convicted of his murder and sent to prison. But just last year, with the assistance of CICIG’s investigators, Lima was charged with running a criminal organization from prison with the assistance of high-ranking individuals.

So I’ll say again: impunity is contagious. We must therefore redouble our efforts to address impunity for past crimes, including for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. All abuses must be investigated. Justice cannot be limited. This is essential to promoting the peaceful and democratic and prosperous Guatemala that the people of this country deserve.

There are these emblematic cases on which some progress has been achieved, and they serve as indicators of a broader state of affairs in the judiciary. Investigating the murders of civilians and of key historic human rights cases goes a long way to demonstrate that the Guatemalan judicial system is promoting the rights of its citizens and encourages confidence and trust in the judiciary.

As you’ve heard so many times, yesterday marked the second anniversary of the conviction of Ríos Montt for genocide by High Risk Chamber A. That was a historic trial. Not only for Guatemala, but for the world. It was the first prosecution for the head of state at the national level for genocide. And I say from my own experience, that that kind of case – showing that the law applies to even those at the highest levels – is one of the greatest things that has happened in the last several generations in the law. Because certainly there was a time when high-level people would never face that kind of justice. They might be overthrown for political reasons, but to face justice was unheard of.

It was only really at Nuremburg – I remember the opening statement of the prosecutor that I was very proud of. He said: ‘the common sense of man, demands that the law shall not stop with petty crimes by little people, but it has to reach people that possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of that power to set in motion evils which touch every home.’

And here that was done at the national level. That judgment of May 2013 followed the well-respected truth commission report that had concluded as well, 14 years earlier, that genocide was committed against this country’s indigenous population. Now we’ve heard how this case was overturned on procedural grounds and we’ve heard of efforts to make sure that justice is finally done, whether by retrial or some other way to bring this case back to where it stood on May 10. And we support those acts.

But at the same time, we recognize that what happened up until May 10, 2013 was a historic event. We saw the photos of those representing the survivors who were in the courtroom. More than 90 individuals took the stand, sharing their experiences and suffering, showing their human dignity and their will to move forward … conveying a belief that the rule of law should be the foundation of democracy, that institutions of justice should be independent and the government should protect the rights of its citizens – all its citizens.

In this way the trial of Ríos Montt and his initial conviction was a historic moment for this country and I think, as I said earlier, a source of pride in this country’s quest for justice and the strengthening of rule of law.

Justice, especially for serious crimes, does not always follow a straight line. It often encounters setbacks and bumps in the road. It is not these setbacks that are important. What is important is what we do to persevere and overcome these obstacles, and what we do to continue to pursue justice.

As the famous American Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’

Last month, the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Minister’s Office, secured a historic conviction for crimes against humanity in the high-risk courts for the deaths, the murders that occurred in the 1980 fire at the Spanish Embassy. Other important and historic courses are also before your courts: the Sepur Zarco case of sexual slavery, the ‘Diario Militar’ case of enforced disappearances.

These cases, like others, need to see justice. These trials send a strong message to perpetrators and victims around the world that justice, democracy and rule of law are necessary foundations for peace and a brighter future.

Today, the conference – both this morning’s smaller session and the evening’s public forum – dealt with the issue of independent justice. A justice where individual judges sitting in high-risk courts and others can rule without fear or favor.

I remember the first time I met the judges of the high-risk courts. I met them in the presence of the late Judge Barrientos, who was then presiding in the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court. They came to Washington and were describing the work of the high-risk courts. I raised questions of the safety of judges, whether assassins would threaten to kill them on their way to work. And they said, no, we’ve got protection. We’ve got physical protection while we serve on the court, though of course we’re anxious that if we do the right thing we may find out appointments coming to an end. We may find ourselves transferred to dangerous assignments. We may find our careers ruined. But, we have what we need in the moment to make these decisions.

At that point they may have added that they also face – and I certainly, when I was a prosecutor, faced a lot of kinds of efforts of defense attorneys (and I might note that I was once a defense attorney myself) to trash the process. To obstruct justice. To do everything they can to undermine and discredit efforts of justice, because the proof is so strong. Can’t argue the facts, can’t argue the law – do what you can do destroy the process.

That’s why I spoke with them, and speak with others on this visit, of how important it is that honest judges have public support and that the demand be there for a system that can’t be bent by those who would corrupt it, can’t be trashed by those who fear judgment based upon the facts and the law. I can saw on behalf of our government that we will continue to be in partnership with you, with the victims of these horrible crimes and other crimes, with civil society, with advocates, with the people that we’ve come to know so well in this country that are courageously fighting for justice in order to finish these historic trials of violations and corruption, and work with you to build a strong and prosperous and free future.

Thank you very much.”

One thought on “US War Crimes Ambassador Speaks at Forum in Guatemala City

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us. I can’t keep up with passwords so I can’t enter the blog, but I always have the greatest respect and gratitude for GHRC…BLESSINGS!

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