Global Policy Forum

UN Justice Plan for Guatemala


By Edwin Koopman

Radio Netherlands
March 31, 2004

Guatemala's peace agreements of 1996 put an end to the country's 36-year-old civil war, but didn't mark the start of justice being done. Many of those who lost someone among the estimated 200,000 victims of the military violence - the majority came from the country's original Indian population - still live in fear. But a unique plan that would see the creation of an international commission to help bring justice to Guatemala has still not been approved by the country's national congress. In a decision taken on Tuesday, the congressional human rights commission sent the plan to the country's constitutional court for further examination.

Justice thwarted

Meanwhile, the judicial process in Guatemala has almost ground to a halt. Judges and lawyers are threatened and bribed by the very same people who once held power, and who stand to lose everything if a fair trial proves to be their fate. A report recently published by Guatemalan human rights organisations shows that the number of attacks on lawyers, judges, trade union leaders and journalists went from 12 in 1997 to 117 in 2003.

The UN has a plan

The chronic inability to bring those responsible for past atrocities to justice led those same organisations to call on the international community for help. The United Nations responded by proposing the creation of a commission to investigate human rights abuses, clandestine groups and other underground forces in Guatemala that are sabotaging the creation of a justice system. The abbreviated name of the commission is CICIACS (in English: Commission of Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Forces).

A unique experiment in justice

"On the basis of its investigations, the commission will advise the public prosecutor's office and, if necessary, act as public prosecutor itself", says Patrick Gavingan, who's carrying out preparatory work for the commission on behalf of the UN. International lawyers have described it as a "new and unique form of international justice"; an alternative to the international tribunals which, if it works, could also be put to use in other countries. Patrick Gavingan expects to have between 20 to 30 people stationed in Guatemala at some point in the future. The project will have an annual budget of around 10 million dollars. But, before any of that can happen, the international commission needs political approval in Guatemala. The new government of President Oscar Berger, which came to power in January, says it welcomes CICIACS. Indeed, the new president is doing his utmost to create the impression that a new wind is blowing through the country following the four "lost" years under his predecessor Alfonso Portillo, a puppet of former dictator Efraí­n Rios Montt. Each day, the newspapers appear with new reports on the arrest of corrupt former officials. Earlier this week, Efraí­n Rios Montt was himself placed under house arrest.

Uncertainty remains

However, the actual setting up of CICIACS is not yet assured. Opinions are sharply divided. Conservative politicians say they fear it will mean "a loss of national sovereignty" and will "breach the constitution", hence the decision to refer the plan to the constitutional court. But those who support CICIACS see behind this criticism the hand of what they call the "parallel forces", the criminal elements which have so much to lose if justice is finally done.

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