Guatemalan Mother Urges “No Amnesty” for Perpetrators of Genocide

(left to right) Transitional Justice in Guatemala panel members Sofia Duyos Alvarez-Arenas, Marcie Mersky, Eva Ekelund (moderator) and Blanca Rosa Quiroa de Hernández © LWF/T. Rakoto
(left to right) Transitional Justice in Guatemala panel members Sofia Duyos Alvarez-Arenas, Marcie Mersky, Eva Ekelund (moderator) and Blanca Rosa Quiroa de Hernández © LWF/T. Rakoto

LWF Event at UN in Geneva Supports Transitional Justice for Victims of Armed Conflict

Blanca Rosa Quiroa de Hernández, whose 22-year-old son was abducted by secret service agents in 1984, is pleading that no amnesty should be granted to those accused of genocide over three decades of civil war in Guatemala.

“Our organization was formed 28 years ago. We struggled to find members of families who were detained and disappeared at the hands of the military,” she said at a side event co-organized by The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) on 22 October in Geneva, prior to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Guatemala.

“It [organization] gave us the strength to survive the most horrific atrocities,” said Quiroa, a founding member of FAMDEGUA, the Association of Family Members of the Disappeared in Guatemala and co-host of the event.

Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996 involved a variety of military, government and civilian conflicts that left nearly 200,000 people dead, an estimated 45,000 reported as missing or disappeared, and over 1 million displaced.

Since its founding in 1992, four years before the Peace Accords ending the fighting, FAMDEGUA in collaboration with other civil society groups provides legal support to families seeking to know the fate of their loved ones, conducts exhumations at burial sites and assists in the burial of victims.

“Transitional Justice in Guatemala” was the title of the panel discussion and photo exhibition in Geneva. Eva Ekelund, LWF regional representative for the Department for World Service (DWS) work in Central America, moderated the event. Other speakers included Sofia Duyos Alvarez-Arenas, a human rights activist and lawyer from Spain who is seeking a genocide prosecution in her country; and Marcie Mersky, program director of the International Center for Transitional Justice in the United States.

Thousands Disappeared

Quiroa cited Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemalan president from 1982 to 1983, who has been charged with ordering the massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians. Earlier in October, a Guatemalan judge rejected an amnesty request filed by Rios, who led the country when the worst atrocities against civilians occurred.

“More than 45,000 people disappeared, 5,000 of them children during the dictatorship. We don’t know where they are. We set up our association because the government was making people disappear. It gave us the strength to live. Now we want to see justice,” Quiroa said at the panel which was attended by, among others, representatives from the Guatemalan government, international civil society organizations and UN Permanent Missions in Geneva representing Iceland, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden.

“We had to face a giant and ferocious enemy. Personally, six members of my family disappeared, including my son Oscar David, a fireman who was just 22 when the army took him away.

“For all these years we have strived to fight for peace and justice in Guatemala. Justice up to now is beginning in very small steps. Just before I came to Geneva we have been trying to exhume bodies from cemeteries of people killed by the army from 1979 to 1986.”

Mersky said the creation of an official truth commission was agreed in one of the early thematic peace accords in 1994, but it did not begin to work until almost three years later as the final peace agreement was a prerequisite for its implementation.

“Today, however, there has been backsliding in Guatemala. Even as national prosecutors attempt to move forward to try those accused with genocide in the Guatemalan courts, Cabinet-level officials in the current government have stated publicly that the claims of genocide are unfounded. And there have been pressures on the Prosecutors Office and the judges hearing the cases to close them,” said Mersky.

Mersky, who lived in Guatemala for 20 years, explained that while the 1996 National Reconciliation Law provides amnesty for many crimes committed during the armed conflict, it specifically excludes “genocide, torture and forced disappearance.”

Return of Remains

She affirmed the ongoing “very important work in support of the right to truth” in Guatemala.

“These are efforts led by civil society, albeit with some limited degree of official state support or acquiescence until now,” she said referring to the exhumations mentioned by Quiroa. “From a human perspective, the recovery and return of remains to families is deeply important and allows some degree of closure.

“At the same time, the forensic evidence produced is key to establishing the truth about what happened in specific cases, that is, for fighting the on-going denial by the military that it committed the violations.”

Since April 2008 the human rights records of the 193 UN member States have been examined by the 47-nation Geneva-based human rights council in a peer review process known as the UPR every four years.

Alvarez-Arenas explained that in order to bring about a prosecution in Spain an event in another country has to relate to Spain. She mentioned that in 1980, a group of indigenous K’iche’ took over the Spanish embassy to protest army massacres in the countryside. The Guatemalan government, however, attacked the embassy and 33 people were killed in its precincts.

“Prosecution in Spain and Guatemala both have the same aim—to condemn those guilty of genocide,” she said explaining that bringing the matter to the UN was necessary to bring justice to all those affected during the brutal regime.

LWF Support

The LWF participates in this process by submitting information on the human rights situation in some of the countries under review. “We are supporting this because at DWS we do advocacy in a setting that can bring about truth and justice,” said Ekelund.

The work of DWS—LWF’s humanitarian relief and development arm—in Central America includes support to various community-based initiatives in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the LWF played a central role in the peace process that led to the end of Guatemala’s civil war. At its 2012 meeting, the LWF Council issued a public statement on Central America, condemning the rising tide of violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

(Written for LWI by Geneva-based journalist Peter Kenny)

For more information on the FAMDEGUA photo exhibition, please write to info [at] lutheranworld [dot] org.