ICTJ Forum: 15 Years On, Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission Remembered for Innovative Approach



On February 25, 1999, Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission published its final report. At the time, it went largely unnoticed by the international community, as compared to the South African TRC final report, published only a few months earlier. But today, on its 15th anniversary, we discuss why this report has become known as one of the most innovative and influential truth commission reports.

In the latest ICTJ podcast, we talked to Marcie Mersky, ICTJ’s Director of Programs, who, prior to joining ICTJ, was the coordinator of the final report of the Guatemalan commission, and Eduardo González, Director of ICTJ’s Truth and Memory Program and former member of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


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Though the Guatemalan commission operated for just a year and a half, it set out to clarify the truth about an armed conflict that ravaged the country for over 30 years: the war between the government and insurgents spanned from 1962 to 1996, leaving behind a death toll of approximately 200,000.

The commission was able to recollect more than 7,300 testimonies, including those of Guatemalans in some of the most isolated and remote communities of the country. Its report did not directly name perpetrators, but was able to establish the underlying causes of the conflict by analyzing the political, social, and economic factors that drove the country into civil war.

In this conversation with ICTJ’s Marta Martinez, Mersky and González talk about why the Guatemalan commission is a model for unveiling root causes that lead to the gross violations and establishing institutional responsibilities, demonstrates the need to grant flexibility to the commission’s investigation, and why the selection of commissioners is vital to ensure the success of such process.

While Mersky admits that the decision to withhold the names of those they investigated was in some ways a detriment to accountability, she notes that identifying individual perpetrators would have limited more the commission methodologically. “It freed the commission to do its work more broadly and more freely using a broader range of methodology, [and it] opened a debate about the events that had never happened before in the country,” she said.

González notes the attention to local scenarios and the emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach. “There’s an effort to situate events in a way that requires the attention of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists,” González says. “But on the other hand, there’s dialogue with the law.”

Listen to the conversation with Mersky and Gonzalez in Spanish here

The chief of Guatemala's Historic Clarification Commission, also known as the Truth Commission, Otilia Lux de Coti contemplates the 590 crosses in a chapel in the church of Nebaj, about 125 miles north of Guatemala City, Monday, Jan 12, 1998, that is dedicated to victims of violence in Guatemala's 36 year civil war. Members of the Truth Commission, who's creation is part of the 1996 peace accords between the government and the ex-rebels, toured an area in north Guatemala Monday known as the Ixil triangle, and an exhumation of a massacre in the town of Chel. Eye witness testimonies attribute the massacre in Chel of roughly 97 villagers to the Guatemalan army on April 3, 1982. (AP Photo/Scott Sady).