ICTJ Forum: Future of Guatemala’s CICIG at Risk

2/20/2015

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More than 20 years after the peace agreement was signed, Guatemala continues to struggle in its quest to provide accountability and redress for massive human rights violations that occurred during the 36-year internal conflict.

One of the most pressing issues at the moment is the uncertain future of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG. Since the CICIG was established in 2007, by the UN and the government of Guatemala, it has supported the Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police, and other state institutions in their investigations of crimes committed by illegal security groups and the subsequent efforts to dismantle their structures. The CICIG’s mission is to strengthen the Guatemalan judiciary so that it can continue to prosecute these criminal groups in the future. CICIG’s mandate is due to expire in September and the president of Guatemala has recently questioned the need for the CICIG to continue its work in the country.

In this edition of the ICTJ Forum, Marta Martinez speaks with Marcie Mersky, ICTJ’s Director of Programs, about recent developments affecting the justice system in Guatemala. Mersky weighs in on the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the conclusion of the trials of Spanish Embassy attacks and the pending case against former president Rios Montt on charges of genocide.

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In the podcast, Mersky begins by stressing the important role the CICIG has been playing in bolstering justice reform in post-conflict Guatemala.

The war in Guatemala, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, significantly weakened the judiciary—particularly its independence and ability to deal with any sort of complex cases, Mersky explains.

“The commission put the issue of impunity squarely on the political table—put it on the political agenda more broadly than ever before. For the most part impunity had been one of the banners waved by human rights groups and victims groups, but was not necessarily a more generalized concern,” reflects Mersky.

Mersky explains that while it may not often be recognized, the CICIG has helped to bring the international community together to understand how their role in judicial reform and rebuilding the rule of law in Guatemala should be a priority. “I think sometimes each donor country will have their own agendas,” Mersky says. “I think CICIG has been very helpful in unifying a vision of what’s needed and helping to channel then their cooperation be it political technical or financial, in a more coordinated fashion around the keys issues.”

Although it is not part of the commission’s mandate, the CICIG has been acting as a “watchdog,” she says, even if it’s not officially part of its mandate. “People know that the CICIG is actually there indeed observing and engaging in these issues, and is a voice of independence that can be brought to bear.”

There is deep concern over the manner in which new members of the Supreme Court and the Appeals Court were appointed several months ago, in what Mersky says was the most highly politicized appointment process in recent memory. Many believe that the process itself delivered a serious blow to the advances made to judicial independence over the past twenty years, and to then remove the CICIG would only serve to deteriorate the situation further.

“It would be a terrible moment to have the commission have to close its doors,” she adds.

Martinez and Mersky also discuss the conclusion of the trial of the Spanish Embassy attacks in Guatemala in 1980.

“This was very much a turning point in people’s anger at government and the government’s decision [that] ‘we can do anything we want’,” Mersky explains.

And while the Spanish Embassy trial has come to a conclusion, Mersky reminds that others haven’t, like the trial against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide, which is once again stalled.

“The Rios Montt case is not going forward, because some group of elites in Guatemala drew a line in the sand. Rather than seeing the oblivion of the country to bring a former dictator to justice for genocide, which has been actually proven in the court,” Mersky says, “there is some sense perhaps of a guilty conscience on their own part—but these are often times deeply moral and ethical and political issues, not only legal and technical.”


PHOTO: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú giving her testimony at the trial of the Spanish Embassy in January 2015 in Guatemala City. Her father was among the 37 people who died in the 1980 attack, when agents of the National Police sieged the embassy. (Sandra Sebastián/Plaza Pública)