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Case Studies


Historical Background

Case Studies - Guatemala - Timeline

Case Studies - Guatemala - Timeline

From 1960–1996, the nation of Guatemala was ravaged by a bloody civil war. The primary parties to the conflict were the authoritarian government and the rebel, leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG), led by the ethnic minority Mayan indigenous people and Ladino peasants.

The worst violence occurred in the 1980s under the governments of General Romeo Lucas Garcia from 1978–1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt from 1982–1983, and General Mejía Victores from 1983–1986. This period of intensive counter-insurgency saw massacres and “scorched-earth” tactics executed throughout the nation.

On June 23, 1994, the Guatemalan government and the URNG signed an agreement to create the Commission to Clarify Past Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence that Caused the Guatemalan Population to Suffer.

Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was established during the peace process as a conduit for truth seeking and reconciliation across the nation. Like most truth commissions, the CEH began with the signing of a peace agreement and from there embarked on an obstacle-ridden path to the truth.

On February 25, 1999, after two six-month extensions, the CEH released its final report.

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The Truth Commission:

Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH)














MORE THAN 42,000






Purpose of the Truth Commission:

The 1994 agreement established three purposes for the Commission for Historical Clarification:

1. To clarify the human rights violations and acts of violence that took place during the internal armed conflict.

2. To prepare an objective report based on commission investigations regarding the events of the armed conflict.

3.To formulate specific recommendations for furthering Guatemala’s transition to peace, particularly measures for preserving the memory of victims, fostering greater cultural understanding within Guatemala, and strengthening rights and democratic protections.


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The Functions and Powers of the Commission

Voices of Dignity

The agreement established the functions and powers that the commission would have to accomplish its mandate:

1. The Commission shall receive particulars and information from individuals or institutions that consider themselves to be affected and also from the Parties.

2. The Commission shall be responsible for clarifying these situations fully and in detail. In particular, it shall analyze the factors and circumstances that involved in those cases with complete impartiality. The Commission shall invite those who may be in possession of relevant information to submit their version of the incidents. Failure of those concerned to appear shall not prevent the Commission from reaching a determination on the cases.

3. The Commission shall not attribute responsibility to any individual in its work, recommendations, and report nor shall these have any judicial aim or effect.

4. The Commission’s proceedings shall be confidential so as to guarantee the secrecy of the sources and the safety of witnesses and information.

5. Once it is established, the Commission shall publicize the fact that it has been established and the place where it is meeting by all possible means, and shall invite interested parties to present their information and testimony.

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The Commission’s Final Report

Agents of the State of Guatemala… committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in the four regions analysed. Commission’s final report

The report was the outcome of a complex research process consisting of several vital components, including:

  • Collection of victims’ testimonies and case documentation
  • Investigation of cases
  • Local socio-historical investigations and contextual reports
  • Interviews of key witnesses
  • Search for documents and illustrative cases

The commission was not permitted to attribute individual responsibility for violations, that is, to name alleged individual perpetrators. Therefore, commissioners were driven to emphasize institutional responsibility. This decision proved fruitful to historical clarification and serving victims’ right to truth.

The report’s conclusions recognized that the Guatemalan government was predominantly responsible for violence during the civil war and for committing genocide against the Mayan people.

The CEH report also included a comprehensive assessment of the full scope and pervasiveness of the violence. This important section included an explanation about the causes of the conflict, identifying deeply rooted historical injustices and weaknesses in national institutions.

The report’s recommendations covered all the grounds stipulated in the commission’s original mandate. In addition, the report addressed the establishment of a mechanism to ensure implementation of these recommendations.

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Limited Powers of the Commission

The 1994 agreement that established the commission limited its powers, most notably prohibiting the commission from issuing subpoenas or naming specific individuals as responsible for violence in its report. Additionally, the agreement also stipulated a short period of only six months to one year for the commission to carry out its work.

Civil Society Misgivings

Civil society activists had their own misgivings about the limitations of the commission’s mandate and how it was formulated. The agreements establishing the commission emerged from discussion between the parties, without wider public consultations. Furthermore, the commission’s mandate did not require any additional debate or parliamentary or governmental approval. The commission, therefore, lacked both an executive decree and a law to ground its mandate.

Financial Insecurity

Although the commission enjoyed significant international support and attention, it had considerable financial insecurity and little domestic backing. Ultimately, the international community contributed more than 90 percent of the commission’s funds.


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Overall, the commission is widely considered to be a successful experience in that it:

1. collected vast amounts of firsthand information from victims and processed it effectively

2. produced a comprehensive final report establishing an authoritative record of serious crimes and human rights violations; rights violations

3. gained victims’ trust, cultivating a sense of ownership of the truth-seeking process among victims and reflecting their voices in its final report

4. had a long-term impact on Guatemala’s political, social, and judicial life through its findings (even though the government did not diligently follow the commission’s recommendations when they were presented). For example, a reparations program for victims was later established in 2003 and former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt was put on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013


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Strong Commissioners

The Commissioners’ openness, independence from the parties to the conflict and their will to conduct operations with the highest level of transparency permitted by the mandate, culminated in the Final Report’s public presentation in the National Theater, in front of thousands of citizens and government and URNG representatives. UN Office for Project Services, The Operations of the Historical Clarification Commission in Gautemala, page 41

The choice of commissioners was extremely fortunate. The commission chairperson had been a United Nations expert on Guatemala and started out with the respect of civil society advocates. This lent legitimacy to the chairperson’s appointment and his subsequent choices of the two Guatemalan co-commissioners.

Public perception of the commission was bolstered by the its immediate open-door policy, guaranteeing advocates access to the commission and ensuring engagement with civil society.

The commission’s vague peace agreement mandate proved an advantage thanks to the choices made by legitimate commissioners. It offered ample space for interpretation of the commission’s parameters, which required sound judgment on the part of the commissioners.


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International Support

The commission’s operations received substantial logistical, technical, and financial support from both the United Nations and the international community. The commissioners made the crucial decision at the outset to ask for “assistance from the United Nations in seeking the best mechanism to design and organize the Commission’s operative support structure.” As a result, in May 1997, the UN Office for Projects took on the responsibility of managing the commission’s funds and its Support Office (commission staff).

Thanks to this assistance from the United Nations and the openness of commissioners to international intervention, the commission developed into the largest truth commission ever assembled, receiving experts from various international programs.

Lessons Learned

In the context of a large, complex peace-building framework, limitations and weaknesses at inception can be overcome during stages of development and fieldwork.

Guatemala’s commission was protected from derailment or becoming a superficial process thanks to the strengths of its commissioners, supplemented by intense international concern. At the same time, the openness of the commission gradually eroded the skepticism of civil society leaders, eventually securing their support.