Opinion: Guatemala’s Heinous Human Rights Record
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
MONITORING POLITICAL, ECONOMIC AND DIPLOMATIC
ISSUES AFFECTING THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
Monday, August 28th, 2006
School of Americas, Venezuela, Guatemala, United Nations
COHA Opinion: Guatemala’s Heinous Human Rights Record and Non-compliance With UN Mandates Should Disbar it from UN Seat
If Son of Sam suggested that his record as New York City’s most notorious serial killer in modern memory qualified him for a place on the bench as a state appellate judge, most reasonable people would express serious reservations. Many would rightly point out that there is a logical gap about the size of the Hudson River between experience committing crimes and experience bringing criminals to justice. Few, however, are questioning a case with striking parallels: Guatemala’s bid for the temporary Latin American seat on the United Nations Security Council. Incontestably, Guatemala has been one of the worst human rights violators in Latin American history, a fact made evident by the bloody state-sanctioned military rampage that raged from 1962 to 1996, and took at least 200,000 lives. Such a deeply stained past would ordinarily make Guatemala a grotesque choice to oversee critical human rights issues that may arise during its two-year tenure on the council. Instead of being appalled at a request by its satrap to serve on the international body created to ensure world peace, the White House, extraordinarily enough, is Guatemala’s leading tout and is involved, in an all-out campaign to block Venezuela—the present front runner—from being awarded the seat.
Not only does Guatemala’s notorious human rights record require condemnation, but its current government repeatedly has failed to meet recent UN mandates to bring its known mass murderers to justice. One international body has found that only one of the 626 massacres documented by the UN Commission for Historical Clarification (known informally at the Truth Commission) has been successfully prosecuted by the Guatemalan courts. The problem stems, from the fact that some of the country’s officials, who normally would be responsible for bringing these known suspects to justice, were themselves part of the nation-wide killing machine that butchered tens of thousands of innocent civilians during Guatemala’s thirty-four year civil war. In fact, the Truth Commission’s 1996 report attributes the vast majority of these killings to Guatemalan government forces. The report explains that the state amplified a minor insurgency into an internecine struggle and had its agents annihilate the “internal enemies”: Catholics, communists, Mayans, academics or other dissenters amongst the public. By backing Guatemala’s bid for the UN seat, Washington is asking the international body to reward the Central American nation, who refused to comply with past UN reforms, while thwarting the candidacy of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—Washington’s new Latin America bete noire.
Massacres Go Unpunished
While the recent rhetoric of Guatemalan officials has assumed a more civilized tone in order to influence the international community to forget their past military horrors, they are still failing miserably at addressing the modest remedies called for by the UN’s Truth Commission. International human rights bodies have found that Guatemala’s armed forces and other state institutions have not cooperated with investigators. Furthermore, many witnesses involved in politically volatile cases, are not being adequately protected from corrupt Guatemalan officials. On May 27, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “there has been no significant progress in combating impunity or eliminating the clandestine groups responsible for the massacres.” Arbour further notes the persistence of discrimination against indigenous Mayan people, the group most targeted in the civil war. These violent suppressors have not been sufficiently addressed – another gross failure in Guatemala’s implementation of the UN Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While flaunting its disregard for the concerns of the international community represented by the UN-brokered Peace Accord and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Guatemala officials audaciously promote their pursuit of the UN Security Council seat. Astonishingly enough, this morally leprous government has become Washington’s leading candidate.
Guatemala City has argued, to the incredulity of some UN representatives, that it deserves the Security Council seat precisely because it has learned much from its first-person experience with post-massacre remedial efforts. In a diplomatic paper presented at the General Assembly – whose members will ultimately decide whether Venezuela or Guatemala will serve on the Council – Guatemalan officials contend that their “commitment to peace, born of [their] own experience” is a “compelling” reason why it qualifies for the post. This disreputable document goes so far as to meretriciously claim that Guatemala has significantly improved “its strict observances of human rights.” However, many maintain that the present situation is more of a case of crime without punishment. The truth is that while some small, largely cosmetic steps have indeed been taken, Guatemala has failed to meet the Truth Commission and Peace Accord mandates. Nevertheless, in spite of its failure to abide by UN rulings at home, ironically Guatemala officials claim that that they will prove to be a faithful servitor in ensuring that other nations will follow Security Council resolutions, which they themselves have systematically flouted.
The Bush administration, guided by the State Department’s train wrecked Latin American policies, is following in the misguided steps of its predecessors dating back to the 1950s, and is adamantly backing Guatemala’s UN ambitions. Moreover, Washington refuses to acknowledge its ally’s dark past, including the murder of a number of U.S. citizens by Guatemalan security forces. During the Central American country’s civil war, the U.S.-trained junior Guatemalan military officers at the School of the Americas were taught torture and counterinsurgency techniques, which they later mercilessly applied against innocent highland indigenous settlements in a scorched earth “beans and bullets” campaign. With this training, the Guatemala military was better equipped to commit a horrific genocide against its own indigenous population. Today these officers hold senior command positions, with unexpunged compromised pasts. At a time when the simplicity of the Red Scare dominated American news of the region, Guatemalan leaders were easily able to gain military resources from the U.S. to eliminate the supposed communist targets invented by local commanders and righteous vigilantes. Several U.S. administrations holding office during this civil conflict—the most notable being the Reagan administration—were so obsessed with supporting anti-communist efforts abroad that they were blind to the barbarous steps being taken by Guatemalan authorities against their fellow citizens.
Today, the Bush administration is similarly consumed by a disproportionate rage against Venezuela’s Chávez and his picante anti-Washington rhetoric. Rather than be scandalized by the appropriateness of Guatemala’s bid for the UN post, the White House allows its own ideological extremism, based on countering Chávez, to blot out the moral imperatives that should be guiding its actions. For an administration hell-bent on propagating its democratic agenda, Guatemala’s past atrocities are surprisingly absent from President Bush’s and Secretary of State Rice’s selective indignation towards pariah regimes, which exclude nations which are of tactical use to them.
The U.S. decision to help the Guatemalan military to effectively massacre a hecatomb of innocent civilians screams out for a reevaluation of Guatemala’s Security Council campaign. Instead of asking the international community to ignore Guatemala’s failure to prosecute known human rights transgressors, protect the Mayan population from the military’s heartless sword, and apprehend the murderers of U.S. nationals by Guatemalan security forces, the Bush Administration should make up for its own past indifference to Guatemala’s tawdry reputation. It could do this by terminating its support for Guatemala and backing Venezuela’s bid for the seat—a post for which it is demonstrably more qualified to fill.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs,
founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit,
non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information
organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as
being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of
scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please
see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington
offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or