Finding Justice for Genocide in Guatemala

Former Guatemalan Leader, General Efrain Rios Montt

One year ago this month, Efrain Rios Montt, leader of Guatemala from 1982-1983, was found guilty of genocide in a Guatemalan court for crimes committed during the country’s bloody civil war. Only ten days later, however, the verdict was overturned and the case was set to be heard again in April 2014. While many in the international community initially applauded Guatemala’s justice system for being able to convict a powerful figure of such a serious crime, sentiment quickly changed as the verdict was vacated. Since then, the retrial has been delayed even further, not expected to be heard now until 2015 at the earliest. Also, the Attorney General who brought the charges against Rios Montt, Claudia Paz y Paz, was forced to leave her position before it was set to expire. The initial success and then failure of Guatemalan courts to secure a conviction against Rios Montt raises questions about the ability of domestic courts to handle the most serious international crimes, including genocide.

In an article recently published in the Brooklyn Journal of International Law entitled, Should Domestic Courts Prosecute Genocide? Examining the Trial of Efrain Rios Montt, I assess the benefits and drawbacks of domestically prosecuting the crime of genocide, using Rios Montt’s Guatemalan trial as a case study. I focus on four factors: jurisdiction, defendants’ rights, the goals of criminal justice and the goals of transitional justice. I conclude that a domestic genocide trial better meets jurisdiction requirements and the goals of transitional justice, but may do so at the expense of the traditional goals of justice (in this case, a final condemning guilty verdict and the incarceration of Rios Montt).

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu Celebrating the Guilty Verdict Against Rios Montt, May 2013

The continuing delays in Guatemala demonstrate the flaws of domestic genocide trials. Because Rios Montt still has strong political allies in the country (he was a member of Congress only two years ago), he as been able to influence the domestic justice system, and stall a final verdict against him. At the same time, the trial against him has benefitted Guatemalan society by allowing victims to testify in front of their community, bringing about a national human rights dialogue about past abuses, and strengthening domestic judicial institutions. The final version of the article can be downloaded here (SSRN). 

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