“Truth telling is one leg of a process that also has to include justice”: Interview with Human Rights Expert Professor Juan Mendez (Part 2)

Professor Méndez participated this month in the International Conference Truth, Trials and Memory. An Accounting of Transitional Justice in El Salvador and Guatemala at the University of Minnesota. After his panel on “Truth-seeking Lessons from the Guatemala Experience”, he shared more insights with Michael Soto (UMN Graduate Student, Sociology). Below, is the second part of their exchange on truth-telling.

 

Some authors, such as Martha Minow, have suggested that truth commissions are “second best” accountability tools. Could you please share your thoughts in response?

She was writing about South Africa, and I think her writing was very significant, and a great contribution to the transitional justice literature. But South Africa is a very special place, and special circumstance. I think it is true that for South Africa, if amnesty was part of the game, that a truth telling exercise was second best, but it was good to have. And I still think that the truth commission in South Africa made some great contributions.

Continue reading ““Truth telling is one leg of a process that also has to include justice”: Interview with Human Rights Expert Professor Juan Mendez (Part 2)”

“Reconciliation means that the root causes of the tragedies of human rights violations are understood, assessed and transformed”: Interview with Human Rights Expert Professor Juan Méndez (Part 1)

Professor Méndez participated this month in the International Conference Truth, Trials and Memory. An Accounting of Transitional Justice in El Salvador and Guatemala at the University of Minnesota. After his panel on “Truth-seeking Lessons from the Guatemala Experience”, he shared more insights with Michael Soto (UMN Graduate Student, Sociology). Below, is the first part of their exchange on peace processes.

Juan E. Méndez, a native of Argentina, is a Professor of Human Rights Law in Residence at the American University – Washington College of Law, where he is Faculty Director of the Anti-Torture Initiative. In February 2017, he was named a member of the Selection Committee to appoint magistrates of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and members of the Truth Commission set up as part of the Colombian Peace Accords. He has previously held positions as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, an advisor on crime prevention to the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court, Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the Prevention of Genocide.

  Continue reading ““Reconciliation means that the root causes of the tragedies of human rights violations are understood, assessed and transformed”: Interview with Human Rights Expert Professor Juan Méndez (Part 1)”

Truth, Trials, and Memory: “Revising [the official narrative] is part of reparations”

The “Truth, Trials, Memory” conference, held at the University of Minnesota between November 1 – 3 opened with an ambitious quest: twenty years after the historical clarification commission in Guatemala, what does accountability look like? Further, in a time of increased civil discontent, protest, and resistance sweeping the United States, what can we learn from transitional justice and indigenous Guatemalan liberation projects?

Keynote speaker Pablo de Grieff opened the conference by naming four key components to transitional justice work done in post-conflict contexts: establishing truth, activating instruments of justice, the dispersal of services and reparations to victims, and the guarantee of non-recurrence. Yet, as the conference rolled onward, it became clearer and clearer to panelists and audience participants the grave difficulties and consequences of such achievements.

Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj TTM 2017.jpg
Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj presents at the “Truth, Trials, and Memory” conference. Seated are Yassmin Barrios and Dr. David Weissbrodt (PC Hale Konitshek).

Indigenous K’ichee’ anthropologist, activist, author, and journalist – as well as the main protagonist of Pamela Yates’ newest film 500 Years – Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj concluded her presentation with a powerful response to transitional justice researchers and practitioners. After describing the story of a woman who had to flee her own community during the conflict with her husband and four children, only to return alone after the conflict ended, Velásquez Nimatuj declares (orig. Spanish):

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Student Spotlight: Paula Cuellar

Paula was born in El Salvador and, because of the armed conflict in that country, she and her family fled to Mexico at a very young age where she was raised. After the armed conflict ended, she returned to El Salvador where she pursued her LL.B. at the Central American University “José Simeón Cañas.” After graduation, Paula worked as a judicial clerk at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador for seven years and, also, as a professor at the Central American University “José Simeón Cañas.” In the year 2009, she moved to South Bend, Indiana, to pursue a LL.M. at the University of Notre Dame du Lac. When she returned to El Salvador inPaula Cuellar Photo (1).jpg 2010, she was appointed as the Director of the International Assistance Unit, until she decided to move to Minnesota in 2013 to pursue her Ph.D. in History major and Human Rights minor. Paula was the 2014-2015 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She is currently the USC Shoah 2016-2017 Graduate Research Fellow, a 2016-2017 American Association of University Women International Fellow, and a 2016-2017 University of Minnesota Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow.

Paula is interested in the question of genocide in Central America. Specifically, her intention is to debate whether scorched earth operations conducted as part of a state policy during the civil war of the 1980s in Guatemala and El Salvador indeed constituted genocidal practices per se, independently of the group targeted. Since the victims of such military operations are far more likely to be women, children and seniors, she is also interested in studying the diverse forms of sexual violence to which women and girls are subjected to by the perpetrators during the conduction of these military tactics.

The Guatemalan Lesson

You are not obliged to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Rabbi Tarfon (from the Talmud)

On February 6, as part of the IAS Collaborative Reframing Mass Violence lecture series, CHGS partnered with the Human Rights Program and the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul for a screening of the documentary film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator  A discussion with its director, Pamela Yates, and producer, Paco de Onís followed.  Granito tells a breathtaking story of courage and perseverance in the pursuit of justice that uniquely embodies the quote above from the Talmud.

The film spans thirty years as five protagonists in Guatemala, Spain, and the United States attempt to bring truth, memory, and justice to the violence-plagued Central American country. A US filmmaker, a forensic anthropologist, a Spanish lawyer, a Maya survivor, and a Guatemalan witness activist each become a “granito,” a tiny grain of sand, adding up to an extraordinary accomplishment three decades after the atrocities: the indictment and trial of ex-dictator General Ríos Montt, former de facto president and responsible for a genocidal campaign that killed thousands of indigenous Guatemalans during the bloodiest phase of a war against the leftist guerrillas in 1982-1983. On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide by a court in his own country.

The last chapter of this Guatemalan story is yet to be written. Only ten days after the ruling, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction under pressure from an organization representing the country’s deeply reactionary oligarchy.

Still, the judgment marked a turning point in Guatemalan history, and it has also become part of the history of human rights. It sends a clear message to other parts of the world where present or former perpetrators still live in freedom and privilege despite proven involvement in atrocious crimes. It also teaches an important lesson: As a collective effort, step by step or “grain by grain,” even in Guatemala-one of the most profoundly unjust societies in the Americas-justice can be achieved.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.