When awful facts of war are faced

On brink of Clinton trip: how Guatemala's 'weak' truth commission maydo better than 'strong' ones.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Guatemalans shed tears of joy and relief when a UN-supported truth commission released its final report last week on the human rights violations and violence that made the country's 36-year civil war one of the worst the hemisphere has ever known.

Some rights leaders are hopeful President Clinton will use his visit to Guatemala next week to back the commission's work and announce continuing support of the country's peace efforts.

"I can't believe this is all finally coming into the light of day," said one Guatemalan woman of the report that finds the Army responsible for the vast majority of more than 200,000 deaths and disappearances. "Already it's given us some sense of justice."

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But the question now is, where does the commission's work take Guatemala from here? One guide may be the experience of other countries that have undertaken similar truth-establishing efforts.

Local human rights groups and international organizations play an important role in keeping up a momentum for reparations and other forms of justice, observers say. But it is the governments in power and the laws they have to work with that really determine if a truth commission's work goes beyond an important but limited fact-finding role to one of social transformation.

"The key is political will," says Priscilla Hayner, a truth commission specialist in New York. "International pressure is important, but it comes down to whether the government has the will and the interest to pick up where the commission left off and do something[with its conclusions]."

Neighboring El Salvador investigated its civil war with a truth commission under a much stronger mandate than the one Guatemala's commission worked with. But in the end El Salvador, which continued to be governed by the same political forces that were in power during much of the conflict, saw its 1993 report swept under a rug and forgotten.

Chile's 1993 report on the deaths and disappearances of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship opened the way to some reparations and gave some Chileans a sense of justice. But an amnesty law limited the report's consequences.

It was not until a Spanish magistrate - with some help from the report - began investigating the deaths of Spaniards under General Pinochet's reign that Pinochet faced any real threat from investigations into his regime. Pinochet now sits under arrest in London awaiting either extradition to Spain or release depending on a House of Lords decision expected later this month.

In Guatemala's case, the work of a three-member commission that began its fact-finding in July 1997 has already had positive results, some observers say.

"Just the information gathering was an important period because it opened a space to face the past, and in many cases people were willing to talk about it for the first time," says Clara Arenas, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences in Guatemala City. "For others who didn't talk, it encouraged a moment of reflection."

When agreement on the mandate for the Guatemala commission was reached in 1994, it was criticized by national and international rights groups as so weak that it would likely have little consequence. The commission was prohibited from "naming names" of those responsible for killings and other atrocities, and the final report was barred from leading directly to prosecution of rights violators.

But with hindsight and largely because of the skill with which the commission, headed by German jurist Christian Tomuschat, worked with the mandate it was given, analysts now say those limitations actually served an important role and led to the report's strength.

The limitations "turned out to be positive, because you can see how the focus might have been on how this colonel or that general was responsible," says Hugh Byrne, a Guatemala specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a hemispheric advocacy organization. Instead, he says, the commission focuses on "institutional responsibility" and how the government and military leadership are responsible for the acts carried out at their direction.

The commission documents 626 massacres perpetrated by the army and 32 committed by rebel forces, and concludes that the "scorched earth" policy of burning Indian villages carried out under former military-government leader Efran Ros Montt was tantamount to genocide.

Not naming names also helped in the goal of establishing the truth, says Ms. Hayner, who has studied more than 20 truth commissions worldwide and will publish a book on the topic this fall.

South Africa's truth commission held televised hearings that not only provided a kind of public trial of the apartheid system but also proved to be cathartic for the public.

But in Guatemala's case, "because they weren't going to names names, the [commission] received more cooperation from the various parties," she says. "People know who are the big names responsible, but, if you name individual soldiers, that's where it becomes dangerous, because those people still live in the communities."

Guatemala's commission concluded its work with a number of recommendations, including concrete steps to improve the justice system, guarantees of indigenous rights, reparations - especially, for example, in the hundreds of mostly Mayan Indian villages where massacres occurred - and a purging of human rights violators from the Army.

"If [Guatemalan] President [Alvaro] Arz follows through to act against the Army's rights violators, it will be a major step forward," says Mr. Byrne.

The commission praises the Clinton administration for releasing thousands of formerly classified documents that helped the commission's work. But it found that the United States "through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations" and there were "strong pressures from the US government and US firms to maintain the country's archaic and unjust socioeconomic structure."

US Ambassador to Guatemala Donald Planty called it a "false interpretation of the facts to say that US multinationals are responsible for an unjust economic structure in Guatemala."

In a lightly veiled reference to the US, the report calls for parties that supported the conflict's antagonists to come forward with reparations and other assistance. The truth commission's report and the public discussion it is fostering will likely play a crucial role in setting the country's course this year, Guatemalan observers say.

ON MAY16 voters will decide the fate of constitutional reforms that are perhaps not so coincidentally parallel to recommendations of the truth commission. The reforms would expand indigenous people's rights and revamp the judicial system, while reducing the Army's authority and creating a new national police.

The referendum will act as a "public evaluation" of the country's two-year-old formal peace process, says Ms. Arenas. A "no" vote would be a stiff setback for Mr. Arz and would "close spaces for debate and freedom that the peace accords opened," she says. But a "no" vote would bolster the prospects of retired General Ros Montt, who is now secretary-general of the Guatemalan Republican Front political party and the shadow power behind the FRG's candidate in October presidential elections.

Ros Montt said after the truth commission's report was released that he wasn't "losing any sleep" over it. But other observers say the work could potentially lead to the same kind of international case against Ros Montt that hit Chile's Pinochet. Says WOLA's Byrne, "If I were Ros Montt I wouldn't be anticipating any vacations to Spain or England or perhaps even the US."

With international actions in favor of human rights gathering steam, observers say that the effectiveness of Guatemala's "truth" process will be important not just for Guatemala, but for the lessons it provides other countries.

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