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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 / March 5, 1999


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.

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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."

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.