Addressing the Crimes of the Past

The recent arrest and appearance of Radovan Karadzic in front of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has focussed attention again on a bitter, and recent, historical period in Europe. There have been plenty of articles in the media exploring what the arrest means for the future of Bosnia and journalists have been visiting Srebrenica to interview those who survived the war, asking how they manage to live with what they suffered. Questions are being asked about how he managed to evade capture for so long, even though he was living in Belgrade. What pressure was applied that finally made the difference so that one of Europe’s two most wanted men was handed in?

In Guatemala, on a rather smaller scale, another case has opened which is to deal with the crimes of the past. On 10 March this year the trial began of a former military commissioner, Felipe Cusanero Coj, accused of the crime of causing the disappearance of six people in the village of Choatalúm between 1982 and 1984. The important point about this trial is the nature of the alleged crime: disappearance. All the previous cases brought to trial have been related to massacres (Dos Erres, Rio Negro, Xaman, Tululché) or murders (Myrna Mack, Monseñor Gerardi). This is the first time that an accused for disappearance per se has been tried. As usual, the case is stalled by an injunction. This claims the whole trial is unconstitutional, as the law cannot be applied retrospectively. A law making forced disappearance a crime was only passed in 1996, these events took place in the early 80s. However, it has been established in international law at least [*] that a disappearance is a continuing crime as the fate and location of the victims is not known. There is a good article on this trial written by some of the ACOGUATE team available on their blog.

Of course, reading about Karazdic and Cusanero one is struck by the similarities and the contrasts. In both cases an attempt is being made to deal with the past, in the hope that some sort of reconciliation can occur. That is about as far as the similarities go though, since Cusanero, like those in all the other cases I mentioned, is very much at the bottom of the hierarchy while Karadzic was at the top. We are still waiting for those who were in charge during the civil war and now accused of genocide to face their day in court. Moreover, some live quite openly without the need for voluminous beards nor faintly bizarre occupations to hide behind, with no apparent concern that any international tribunal will send its agents after them. One wonders what sort of effective pressure needs to be applied so that Guatemala can move on in the way that perhaps Bosnia has the chance to do now.

* International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006, article 8 indicates that a state has to take into account the continuous nature of the crime when declaring a ‘time limit’ on applicability of prosecution.

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Categories: Justice

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