Recognition: Yes, Reconciliation: Maybe, Justice: No

GSN volunteer Sam, who is currently in Guatemala working as an international accompanier recently sent us this report from a symbolic trial of those accused of perpetrating mass rape as a weapon of war during the armed conflict.

On the days of the 4th and 5th of March 2010 I was lucky enough to be inside Paraninfo University to see the accumulation of more than 300 proud Mayan women in a panorama of colourful ‘trajes’. The women from the departments of Quiche, HueHuetenango, Alta Verapaz, and Chimaltenango arrived for the symbolic trial of those responsible for the mass rapes carried out on women as a weapon of war during the 36 year civil war from 1960-1996. Represented were women from the four departments, all symbolising distinctive dialects, ‘trajes’ (traditional Mayan clothing) and regions but united by similar experiences and the desire to testify these experiences to gain recognition and dignification for the 1465 registered rapes, unpunished during the civil war.


The event was hosted and coordinated by a number of non-governmental organizations including ECAP, (Organization for Community Studies and Psychosocial Support) UNAMG, (National Organization of Guatemalan Women), CONAVIGUA, (National Organisation of Guatemalan Widows) La Cuerda (The Association of Feminists) and MTM (Women Transforming the World) as well as the touching support of a delegation of men; survivors of the Panzos massacre there supporting the women through their journey and representing ACOGUATE we were also present.


It was a powerful and thought-provoking ceremony aimed at invigorating the ‘memoria historica’, the historic memory of the collective experiences of the war (lest they be forgotten) and indeed was a touching ceremony, but as my title suggests was not an all together satisfying affair. My opinion of the ceremony was divisively split into two because that’s indeed all that it was, a ceremony. I believe such steps have great significance for those involved; a recognition that what these women suffered was not only a crime but part of a state-sponsored, pre-meditated strategy, a valid aspect of the grieving process and the important recognition that past crimes are not forgotten (‘ni olvido ni silencio’ neither forgotten, nor in silence ran the slogan), all crucial aspects of the post war reconciliation process in Guatemala.


But here is the problem, can you skip justice and onto reconciliation as if it were a ‘miss a go’ step on a monopoly board? My question is rhetorical because one still feels the anger and pain of Guatemalan war crimes boiling underneath the surface.

My point is that while these types of ceremony serve the valid functions I mentioned, the more cynical part of me also believes that venting these grievances on a quasi-state platform like this one, releases the pressure valve on the crucial step that was missed out, that’s to say that this process makes people feel better while both the perpetrators and the architects of these most disgraceful crimes remain in impunity.


Mass rape is one of the many lasting legacies of the Guatemalan civil war along with massacres, mass disappearances, land degradation and dispossession, cultural repression, high criminal violence, arms proliferation, impunity and a fear leading to a culture of self censorship, among other things.  It is very difficult to assess which of these is more or less damaging than one another but one characteristic of the crime of mass rape is its lack of recognition, that is, recognition in the true sense of the word; that this was not just a sad part of the war but a centralised, premeditated strategy at silencing, degrading and repressing the rural, reproductive element of indigenous Guatemalan society.  Part of a militarized counterinsurgency tactic of feminicide carried out by the state on innocent civilians for which there has never been recognition, let alone a promise of any element of justice. Furthermore it is clear from the figures that just like the war itself, the crimes were committed on racial lines, 87% (according to the UN CEH report) of the reported rapes were committed against indigenous women, a further testament to the crimes meeting the goals of the counterinsurgency strategy.

Furthermore, as foreseen by the architects of this strategy, rape has also caused community level strife and division in large part due to the patriarchal nature of Guatemalan society. The psychological damage is lasting, it has had lasting problems on reproduction, interfamilial relationships, and particularly the isolation and shame of the victims of the crimes as a result of the internalization and community isolation on top of suffering the crime itself.


A formidable reason for the lack of recognition of the women’s cause on both the national level as well as community level, where the victim is often met with isolation, is the maintenance of myths of the women’s role in the crime which once again is rooted in the patriarchal culture of Guatemalan society. The idea of some level of female provocation or complicity in the crime on some level is subtly deferred to in culture leading to the acquiesce of the crime.


Other myths include the idea that the crime is a sexual one, necessary by men in the army, or that it was the result of mentally ill soldiers, both of which again negate from the fundamentals of the crime as a premeditated, strategised and purposeful counterinsurgency strategy for a long term vision of fear, which has maintained the current power structure using the vehicle of impunity as an aid. Indeed the destruction of social fabric on the community level, strategized on a number of visible levels, in combination with the high level of impunity has been one of the most successful counterinsurgency strategies permeating the culture of fear and inferiority which has existed beyond the war and into the supposed era of democracy and peace.


One has to recognize that punitive trials against those responsible for these crimes are unlikely in the foreseeable future in Guatemala, however there are signs coming from precedents being set in ongoing war crimes trials and international legal statues that provide cause for optimism at least in the legal framework. Investigation has been carried out in the TPIY and TPIR (the war crimes trials for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda) for prosecuting policies of mass rape as have there been notable milestones in the Rome statute of 1998 and declaration of Vienna in 1993 which have been ratified and have entered into force. Whilst proof of intent of a premeditated strategy would be very difficult to obtain, the existence of legal framework for jurisdiction is hopeful.


So for the indigenous women of Guatemala precious recognition of their plight is what they must savour for the meanwhile, but as demonstrated in the recent CICIG report that impunity in Guatemala rests at 97%, justice is for the precious few, and rarely for the poor, indigenous, female.

Categories: Gender, Genocide, Indigenous peoples, Justice

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