CICIG – a model for others to follow

The lamentable resignation of Carlos Castresana, head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, better known by its initials as CICIG, has focussed attention on this important body. We should not forget how unique it is, as you can read in this interesting paper [1] sent to us recently. Its main thrust is that CICIG can be a model for how to organise external intervention to mend legal systems.

CICIG is unique in the sense that it is not entirely an international effort, nor is it wholly domestic, it has a bit of both but ultimately has to fit into the Guatemalan judicial system. It is also unique in being able to suggest reform, and includes training local personnel, all taken together ought to create a lasting legacy.

A lot of the paper goes into detailed comparison of the differences between CICIG and other UN judicial interventions, if that is the right way to describe them, which may not be so interesting, but for me what stands out is the emphasis on what CICIG has achieved. It is very easy when you follow Guatemala to become rather Eeyore-ish, thinking nothing ever is going to come out right. It is a useful corrective to be presented with something from there that can be a model, and in a positive sense, for other countries that might want the UN to help fix a weak legal system.

In contrast to many other UN tribunals, such as those in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, CICIG is not trying to deal with the aftermath of mass human rights abuse. The Historical Clarification Commission tried to get to the truth, and as we know there are some cases proceeding to try to find justice in those cases which the Peace Accords did not make non-prosecutable. In contrast, CICIG is trying to deal with a different legacy of the civil war: the infiltration of the organs of the state by parallel powers, which subvert them to their own ends. It also uses the domestic law and courts of Guatemala rather than international law, which has several benefits: it shows that the legal system can indeed be made to work, it can prosecute powerful individuals, and by working from the inside it can see the weaknesses of that domestic law and suggest improvements.

CICIG’s most notable success has been getting to the bottom of the Rosenberg case, even though its conclusions seem outlandish even by Guatemalan standards. It has also suggested reform to the law on arms ownership, now in statute, reform of the use of the dreaded amparo, which is most tiresomely used to delay proceedings, and set up an effective witness protection programme. As well as trying to lead by example, it is also trying to ensure a durable legacy by training investigators to carry on when it leaves.

One of CICIG’s greatest strengths is its ability to carry out independent investigations, but therein seems to lie the downfall of Dr Castresana. In the long negotiation to create CICIG the ability to prosecute independently was declared unconstitutional, but it retained this power. Obviously, independent investigation was still too much for some. It was the way a certain investigation was grabbed when the now former attorney general took over that was the last straw. Well, that and the campaign to discredit CICIG and Dr Castresana himself. CICIG has been vocal in commenting on the suitability of candidate Supreme Court Judges and Attorney General, so it must have thought it had lost that battle when Conrado Reyes was appointed. It is ironic that the paper notes "CICIG has had real success in disciplining government and judicial officials who are non-cooperative, obstructionists or corrupt", which in the end it was, even in this case. It’s a shame that in the process it had to lose its own director.  

I will conclude with another quote from the report, from its own conclusion. The authors are discussing the unique features of CICIG, the first of which is its close integration into the domestic legal system:

The first of these advances – its highly embedded nature – is also its Achilles’ heel and the source of its greatest challenge, namely its reliance on cooperation from Guatemalan institutions. How CICIG can deal with this challenge is likely to define its success to a significant extent, but should not ultimately be determinative of its legacy

[1] "The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala: A New Model for International Criminal Justice Mechanisms", Andrew Hudson and Alexandra W. Taylor, J Int Criminal Justice 2010 8:
53-74

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