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Remembering and Forgetting in Guatemala

Rachel Sieder considers the role of ‘memory politics’ in Guatemala’s uncertain path to democracy as government and society attempt to come to terms with the brutality of the counter-insurgency war.

In Guatemala, as in other countries of Latin America, the political transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, and from war to peace, has involved a balancing act between truth and justice. Throughout the region during the last two decades, the balance has generally tipped in favour of the former, at the expense of the latter. Official attempts to deal with past violations of human rights that took place during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s typically meant commissions of inquiry and the passing of amnesty laws, to provide immunity from prosecution for those responsible for such violations.

The prevailing orthodoxy maintains that truth-telling constitutes a valuable contribution to national reconciliation. In a more pragmatic light, truth commissions  – like the one held in South Africa under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu – also serve to legitimize transitional governments. They symbolically distance them from a repressive past; in general, such transitional governments tend to shy away from legal sanctions against perpetrators on practical and political grounds, arguing that this risks an authoritarian backlash.

Human rights activists, though, may well support truth commissions but argue that they should be accompanied by some measure of legal accountability and sanction against those guilty of gross violations. This point of view has been strengthened in recent years by developments in human rights, particularly the notion that states must protect certain fundamental rights and have an obligation to punish those who abuse them.

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