Global Policy Studies & International Security

Rios Montt Trial: Why His Trial Could Change the World

For the first time ever, a former head of state faces charges of genocide by his own nation’s judicial system.   And he deserves it.  Though he only ruled for 17 months, his rule has been deemed as one of the bloodiest chapters in the 30 years of the Guatemalan Civil War.  He authorized scorched earth campaigns, oversaw massacres and turned a blind eye to numerous accounts of sexual violence.      

In 17 months he “accomplished” more than any of his predecessors.  Former President Rios Montt ordered the killing of more than a thousand indigenous people.  Guatemalan prosecutors charge Montt for the murder of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group; the number of witnesses coming forward in the trial indicates that far more were victims of violence. 

Until one year ago, Rios Montt hid behind the protection of a law he helped establish: immunity for public officials.  As a congressman, he enjoyed 12 years of that immunity.  After his term expired in January of 2012, he attempted to avoid charges, delay his trial and thwart justice.  Finally, he could run no more.  The voices of the past have caught him and will continue to speak out in Guatemalan courtrooms.

Rios Montt’s conviction will change the world.

Guatemala has a history of excusing injustice, not reporting crimes and of outright clearing the guilty of crimes committed.   Only 2% of crimes reported to the police actually go to trial.  Rios Montt’s henchmen committed thousands of crimes and none have gone to trial.  Never before in history has a country indicted its own former ruler.  Not in Rwanda.  Not in China.  Not in any genocide.  Ever.  Until now.

In a society where violence runs rampant, there has been little hope for change.   And in a region in which leaders fail to take responsibility for their leadership, the case of Rios Montt offers a pivotal moment in Guatemalan leadership practices, with spillover implications for all of Central America.  Even though Rios Montt did not walk into villages and murder anyone, he had control over those who did.  In 1982, he boasted about his absolute power.  Now he claims he is not responsible for the regimes carried out under his rule.  Rios Montt should be held accountable, setting a precedent for better governance in the nation and in the region.

The trial of Rios Montt has the potential to strengthen international human rights agendas and ripple throughout the world.  If this trial is successful, it may incentivize other nations to pursue a similar course of action.  Other nations, particularly those in Central America, will see that justice is possible.  It would prove that it is never too late to seek justice for horrendous crimes.  Aside from the fact that he is obviously guilty, Rios Montt should be convicted because of what it would communicate to Guatemala, Central America and the world.  If this trial proves successful, the region will not be the only area impacted.  Survivors of massacres and genocides around the world will have hope for justice as well. 

Why does this matter for the United States?

After spending millions, nearly $10 million each year, on democracy-building foreign aid, the U.S. government should consider the impact of U.S. tax dollars for those countries receiving it.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, many Americans have begun to question the effectiveness and necessity of foreign aid.  This trial not only demonstrates profound change in corruption-prone areas, but also validates the U.S. foreign aid budget.  The Rios Montt trial is proof that USAID’s work is not in vain.  The United States has the opportunity to stand with Guatemala in the fight for human rights, justice and democracy.     

History is in the making in your own backyard.  Will you continue the fight? Will you support the fight for justice? 

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