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On the map

  • Central American country
  • Area: 108,890 km² (3 times the size of Belgium)
  • More than 15 million inhabitants
  • Date of independence: 1821
  • 1 out of 5 people can neither read nor write
  • Human Development Index*: 125th out of 187 (France is 20th)
  • 1 lawyer per 859 inhabitants (Nearly 5 times more than in the United Kingdom)

*The Human Development Index is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living (source: UNDP).

Guatemala: a former Head of State accused of genocide

1. Who have been the victims of violence in Guatemala?

From 1960 to 1996, a brutal civil war which pitted the Guatemalan army against the rural-based guerrilla insurgents terrorised the country.

The repression of the population escalated in 1978 with the reign of General Lucas García. Over a two-year period, the army destroyed 441 villages and the violence moved into urban areas, including the capital. Recorded cases of extra-judicial killings rose to over 10,000 in 1981.

The repression peaked in the early 1980s with the accession of General Efraín Ríos Montt. During his 18-month rule, more than 150,000 peasants were killed and 45,000 disappeared. Half a million people were internally displaced and another 100,000 became refugees.

During that time, the Guatemalan government led a campaign to wipe out large portions of the country’s indigenous populations.

In 1982, Ríos Montt launched a scorched earth operation against the Maya. The army and its paramilitary units – including civilian patrols of forcibly conscripted local men – systematically attacked 626 villages. The inhabitants were raped, tortured and murdered. Over 300 villages were completely razed to the ground. Buildings were demolished; crops and drinking water were fouled. Sources mention that the army’s successes consisted of slaughtering civilians for their suspected rebel sympathies.

Terrorised by the violence, between 500,000 and 1.5 million Mayan civilians fled to other regions within the country or became refugees abroad.

General Ríos Montt was finally ousted in a coup in 1983. In 1986, a civilian government passed a new constitution and eventually initiated a gradual peace process. A peace treaty was signed in 1996.

Yet, the government was unable to curb an alarming wave of robberies, kidnappings and killings ‑ including the murders of human rights workers and advocates ‑ that followed the end of hostilities between the army and leftist guerrillas. The country was also unable to fully enact terms of the 1996 peace accord.

2. Who is responsible for the thousands of international crimes and human rights violations?

The Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, or CEH) was established in 1994 to help reconcile the country and achieve peace after its long civil war.

The Commission’s mandate was to investigate the numerous human rights violations committed by both sides in the armed conflict.

The CEH published a report in 1999 documenting the government’s campaign of genocide under Generals Lucas García and Ríos Montt. The CEH attributed almost all of the atrocities and 626 massacres to government forces, while only 3% of the atrocities were attributable to the guerrillas.

Out of 200,000 documented victims, the CEH report found that 83% were indigenous.

3. What are the obstacles to international justice in Guatemala?

Two United Nations’ mandated truth commissions examined human rights abuses committed during the civil war and discovered unequivocal evidence that the government had committed genocide against the Mayan people.

Nevertheless, efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable have faced many obstacles. All too often, those who have attempted to reveal the perpetrators of atrocities have themselves become targets. In 1990, Myrna Mack Chang, a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist, was stabbed to death in Guatemala City by a military death squad. She was targeted in retaliation for her courageous fieldwork on the destruction of rural Mayan communities.

In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi presented a report of The Guatemalan Catholic Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory project, the first of two truth commissions for Guatemala. Two days after the release of the report, he was found beaten to death in the garage of his home.

Despite the efforts of the truth commissions, an ambitious reparations programme, and several landmark judgments from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, prosecutions for past (and present) crimes have been obstructed by the lingering influence of former officials implicated in human rights abuses and by the intimidation and corruption of the domestic legal system by narco-traffickers.

However, a great step was achieved in 2012. Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz indicted former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide for his role in the scorched earth campaign during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. The accusations included torture, genocide, forced disappearances, state terrorism and crimes against humanity. The Guatemalan ex-military ruler became the first Latin American dictator to be convicted of genocide.





Crossroads in Guatemala

Between 1960 and 1996, an armed conflict opposed the Guatemalan army and guerillas. Thousands of men, women and children were victims of serious human rights violations such as murders, lootings, deportations and rapes.

Today, these victims are still waiting for justice

What is the overall objective?

To contribute to the effective implementation of the Rome Statute within national legislation, and improve the effective exercise of rights before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and national jurisdictions in accordance with the principle of complementarity and standards of fair trials.

What is planned in 2015?

A Forum will aim at designing an advocacy strategy for the ratification of the Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Criminal Court (APIC) and the harmonisation of domestic legislation with the Rome Statute.

It will hinge around one-day roundtable meetings to raise the issue of crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction which will target prosecutors, lawyers and magistrates.

This forum will also include two advocacy workshops with actors from the judicial system in order to raise the issue of possible crimes which have been or might have been committed, within the ICC’s jurisdiction

The APIC is designed to provide officials and staff of the ICC with certain privileges and immunities necessary for them to perform their duties in an independent and unconditional manner.

Who will be the beneficiaries?

Actors of the justice system (prosecutors, lawyers and magistrates); victims of international crimes.


Every victim of injustice should know that she or he has inviolable rights, including the right to seek justice.


Every victim of injustice should be able to lodge a complaint with the appropriate authorities in his or her country, without fear of reprisals.


The police and the authorities should make the necessary enquiries to verify the offence committed and, where appropriate, start criminal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators.

The Trial

The courts must deal with the case by respecting fair judicial process, the rights of the defence, and protection of witnesses.

The Judgement

The court should give its judgment with complete independence and within a reasonable timeframe.


The decision taken by the courts should allow the suffering of the victim and her or his rights to be recognised.