Human Rights, International, Politics and Governance, War Crimes

Conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt and the need for accountability


Image courtesy The Guardian

On 10 May 2013, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. It was the first time that an ex-head of state had been convicted for genocide by a court in his or her own country. The case is of international importance, including in Sri Lanka.

President Ríos Montt had ordered the deaths of 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group in 1982 and 1983. He was in power during the bloodiest phase of a civil war that lasted from 1960-1996, during which an estimated 200,000 were killed and 45,000 more “disappeared”. Others were raped, tortured in other ways or driven from their homes.

While mass murder and ethnic cleansing took place in the countryside, in the cities trade unionists and student leaders were seized by the security forces. The military were supposedly battling left-wing guerrillas but civilians suffered in huge numbers, sometimes at the hands of brutal paramilitary groups working alongside the armed forces.

Some Guatemalans, especially in the ruling elite, would rather have avoided the trial and glossed over past human rights abuses. But there were cheers in the courtroom in Guatemala City when Judge Jazmín Barrios read out the sentence. As 42-year-old Elena de Paz Santiago, one of those who testified, had said of the dictator, “He gave the order.” She was just 12 when she and her mother were taken to an army base and raped. The soldiers released her but she never saw her mother again.

The dead cannot be brought back to life nor can all the mental and physical scars of survivors be healed. However they have received some justice, and the message has been sent out that everyone, of whatever ethnic group or social class, deserves to be protected and treated with respect.

In South Africa, the quest for justice after apartheid ended took a different form. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up which heard from the victims of human rights abuses. Some of those guilty were spared punishment if they confessed what they had done. However there too those guilty of terrible crimes, even if supposedly carried out in defence of the state, were finally held to account, and families were able to find out what had happened to their loved ones. It was an opportunity for both the violent and victims of violence to tell, and hear, the truth.

In other countries too, past abuses which have gone uncorrected still cast a shadow over the present. In Sri Lanka, between the late 1970s and early 1990s, numerous people died or had their lives shattered. The security forces and their paramilitary allies slaughtered huge numbers and abused others or drove them from their homes and livelihoods. Others suffered and sometimes died at the hands of the Tigers, other Tamil nationalist groups and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who used their power to violate the safety, dignity and freedom of others.

Many Sri Lankans remain in denial about the horror of those years and resist calls to unearth (sometimes literally) the evidence. Some, obviously, are fearful that what they – or those close to them – did, or failed to do, will be exposed, while others may prefer to shy away from confronting the scale of suffering. The fact that certain leading figures in the government and opposition may be implicated has added to the pressure to let the past stay buried.

However this refusal to get to grips with what happened is not only unjust to the dead, the bereaved and the traumatised but may be largely to blame for the massive violence that has taken place in twenty-first century Sri Lanka and ongoing ethnic, religious and social divisions. What is more, all civilians are at risk when the state is regarded as unaccountable to anyone, able to torture, burn and kill with impunity.

In Guatemala and beyond, the process of unearthing the past and acknowledging former wrongs is sometimes painful. But unless this is done, there is little chance of healing wounds and building a truly just and peaceful society.

  • Ron

    I remember Rios Montt from his time in office. He was an evangelical born-again Christian who had the backing of the extreme right wingers in the US Republican party and the then government of the USA. He and his fellow killers were lauded by the US due to their autocractic, murderous methods all across Central America. The Americans had a saying about Somoza in Nicaragua, ‘he may be a bastard but he’s OUR bastard’. The same could be said for Rios Montt, he was a bastard of America’s creation. They should be in the dock with him!

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Ms. Savitri Hensman,

    Does the Language that you have used here show a bias towards the Tamil Terrorist Movements and a desire to shield them?

    Are you not attempting to load the blame on Eelam movements that went against the LTTE terrorists while simultaneously downplaying the Terrible Atrocities perpetrated by the LTTE and other Eelam Terrorists who supported the LTTE? Not only on Sinhalese and Muslims but on their own People the Tamils.

    Example 1.
    The security forces and their paramilitary allies slaughtered huge numbers and abused others or drove them from their homes and livelihoods.

    Compared to

    Others suffered and sometimes died at the hands of the Tigers,

    Example 2

    other Tamil nationalist groups and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who used their power to violate the safety, dignity and freedom of others.

    Why was the JVP singled out for naming?
    Have you forgotten the names of the multitude of Tamil Eelam Terrorist groups?

    Have you forgotten the Human Shield and how they were exposed wilfully to Bombs, Shells and Bullets?

    Have you forgotten the main players who funded and sustained the war and are today within the umbrella of the purported Transnational govt of Tamil Eelam etc?

    Have you forgotten Adele Balasingham who is directly responsible for the destruction of tens of thousands of Tamil Children?

    Have any of them been brought to Justice?
    If the answer is no are they not enjoying impunity?

    But I do agree with you that all civilians are at risk when the state is above the Law.

    • Ron

      Interesting comment about Groundview’s clear bias in favour of Tamils. I suggested this a few months ago when I first subscribed. In Australia we have more and more undocumented Tamils arriving by leaky boats, attempting to prove that they’re ‘political refugees’, a very convenient mantra for economic refugees or others with a hidden background. We’ve already deported many back to Sri Lanka who have raised the suspicions of the Australian authorities that they may be security risks. Much of the Tamil Tigers funding came from the Tamil diaspora in Canada, Australia and the UK, we don’t want to see them regrouping for another attempt at civil unrest in Sri Lanka. It would be much appreciated if Sri Lankan police and security agencies could make greater efforts at stopping these people boarding the boats in the first instance.

      • Off the Cuff

        Dear Ron,

        In fairness to GroundViews, I think she should not be faulted for Ms Savitri Hensman’s opinions. The editorial at GV has Tamils on her staff but that has not prevented GV from publishing opinions that expose the separatist agenda.

        I have contributed nearly 3000 posts to GV and except in very rare instances my posts have been published on first submission. A handful needed resubmission for review by a different moderator and has been published.

        Overall, I find that GroundViews is one of the fairest moderated web sites on the web, that discusses issues related to Sri Lanka.

    • Dev

      Why doesn’t your government ask Adele to be extradited to SL?

      Your government has within its fold

      Daya master who is expected to contest the upcoming Northern provincial elections and maybe even be there CM candidate !

      Your ruling party’s (one of the ) deputy leader’s if I am not mistaken is none other than Karuna

      Your government is having within itself KP the new leader (after Prabakaran’s death) and chief arms purchaser of the LTTE-why not charge him?

      Your government has within its fold people like Pilliya…….so take action, you…we the Tamils won’t stop you….in fact applaud you !

      • Off the Cuff

        Dear Dev,

        I sympathise with your predicament.

        It is not the Sri Lankan Govt that is beating the “Independent Investigation” Tom Tom. It is the Tamil separatists who are doing that. Judging from the reaction that my comment has elicited from you, you are undoubtedly one of them.

        If you and the separatists had the intelligence to asses the Political Environment of Sri Lanka, not only KP, Karuna, Pilliyan and Daya Master even Prabhakaran would be living and would have been the Chief Minister of the North and East Provincial council today. But then the separatists like you never had that intelligence.

        As for Adelle, who is a self confessed war criminal, those countries and the Tamil Separatists who are calling for an “Independent Investigation” should prove their bona fide by prosecuting the war criminals living amongst them.

        Sri Lanka has her own way of treating those who have shown repentance and has eschewed Terrorism and Violence. The Leader of the Women’s wing Thamilini (former lieutenant of Adele) is due for release soon (according to today’s Daily Mirror) and she is contemplating contesting the Northern PC elections.

        That is how Sri Lanka deals with those who eschew violence and separatism.

        • Dev

          Ah the usual trick, anyone who critiques your govt is a LTTE supporter, for the record I am not but I am sure if you lived during the 40s you would have branded every German a Nazi as well !!

          Well I say let those who seek to bring MR/Gota to justice do their job and your govt can deal with the former LTTE as it wishes !

          As for me, well I think the international image of SL right now is justice in itself !

          • Off the Cuff

            Dear Dev,

            Are you able to understand English?
            I said that you were a Tamil Separatist judging from the reaction to my post.

            I did not say you were a LTTE supporter.
            But your knee jerk defence indicates the real possibility that you are one despite your protestations.

            My post was a critique of Ms Savitri Hensman’s language which definitely UNDERPLAYED the role of the LTTE and OVERPLAYED the role of the Eelam groups that went against the LTTE and the govt. Ms Hensman thought it fit to name the JVP (the Sinhala terrorists of the 1970’s) but could not recall the names of the MULTITUDE of Pro LTTE terrorist organisations.

            You tried to subvert the main theme of my post by ignoring everything but Adele. Was that a trick you played and lost? Is the only defence that you have when your mischievous darts boomerang on you, is crying like a baby?

            It is the Tamil Separatists and their supporters (like Gordon Weiss, Yasmin Sooka, CH4, Times on Line etc), some Western Countries driven by politico’s with an eye on the Tamil diaspora vote bank and Ban Ki Moon’s UN that are beating the “Independent War Crime Investigation” Tom Toms. Hence it is they who should start the ball rolling by bringing to book those war criminals living with IMPUNITY in their midst. Adele is a self confessed high profile War Criminal who lives under the nose of the British govt, a prominent Tom Tom beater.

            Those who led the fund raising on LTTE’s behalf are also war criminals. Independent investigations of the TGTE, WTO, BTF, LTS, TYO, TOT, TRO, CTYA etc will unearth many such War Criminals hiding in the wood work. ALL of them are within easy reach to the Tom Tom beaters. Yet we see these War Criminals enjoying COMPLETE IMPUNITY.

            Sri Lanka has dealt with Sri Lankan national, Tamilini, Adele’s successor as the head of the Tamil Female Tigers, with compassion. Let’s see Justice meted out to the Foreign Terrorist that decimated a complete generation of Sri Lankan Tamil children by sending them to premature graves.

            Lets see the hundreds of thousands of Tamil terror flag wavers seeking Justice for the Tamil Children that died an untimely death at the hands of the Pied Piper Adele and the Fund raisers.

  • Savitri Hensman

    In this article, as in other pieces I have written over the years, I have condemned violence against civilians by the Tigers and other rebel groups as well as the government, and that the Tiger leaders’ actions contributed to the carnage that occurred towards the end of the war. I named the JVP because they do not fall into the category of ‘other Tamil groups’.

    I do not believe that human rights abuses by the military justify similar abuses by rebel groups and vice versa, whether in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or any other part of the world. In an earlier piece in Groundviews in April 2011, I referred to ‘grave abuses by both the Sri Lankan government and Tigers as the war drew to an end… some Sri Lankans – both government and Tiger supporters – are in deep denial that “their” side could possibly have done any wrong.’ Such denial remains a serious problem. I am also old enough to remember when various excuses were found for the work of death squads in the South of Sri Lanka.