Would you fight for justice if you and your loved ones were wronged? Would you stand up for what you believe in? Would you resist tyranny, oppression and persecution with all your might, or would you just sit idly by as your entire civilization was under attack? I would like to call your attention to a very serious issue, an issue that you might at first think has no direct bearing on your life, nor the lives of your loved ones. It is an issue in one particular country happening to a people you may have never heard of. Yet before you dismiss it out of hand, or write it off as irrelevant, take a moment to hear me out.
On 26 January 2012, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Ríos Montt was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt’s heinous crimes date back to his involvement in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 – 1996), where he is accused of overseeing and consenting to acts of systematic rape, torture, forced displacement and genocide against the Ixil people (a group of Maya indigenous to Guatemala). There were over 1700 Ixil murdered during this time, and over 200,000 total deaths committed by the Guatemalan Army under Ríos Montt’s command. The indictment was only the first step towards justice, but it was at least a start. Following the indictment, on 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt again appeared in court and this time he was was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison, becoming the first ever former head of state to be found guilty of genocide in his or her own country. The presiding judge was the Honorable Jazmín Barrios.
The Associated Press reports,
‘The three-judge panel essentially concluded that the massacres followed the same pattern, showing they had been planned, something that would not be possible without the approval of the military command, which Rios Montt headed. In delivering the verdict, Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios said, “he knew about everything that was going on and he did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it from being carried out.”
This is the same man that, in 1982, then President of the United States Ronald Reagan said was “A man of great personal integrity [...] totally dedicated to democracy”. This is also the same man who came into power after a CIA-backed coup in Guatemala. This is why you are not likely to hear the full back-story on the major network news channels in the United States.
Nobel Laureate, indigenous Guatemalan, and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú in response to the conviction of 10 May stated:
“The verdict against Ríos Montt is historic. We waited for 33 years for justice to prevail. It’s clear that there is no peace without justice. There is no peace without truth. We need justice for the victims for there to be real peace. This verdict is crucial. It complements a long process of investigation, of denouncing the abuses, and a process that the victims hope will heal and result in reparations […] and this is why I think that the conviction of Ríos Montt may provide an opportunity to close a chapter of our lives, a chapter of profound pain and a chapter that closes and allows us to begin a new relationship amongst Guatemalans, because during the genocide, we felt so alone, we felt powerless, and we felt that nobody had our back. But now a court has convicted Ríos Montt of genocide. So, for us, that suffices, that the fact that genocide was committed is recognized means that nobody will ever forget that genocide was committed.”
In an ideal world, when a criminal such as Efrain Rios Montt is convicted in a court of law for such horrible crimes as these we would expect that he would face his time in jail, we would expect that justice would be served, we would expect that the voices of all of the men, women and children that were devastated by the atrocities occurring under his command would be heard, and not only heard, but listened to, and not only listened to, but acted on. Yet this is not an ideal world, and oftentimes wrongs are never made right, responsibilities are shirked, and the word “justice” becomes a mere empty platitude—a thing hoped for that might never be fulfilled. On 20 May 2013, ten days after the conviction in the lower court, the country’s High Court overturned the previous ruling and ordered that all of the proceedings from 19 April through 10 May be annulled and repealed.
This was a devastating blow to the Ixil people and to all indigenous and human rights advocates across the planet. The annulment was due to jurisdictional disputes. However, the Guatemalan legal system is known to favor impunity for those in power, such as former and current heads of state. It appears that this case is being bogged down with unnecessary red-tape to prevent Rios Montt from facing the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, the Ixil community, along with all of the other survivors of the genocide attacks, are not giving up the fight. Their ongoing resistance in the face of persecution brings to mind the words of the late great historian and activist Howard Zinn, as stated in his book, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Time”:
“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”
The Ixil are an example of those special people Zinn is taking about, and it is indeed change that we need. The Ixil desperately need it in Guatemala, but they are not alone. Their struggle is in fact the struggle of all peoples who have ever been dismissed, persecuted, treated as less than human, jailed, raped, murdered, exploited, stamped out, cast off, ignored, taken advantage of, ridiculed and attacked for greed, profit and power. To allow this type of abuse to go unchecked, to allow those responsible to be absolved of their crimes, is not only an insult to the very people the crimes were committed against, but is also an acknowledgment of consent, a complacent agreement with the noxious deeds of the aggressors.
So I invite you to consider again what I asked at the beginning of this post; would you fight for justice if you and your loved ones were wronged? Would you stand up for what you believe in? Would you resist tyranny, oppression and persecution with all your might, or would you just sit idly by as your entire civilization was under attack?
Know this, your civilization is under attack. Our civilization is under attack. We the people of the world who respect and honor the sanctity of life, we the people of the world who celebrate diversity and culture, we the people of the world who can not for one minute accept that the wholesale slaughter of our brothers and sisters is just a matter of “collateral damage”, to be written off as of no consequence.
Where do you stand?
Here is a list of non-profit organizations aligned with the indigenous and human rights movement. Please consider becoming involved and/or donating to the cause of human rights.
In addition, please consider watching this documentary, titled The Mayan Word, which gives further details about the struggle of the Maya in Guatemala and elsewhere, as told in their own words.
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