The Maya Ixil community, with the support of the Guatemalan community, and the international community, has just won a monumental achievement in the development of international human rights law. Thirty-one years after the Guatemalan military wiped more than 500 indigenous villages off the map, General Efrain Rios Montt, the head of state at the time of the worst violence, has been successfully prosecuted for genocide by the country’s own equivalent of the Department of Justice. The trial has been an amazing labyrinth of procedural manipulation, but, at the end of the day, Guatemala–at times nearly a failed state–has set an historic first as the first country to prosecute genocide in its national courts. One of the most common criticisms of international human rights law is that by circumventing local courts, it lacks legitimacy. Today, a group of courageous men and women who have been waiting over 30 years for their truth to be acknowledged, have given the entire world an example to follow. Today the memory of martyred bishop Monseñor Gerardi, thousands of church workers, and, most importantly, tens of thousands of people whose names are lost to history shines brightly. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The genocide was allowed to occur in large part because of the silence of the international press. Villages burned in silence. Today, with this verdict announced, there is a very real chance of civil unrest or even violence. We didn’t keep our eyes on Guatemala in 1982, but let’s do it in 2013. For coverage, check out the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala and riosmontrial.org, or follow Xeni Jardin’s excellent twitter feed.