Orlando Lopez, lead prosecuting attorney in the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, asked expert witnesses for the defense on Wednesday, April 10, 2013, whether they believed Guatemala has fulfilled its human rights obligations under the 1996 Peace Accords, which brought the country’s 36-year civil war to an end, and international law. Although presiding Judge Jazmín Barrios has repeatedly insisted that witnesses give succinct, concrete answers to attorneys’ questions, this topic necessitates more consideration than the simple “yes” response that it elicited in court. A full answer requires a response that encompasses both immediate and structural issues in Guatemala. First, any answer must be based on the particular situation involved on the basis of the record it produces and its ability to elicit the truth about—and accountability for—the atrocities committed. Second, an appropriate answer must address more broadly the state’s ability to foster human rights protection in the future. Although this trial is pioneering in its use of domestic proceedings to fulfill human rights obligations because of its first-ever use of a national court to try a former head of state for genocide, one trial can only go so far toward ending impunity and providing sufficient recognition of the harms done to countless victims. Thus, the standards used to determine whether Guatemala is in accordance with these obligations must be clear.

The most direct source of governing law on the issue is the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace (AFLP), which is an accord signed by the government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity-URNG), the largest rebel group, in December 1996 that ended 36 years of internal conflict in the country. The AFLP incorporated seven previous agreements between the parties, including the March 1994 Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights (CAHR), the June 1994 Agreement on the Establishment of the Commission to Clarify Past Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence that have Caused the Guatemala Population to Suffer, and the March 1995 Agreement on Identity and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as three operations agreements. The AFLP, as a binding accord, symbolized and required the strict end of hostilities between the government and the insurgents. This combined body of law that formed the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords instituted nearly 200 substantive commitments on behalf of the government to advance social, economic, and political reforms.

Under the 1994 CAHR, the Guatemalan government committed itself to the full respect and promotion of human rights. This included a commitment to take firm action against impunity (Article 3); to protect the freedoms of association and movement (Article 5); to protect human rights defenders (Article 7); and to compensate victims of human rights violations (Article 8). Likewise, the AFLP affirmed the Guatemalan people’s right to truth about human rights violations (Article 4) and acknowledged the importance of recognizing the identity and rights of indigenous communities (Article 5). The current trial, with direct victim testimony and evidence being presented by numerous experts, is at least a step toward the fulfillment of these provisions. However, not all of the human rights violations resulting from more than thirty years of internal armed conflict can be exposed during one trial. Questions still persist regarding the sufficiency of one trial weighed against countless victims, years of violence, and lingering discrimination and negative effects felt by the survivors.

In terms of international obligations, Guatemala acceded to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992, the same year it amended its criminal procedure code to include respect for human rights. Article 16 of the criminal procedure code requires domestic tribunals and other judicial authorities to comply with human rights obligations provided by the Guatemalan constitution and international treaties. Likewise, Guatemala acceded to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in April 2012, the same year it amended its criminal code to include crimes of international significance, such as genocide and crimes against humanity, under Chapter IV. Article 17 of the Rome Statute stipulates the principle of complementarity, by which a State Party’s own courts are given jurisdictional precedence over the international court if they are willing and able to carry out the investigation and prosecution. However, the events of 1982-83 would fall outside the ICC’s jurisdiction because it is only empowered to investigate and prosecute cases that occurred after the Rome Statute entered into force in Guatemala in 2012. Thus, it is even more notable that Guatemala effectively put itself in a position to investigate and prosecute the situation now under consideration through the relevant amendments to its criminal code, in line with international obligations, as there would currently be no other avenue to pursue criminal charges against the defendants.

However, as is the case with so many human rights issues, de jure and de facto protections are many times substantially different realities. On paper, Guatemala appears to be a country in which past human rights abuses are brought to justice and future ones are deterred. However, true fulfillment of the human rights obligations mentioned here will only come with a lasting democratic peace where impunity is not a possibility. Furthermore, as non-governmental organizations and news outlets have noted, Guatemala continues to experience insecurity and has historically been plagued by a weak justice system. The outcome of this trial, along with public sentiment about it, will do much to determine Guatemala’s future as a country where human rights are respected. Thus, the legacy of this trial will be just as important as the actual verdict. If, expanding on the remarkable judicial feat of this trial, the Guatemalan judiciary is able to protect against future violations and hold perpetrators accountable, the defense expert’s succinct “yes” might well prove true. On the other hand, if the historic Ríos Montt trial fails to set a precedent for the fulfillment of human rights obligations, human rights advocates in Guatemala and around the world will have lost an opportunity for accountability and justice.