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An Imperfect Success – The Guatemalan Genocide Trial and the Struggle against Impunity for International Crimes

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On 10 May 2013, a Guatemalan trial court rendered a historic judgment, convicting former President José Efraín Ríos Montt to an 80-year prison sentence for genocide and war crimes. On 20 May 2013, in a 3–2 majority decision, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment on procedural grounds. The Constitutional Court’s annulment decision, decried by international observers as a defeat of justice, seems to reaffirm the impossibility of successful domestic prosecution of powerful leaders for international crimes and reinforce the need for international prosecutions. However, such a conclusion does not do justice to the profound meaning the genocide trial against Ríos Montt has had for Guatemalan society. This article aims to give a more complete picture. It discusses how the trial could come about, in spite of the apparent inability and unwillingness of the Guatemalan state to prosecute the serious crimes of the civil war era. It looks at the role that the international community and international law played in the trial. Finally, it assesses the trial’s significance, in the face of the Constitutional Court’s annulment decision, for both Guatemalan society and the international community.

Affiliations: 1: Doctoral candidate, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, Leiden University, Leiden, the Netherlands; 2: Doctoral candidate, Amsterdam Center for International Law, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands


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