The Law is the Law

Former Guatemalan president Rios Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Montt was convicted for his role in the murders of 1,700 Ixil Mayan people in the 1980s.

Maybe it's an appropriate moment to remember a couple of Rios Montt's fellow criminals, Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla. Is it possible to say 'criminals' when referring to popes and western presidents or prime ministers? It's an ordinary word for people who commit or aid and abet murder. Neither was put on trial – that would be an unthinkable proposition for opinion makers in Washington and other western capitals. Both are celebrated as heroes in gushing works of fiction that sometimes pass for history.
President Ronald Reagan sold millions of dollars worth of jeeps, trucks, helicopters, small attack aircraft, transport planes, grenade launchers and other military supplies, both openly and covertly, to the Guatemalan military. Guatemalan officers were trained at the Pentagon's School of the Americas in Panama and in Honduras. Reagan connived at and promoted their activities.(1)


The US president claimed that the Guatemalan dictator General Rios Montt, a graduate of the School of the Americas, was "totally dedicated to democracy" and had got a "bum rap" (2) from human rights organizations – an injustice meted out by at least one of the same organizations to Reagan himself. (3)


According to the Historical Clarification Commission, a UN backed independent human rights organization, the Guatemalan military committed "acts of genocide" against the Mayans. "These massacres and the so-called scorched earth operations, as planned by the State, resulted in the complete extermination of many Mayan communities, along with their homes, cattle, crops and other elements essential to survival… demonstrating an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to the extermination en masse, of defenceless Mayan communities purportedly linked to the guerrillas – including children, women and the elderly…These are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala's history". 

"(US) military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation." 

200,000 people were killed and 50,000 disappeared during the civil war (1960-1990). Ninety-three per cent of human right violations were committed by the state, three per cent by the guerillas. Eighty-three per cent of the victims were Mayans. The vast majority of victims were civilians.(4)

Numbers and abstract sentences cannot convey any sense of the unbelievable acts of barbarity described elsewhere in the Commission's report and in those of other human rights organizations.

The slaughter reached its peak in 1983 during Reagan's presidency with his full support, and continued thereafter with continued backing from Washington. 


Perhaps killing American Indians was just business as usual for an ex cowboy actor, as it clearly was for the media which had already beatified him: "We're seeing a regular syndrome . . . a media that is far too uncritical of the powerful, coming out afterward like a drunk on a bender, saying "Woe is us, we didn't ask enough tough questions,' " wrote Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at FAIR. (5) 


Reagan's policies in Latin America were cloaked in the moral authority of Rome, an ongoing crusade against godless 'communists' blessed by Karol Wojtyla, the pope. That was the media-savvy pope who made a habit of kneeling down and kissing the ground in every country he visited. In 1983 he kissed the earth in several Latin-American countries…earth that contained the remains of hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, students, liberals, socialists, social workers, communists, democrats who opposed right wing dictatorships. Some were just plain farmers who made the mistake of forming cooperatives to buy the farm machinery they couldn't afford individually. But for the US backed death squads they were 'communists' who deserved to be abducted, tortured and murdered.

In the particular case of Guatemala, Rios Montt happened to be a born again Christian fundamentalist who was actively hostile to the catholic church, and to the efforts of local priests to protect the Mayans, thus the "violence, torture, arbitrary arrests and killings" that in El Salvador and other countries passed unremarked became an appropriate subject for a papal diatribe, "also making a polemical anti-protestant point."(6) 


Elsewhere in Latin America the papal writ looked somewhat different. Typically, in Nicaragua, where tens of thousands of people died during Reagan's assault on the country, Wojtyla condemned and sacked liberation theologians who had sided with the poor and the disposessed against the military dictatorship of Anastasio Somosa, and promoted reactionary priests and bishops who supported the right-wing elites. On his visit to Nicaragua in 1983 he refused, theatrically wagging his finger in front of cameras, to shake the hand of Fr Ernesto Cardinal, the minister of culture in the Sandinista government, denounced 'iglesia popular' as a perversion of the Eucharist with "ferocious intensity"… "his right hand soared the air in trenchant gestures of negation…as though he had long been burdened with these thoughts, and had come to Central America to say this above all else."(7)


Two days later in El Salvador the representative of Jesus Christ on earth shook hands with Major Roberto D'Aubisson, presumably finding the major's sins to be insignificant in the context of their higher purpose. D'Aubisson was founder of the extreme right-wing ARENA party, president of the Salvadoran parliament, organizer of the Salvadoran death squads and suspected to have been behind the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero three years earlier.


Wojtyla, in a general sort of way, took a dim view of torture and murder, unless the perpetrators, like Reagan, D'Aubisson and others, happened to have God on their side. 

Reputed to have possessed one of the finest minds of the fifth century, he is on the way to being canonized as a saint. Reagan has already been canonized by those whose job it is to decontaminate history and make it safe for the powerful. 




A month after the publication of the Historical Commission report on genocide against the Mayan people, President Clinton almost apologized for US culpability in Guatemala; presidentially circumscribing genocide as mere 'repression' and downgrading US crimes to a 'mistake':

"For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala." (8)


Clinton didn't propose putting any members of the Reagan administration on trial for genocide, or as joint principals or accessories to murder which would be an easier charge (the US didn't ratify the Genocide Convention until 1986). A joint principal must be shown to have independently contributed to the crime. An accessory who gives limited or indirect help is regarded under common law as equally guilty with the actual perpetrator, although this is not always the case under current laws in some jurisdictions. In many jurisdictions today an accessory can be prosecuted even if the principal actor is not put on trial or is acquitted.

All this not relevant for heads of state who can still hide behind 'functional immunity' for crimes committed while in office. That archaic exception needs to be abolished and the law applied impartially. The ICC is making some progress in applying the principles laid down at Nuremberg for international crimes.
And the fact that Montt ended up on trial at all is a sign of changing attitudes.

A Chatham House briefing on the subject reveals the kind of thinking holding back progress: 'The International Law Commission of the UN is working on the subject but it is uncertain whether it will help resolve the current uncertainties in a way that reflects the delicate balance of interests in play.'(9) That is the kind of lawmaking that delicately tries to frame laws to exclude more powerful mafia bosses, or medieval barons, while catching those who are not currently in favour.
If you're talking about criminal law there can be no 'delicate balance of interests at play'. For ordinary people that's not hard to understand, but for many close to the centres of power it's an impenetrable intellectual conundrum. It can be put quite simply: 
Question: What's the law?
Answer: 'The law is the law' is the law.


*On 21 May the Constitutional Court annulled Montt's conviction and ordered the trial to re-start from the point it had reached on 19 April.



(1) William Blum, Killing Hope (2003), p 237-8, citing NYT June 21, 1981, Guardian 20 January 1982, San Francisco Chronicle, 27 August 1981, Washington Post 21 October 1982, Guardian 10 January 1983 

(2) Dec 4, 1982

(3) eg Human Rights Watch: "In light of its long record of apologies for the government of Guatemala, and its failure to repudiate publicly those apologies even at a moment of disenchantment, we believe that the Reagan Administration shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights practiced by the government of Guatemala" – Guatemala: A Nation of Prisoners, An Americas Watch Report, January 1984

(4) Commission for Historical Clarication, Guatemala's truth and reconciliation commission, set up in 1994, published its report 25 February 1999


(5) St Petersburg Times, 11 June 2004 

(6) Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope John Paul and the Church, 1995

(7) ibid

(8) U.S. President Clinton, March 10, 1999

(9) http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Law/bp1111_foakes.pdf

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