Reconciling with the past
When a committee of three internationally renowned jurists and human rights scholars appointed under the Oslo Accord to look into the Guatemalan conflict, handed over their report to the country's leaders not so long ago, it was apt that their findings should be prefaced by an appeal from a survivor's testimony that " Let the history we lived, be taught in the schools so that it is never forgotten, so that our children may know it".

Fast on its way to being acknowledged as one of the most extensive recent analyses detailing the fragmentation of a country's morality and dignity, the report of the three member commission piquantly called the Commission for Historical Clarification (the point being that it was not established to judge but rather to clarify the history of the civil war), makes compulsory reading for us. Indeed, there are many points of comparison and few of departure.

The report of the Commission documents an exceptionally moving account of three decades of agony. It expressed the hope that the violence and horrors described in the report should leave no room for despair. That, " …………(on the contrary), despite the shock that the nation should suffer upon seeing itself reflected in the mirror of its past, it was to be hoped that the truth would lead to reconciliation………………, the victims whose past had been degraded and manipulated will be dignified (while) the perpetrators, through the recognition of their immoral and criminal acts, will be able to recover the dignity of which they had deprived themselves."

Its main purpose was to place on record Guatemala's bloody past, for though it is accepted that the country's armed confrontation, largely between its ruling elite and the ethnic Mayan people, had caused death and destruction, the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by its people has yet to become part of the national consciousness.

Its mandate was to seek for answers to some bewildering questions. Why were innocent people compelled to live under the shadow of fear, death and disappearances for more than 34 years? Why were there daily threats in the lives of ordinary citizens having no connection with armed groups or paramilitary groups? Who can explain the extreme human rights abuses committed by both forces and specially by the State? Why did defenceless children suffer acts of savagery? Why did these acts of outrageous brutality, which showed no respect for the most basic rules of humanitarian law, religious ethics and cultural spirituality, take place? All questions, undoubtedly, of intense relevance to us.

The indictment that the Commission delivered on Guatemala's leaders, both state and non-state, is severe. The number of persons killed since the outbreak of the internal armed confrontation in 1962 were estimated to be over two hundred thousand with state forces and related paramilitary being responsible for 93% of the deaths. Guerrilla forces were held accountable for only 3% of these atrocities while the remaining 4% concerned deaths where it has not been possible to determine responsibility.

The victims included men, women and children of all social strata, working professionals, church members, politicians, peasants, students and academics. In ethnic terms, the vast majority were Mayans.

The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state. Interestingly, the Commission dismissed the excuse that lower ranking army officers were acting with a wide margin of autonomy without orders from their superiors. It reminds, in overtones of general familiarity for us, that no high commander, officer or person in the midlevel command of the Army or state security forces were tried or convicted for human rights abuses in all those years.

Those convictions that did, in fact, occur applied only to significantly lower ranking personnel whose trials were attended with monumental publicity. It is on this basis that the Commission, presupposing the reasoning of the UN Human Rights Committee in more recent times, takes the violations to be the result of an institutional policy, with impunity for those aberrant officers.

On the other hand, high level responsibility for abuses is not imposed on the state alone. Guerrilla high military commanders were held accountable for deliberate attacks on civilians. The role of the church in the Guatemalan conflict was also critiqued on the basis that the divisive policies it adopted led to a further fragmentation of the national identity.

While the manner in which the Commission has pinpointed responsibility for past violations is important, the value of its report for us lies equally in what has been detailed as imperative measures for the process of national healing. Thus, it directs that, in the name of the State of Guatemala and with the primary aim of restoring dignity to the victims, the President of the Republic and the leaders of the political and military forces responsible for the violations assume responsibility for past violations and ask pardon for them.

It is a profound irony that a decade and more down the line, Sri Lanka's leaders have yet not complied with a similar duty in respect of the forty to sixty thousand "disappeared" persons in this country.

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