The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) today signed an important agreement with a Guatemalan network of human rights defenders working to unearth the truth about thousands of "disappeared people" and Indigenous victims of mass atrocity.
"We want to help break the long silence about gross human rights violations in Guatemala," CMHR president and CEO Stuart Murray said at a news event today with Guatemala's Memorial Para la Concordia project. "Awareness and discussion is what our Museum is all about, so this is a natural partnership."
Former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted last month in Guatemala Supreme Court for genocide against the Mayan Ixil people – the first leader in the world tried for genocide in his own country. However, the verdict was set aside by a constitutional court 10 days later. The ongoing trial has become a rallying point in the Guatemalan struggle for human rights.
The CMHR is currently hosting a visit to Canada by two leading Guatemalan human rights defenders – including the son of the country's first democratically elected president – with events in Winnipeg and Toronto. The executive director of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, just back from Guatemala where his organization is actively contributing to the Ríos Montt trial and other groundbreaking cases, also joined a panel discussion today co-hosted by the University of Winnipeg's Global College.
Julio Solórzano Foppa, chair of Memorial Para la Concordia, signed the CMHR Memorandum of Understanding along with Vivian Salazar Monzón, director of Guatemala's International Institute of Learning for Social Reconciliation. Foppa said rebuilding collective memory is crucial for a country facing enormous challenges, still highly polarized, rife with racism, and among the most violent in the world.
"To move forward, we need reconciliation based on acknowledging the truth," said Solórzano Foppa, son of reformist former president Juan José Arévalo (elected 1944) and famous poet Alaide Foppa – who was kidnapped and disappeared in 1980. Two of her sons (Julio´s brothers) were also victims of Guatemala´s armed conflict. "Our partnership with the CMHR is a step towards those goals."
Under the agreement, the CMHR and the Memorial Para la Concordia project will collaborate to enhance public understanding of human rights, including sharing of information and expertise, temporary exhibit loans and academic cooperation. The Guatemalan project promotes human rights and reconciliation, with a goal of building a memorial and museum around the site of the National Police Historic Archives. Discovered by chance in an abandoned building in 2005, the voluminous archives provide important evidence of gross human rights violations ordered by the state before 1996, when fragile Peace Accords ended 36 years of civil war.
Human rights workers in Guatemala (themselves frequent targets of attacks) are also reclaiming bodies from mass disposal sites and conducting DNA tests to identify them – helping families deal with their loss and gain strength to assert their rights. These efforts are being led by Fredy Peccerelli of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Colombia in Prince George. CMHR representatives travelled to Guatemala in February to learn more about their work.
There are other significant Canadian links to Guatemala's human rights struggle. Ramiro Osorio Cristales, who lives in Canada, was one of the only survivors of a gruesome massacre of 200 people in the village of Dos Erres. Cristales was five years old when the military murdered his entire family in 1982. He was a key witness in groundbreaking Guatemalan convictions in 2011 and 2012 of five army officers for their role in the massacre. He came to Canada under a witness protection program.
Last September in Calgary, alleged Guatemalan war criminal Jorge Sosa Orentes – who was living in Lethbridge – was extradited to the United States, accused of having participated in the Dos Erres massacre. Ríos Montt is also charged for his alleged involvement in this massacre, in addition to charges of genocide of the Mayan Ixil.
Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) has been providing direct legal support in these historic trials, with assistance from the Government of Canada. LWBC was also the principal supporter of the Human Rights Law Office of Guatemala.
"There have recently been historic legal advances in condemning the perpetrators of atrocities in Guatemala, thanks to tireless efforts by survivors, relatives and human rights defenders over the last 30 years," LWBC director general Pascal Paradis said today in Winnipeg. "But these extraordinary cases do not mean that impunity has disappeared. The Ríos Montt trial is a live reality check. The guilty verdict obtained after a hard-fought battle has been overturned, and the ultimate outcome is now uncertain."
Currently under construction in Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights in Canada. It is the first national museum to be established since 1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region. It opens in 2014.