Courageous woman’s struggle for justice in Guatemala

 <span class="cutline_leadin">GUATEMALA:</span> The country’s crusading attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz.
GUATEMALA: The country’s crusading attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz.
Moises Castillo / AP

Peace without justice is neither sustainable nor inclusive. Claudia Paz y Paz, the first woman to be attorney general of Guatemala, gets this. Since 2010, she has worked tirelessly to rebuild the justice system in a country that is still seeking to exorcise the demons of three decades of brutal civil war.

She has held war criminals and human-rights violators accountable for past wrongs, fought organized crime, empowered women to access justice and increased transparency in a country marred by extensive corruption. Today, her efforts as a courageous crusader of rule of law are in jeopardy.

Paz y Paz has made enemies, the numerous death threats she receives attested to that fact. And now, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has sought to oust Paz y Paz as attorney general well before the end of her term. This decision is contrary to the constitution and the presidential order that appointed her to this position, both of which designated a four-year term.

Her expulsion comes on the heels of a high-profile case she led against General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator accused of a genocidal campaign and various crimes against humanity, who continues to retain political influence. Ríos Montt was found guilty in 2013, but the decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court on technicalities despite the mountain of evidence in support of a guilty verdict.

The politically charged nature of this move raises serious questions about whether Guatemala has truly turned a new leaf.

The monumental task handed to Paz y Paz is shadowed by historical context. Between 1960 and 1996, more than 200,000 people were killed and many more were forcibly displaced in civil war. The peace accord signed in 1996 was never fully implemented and did little to heal deep social and political divides or to reverse the discrimination and disempowerment of ethnic minorities, the poor, and women.

Moreover, many of the alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the civil war — including “old guard” military leaders — kept key positions of authority, which they have used to shield them from prosecution for past crimes and to continue to steer the political and economic future of Guatemala.

By pursuing Ríos Montt and others like him, Paz y Paz has shown that no one is above the law. This includes perpetrators of rape, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. In this arena, Paz y Paz has been the architect of and advocate for creating a justice system responsive to women subjected to violence in a country that has the world’s highest rates of femicide.

Paz y Paz and her team have enacted protection measures for women, issued arrest warrants for sexual predators, created specialized services for victims, raised awareness to help prevent future crimes and empowered youth to reject extreme gender roles that perpetuate a culture of violence against women.

Paz y Paz cannot continue her quest for justice without support within her country and international commitment. What happens next in Guatemala has important national and regional consequences. In addition to attorney general, new appointments are expected soon for judges on the supreme and constitutional court as well as on the electoral commission.

These positions will shape Guatemala’s future. Cutting short Paz y Paz’s term for political motives will undermine the progress that has been made thus far to reform the justice system, establish rule of law, ensure a functioning democracy in Guatemala and provide redress for wounds that remain untreated throughout the country.

This is why she should be permitted to finish her term and, based on her accomplishments as attorney general, be considered for a second term.

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Donald Steinberg is president of World Learning and former deputy administrator of USAID.

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