The 1996 Peace Accords
In addition to officially marking the end of hostilities between leftist insurgents and the Guatemalan government, the UN-brokered 1996 peace accords established a starting point from which to address historical grievances leading to the conflict and begin the construction of a more equitable society. From the start, the agreements established a fact-finding mission known as the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) to investigate culpability for wartime atrocities committed largely against the country’s Mayan population. The CEH and an independent wartime inquiries body created by Guatemala’s Catholic Church, the Recuperation of the Historical Memory Project (REMHI), blamed the vast majority of atrocities on the army, with some violations also committed on the part of the guerrillas. Since the findings, many family members of victims of the civil war have sought to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity, including genocide, torture, and illegal arrest. Because of the inadequacies of the Guatemalan judiciary, many have been forced to seek recourse in international courts, as in the case of the suit filed in a Spanish court under universal jurisdiction by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation against eight government officials accused of crimes against humanity.
The accords also created an ambitious framework for reestablishing the rule of law as the country returned to peacetime while also seeking to address the war’s underlying causes. In this regard, agreements were reached in the following areas: human rights, socioeconomic and agrarian issues, the strengthening of civil society and the role of the army in a democratic society, and rights and identity of indigenous peoples. Interestingly, these were negotiated by the establishment of a consensus among various sectors of society working with the Guatemalan government to have their interests and demands addressed at the negotiating table.
The first accord in the long process of negotiations dating to 1991 was the Human Rights Accord, signed in March 1994. While human rights were already guaranteed on paper in the 1986 Constitution, the accord was significant in that it created a new mechanism for ending their systematic violation via a UN verification mission known as MINUGUA.
The Accord on Socioeconomic and Agrarian Issues officially recognizes poverty as a problem and hints at government responsibility to ensure the well-being of the general populace. It committed the government to increasing the tax base as a percentage of GDP from 8 percent (the lowest in the hemisphere) to 12 percent within the next four years. A glaring omission was the ubiquitous issue of land reform. The government’s conservative economic policies and the need to get Guatemala’s wealthy elites to support the peace process were undoubtedly behind the relative weakness of this accord’s reach.
In contrast, a relatively far-reaching accord, if fully implemented, is the Accord on Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Army in a Democratic Society, signed in September 1996. It covers the demilitarization of Guatemalan society, in which the military has long had its tentacles, requiring far-reaching constitutional reforms to be fully implemented. The accord limits the role of the military to the defense of Guatemala’s territorial integrity. It eliminated the much-hated Civil Defense Patrols and counterinsurgency security units while reducing the size and budget of the military by a third. It also created a new civilian police force to replace the notoriously corrupt Policia Nacional with a mandate to guarantee citizen safety. Last, it mandates necessary reforms of the judicial system to eliminate pervasive impunity. The importance of this last point cannot be understated, as the state of the judiciary serves as a type of barometer in the progress report for Guatemala’s democratization. As the CEH described in its final report:
The justice system, non-existent in large areas of the country before the armed confrontation, was further weakened when the judicial branch submitted to the requirements of the dominant national security model…by tolerating or participating directly in impunity, which concealed the most fundamental violations of human rights, the judiciary became functionally inoperative with respect to its role of protecting the individual from the State, and lost all credibility as guarantor of an effective legal system. This allowed impunity to become one of the most important mechanisms for generating and maintaining a climate of terror.
The 1995 Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples issues a groundbreaking call to amend the 1985 Constitution to redefine Guatemala as ”multiethnic, multilingual and pluricultural.” Its full implementation requires deep reforms in the country’s educational, judicial, and political systems, laying the foundation for a new entitlement of Guatemala’s indigenous majority to make claims upon the state and creating a new context for social interactions. It thus goes beyond mere antidiscrimination protections for Guatemala’s indigenous majority.
The far-reaching accords offer hope for the construction of a brand-new Guatemala among more equitable lines. The implementation of the reforms called for in the accords, however, has been a daunting task. A major blow to the implementation of the peace accords came in 1999 after a constitutional referendum defeated 50 proposed reforms. Although the peace accords called for only 12 such changes, it is believed that many Guatemalans voted against the package of 50 reforms because they simply felt uninformed about what they were voting to approve. The government did little to explain the nature of the numerous complex reforms or to promote their approval. Voter apathy was widespread with just 18 percent of eligible voters participating in the referendum. In areas where voters were mostly in favor of the reforms, mainly the rural areas most affected by the civil war, voter turnout was generally less than in the capital, which voted overwhelmingly against them.
Whatever the reasons, failure to implement the key changes to Guatemala’s legal framework to allow full implementation of the accords meant change would have to come via the legislature. In Guatemala, this is easier said than done. The Portillo administration, in office from 2001 to 2004, was particularly reluctant to implement the main elements of the accords or to use them as a basis for the elaboration of government policy. Observers pointed out that the peace process stalled, and in many cases receded, under Portillo. Among the most critical areas requiring immediate attention were human rights, justice, and security.
The peace accords were officially taken up again by the Berger administration as government policy with concrete plans for new legislation to address many of the pending elements of the agreements. Many laws associated with the accords had trouble making their way through Congress, however, in a legislative assembly that was notorious for its inability to reach consensus on many issues. On a positive note, the reduction of the military by one-third was completed, as stipulated in the accords, and a plan for its modernization is in the works. Its official mandate now includes protecting the country’s borders and combating drug traffic, environmental depredation, and smuggling of illegal immigrants.
In the end it can be said that the peace accords have brought some degree of benefit to Guatemalan society. Some of the agreements have been fully complied with, state repression ended, and some opening for political participation has been opened up in recent years. There are still, however, many lingering issues, including lack of security, poverty, socioeconomic exclusion, and a high degree of confrontation between varying sectors of society. Structural problems also persist, a case in point being the glaring deficiencies in the judiciary, leaving it open to manipulation and corruption while preventing it from being truly at the service of the country’s citizenry. In essence, what we are seeing is a reflection of the peace accords’ intimate connection to the process of Guatemala’s continued democratization. Ironically, it is this very process of democratization that opened the door for the ending of the civil war via negotiations in the first place and that will ensure that the spirit and the letter of the accords are eventually fulfilled.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com