“The verdict has been obtained, justice has been achieved; sadness is no longer”, states Demecia Yat, President of the Jalok U Collective, which gathers survivors of sexual violence and armed conflict from Sepur Zarco and surrounding communities.
During the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), in the military base of Sepur Zarco, 15 indigenous q’eqchi’ women were forced to clean the soldiers’ clothes, cook, and serve them without pay, while being subjected to physical and sexual abuse for months or sometimes years on end, receiving anti-contraceptive pills and injections to prevent pregnancies. This week, on the occasion of the 2nd anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we gain inspiration from the Sepur Zarco women whose courage and determination culminated in the first ever condemnation by a Guatemalan court recognizing in 2016 wartime sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery as crimes against humanity.
Judicial processes: victims at the forefront
Breaking with tradition, whereby perpetrators are at the core of criminal proceedings and victims merely at the service of their conviction, the Sepur Zarco women undertook to make the process their own. In 2014, they organised to establish the Jalok U Collective and became plaintiffs in the case so they could claim justice, moving beyond victimhood. The indigenous women participated in all phases of the trial, before a Western system functioning in Spanish, and were involved in a continuous dialogue with the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Impunity, composed of the civil society organisations ECAP, MTM and UNAMG which accompanied them, the latter two as co-plaintiffs. Currently, the women’s leadership inspires other female victims of the armed conflict to pursue their own quest for justice. Their efforts thus highlight the significant potential of victim participation in judicial processes and strategic litigation to instigate both individual and broader societal transformation.
Pre-empting threats: victims, witnesses and human rights defenders
In a climate of generalised impunity, where former security sector officials involved in human rights violations continue to wield power, the Attorney General’s Office filed petitions for all investigations to be kept secret and the case to be moved to the High Risk Court B in Guatemala City. In view of the threats, intimidation and defamatory media statements, including the women being called out as “prostitutes” through megaphones in front of the tribunal, additional safeguards proved indispensable. Preventative measures comprising digital security, safe housing and transport were therefore taken for witnesses and technical teams. Security at the community level was especially challenging given the risks posed by the perpetrators and their families, as well as local recruits of the military veterans association; this led to all work by the Alliance being carried out outside of Sepur Zarco. The significant presence by the general public and accompaniment by human rights organisations throughout the trial demonstrated solidarity and played an important role in safeguarding their physical integrity. The shawls which they used in court to cover their faces where taken off once the verdict was handed down. Victim and witness protection as well as guaranteeing the security of human rights defenders are thereby critical in the pursuit of accountability and redress in post-conflict settings where entrenched structures of impunity are lingering.
Proving sexual violence 30 years after the fact?
During the pre-trial stage, sexual violence was qualified by the judge as a constitutive act of torture. In view of the plaintiffs’ desire to enhance the broader political visibility of sexual violence itself, the facts were instead re-qualified in the form of sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery, constitutive of crimes against humanity, during the confirmation of charges hearing. Historically, female victims rather than perpetrators have however been held responsible for these crimes. As a case in point, the survivors were referred to by the inhabitants of Sepur Zarco as “the women of the soldiers”, implying their consent. Nonetheless, the verdict squarely recognised the credibility of the women’s testimonies. Their testimonies took center stage as the most significant pieces of evidence, reflecting respect for their voice and overcoming patriarchal and discriminatory conceptions that continue to permeate the judiciary and undermine women’s agency. In a similar vein, an innovative approach was developed, relying on (18) expert reports to complement the victims’ testimonies and provide a holistic understanding of the facts. As the Sepur Zarco base no longer existed, they allowed for it to be re-constructed and for sexual violence and sexual slavery to be contexualised as part of the modus operandi of the army in the region, as pertaining to the long-standing fight for land rights by the Alta Verapaz communities. The expert reports and victims’ testimonies have thereby demonstrated that crimes of historic sexual violence can be proven without stringent requests for DNA identification. Sepur Zarco now charts the way forward as regards the domestic implementation of international norms on evidentiary standards, as already reproduced in similar cases in Argentina.
Strategic litigation: multi-disciplinary approach and psycho-legal design
Notably, the litigation strategy of the Sepur Zarco case was not confined to its, albeit essential, legal components, nor did it start there. It began with individual and group-based psycho-social accompaniment and training in women’s rights, which enabled the women to overcome fear, silence and isolation derived from the prevailing stigma. This permitted them to subsequently turn the judicial process into their own, as it ought to be. Important lessons have been the cultural appropriateness of psycho-social support that builds on women’s own coping mechanisms and attention to community dynamics to re-build social tissue. Of relevance have also been efforts to de-personalise experiences of sexual violence and inscribe them with the context of the q’eqchi’s on-going fight to defend their rights, land and identity, as well as to relate them to the historical exclusion of indigenous women derived from racism and discrimination by the Guatemalan State. As part of the subsequent psycho-legal design of the Sepur Zarco case, work with multi-disciplinary teams succeeded in building the bridge between legal and psychological discourses and the needs and expectations of victims during the trial itself. Not only the women themselves were engaged with. Of similar significance was the work with victims of sexual violence from other regions that generated a community support network, the engagement with community leaders so as to counter harmful rumours, initiatives with youth for awareness-raising and memory transmission, as well as the involvement of family members that led to the creation of self-help groups and tackling of inter-generational trauma
Towards the societal impact of criminal trials
To safeguard the success of these strategies, broader alliances and coordination with women’s and human rights organisations, as well as the international community were decisive in providing necessary, broad political support in a challenging environment and permitted that due process standards remained upheld. Poignant communications and pedagogical strategies likewise proved of significance to remove stigma, counter hate speech campaigns by pro-military groups, and question the normalisation of sexual violence both in times of war and peace, thereby fostering its non-repetition. Interestingly, alongside the conviction, the reparations decision not only ruled on financial compensation to be granted by the perpetrators, but also ordered the State to implement comprehensive measures pertaining to access to land, health care, education, memory and training of the security forces. While other initiatives remain to be implemented one year after the ruling, a mobile health clinic has been inaugurated and exhumations are taking place. The decision hereby sets an important precedent for reparations of a transformative nature to be ordered within a criminal case rather than before a human rights court, at the domestic level, alongside existing rulings by international tribunals.
While some might discard sexual violence as an inevitable by-product of war, the strategic litigation of the Sepur Zarco case paves the way for how we can, through sustained and coordinated action, break the silence, shift the stigma, and lift the veil of impunity to prevent and tackle persisting sexual violence in conflict-affected settings around the world.