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Reclaiming historic memory and public space in Guatemala

27 February 2014
by Aisling Walsh, Guatemala
 
The 25th of February 2014 marked the 15th anniversary of the publication of ‘Memory of Silence’. 
 
This report on the findings of the Guatemalan Truth Commission, documented the acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave human rights violations that were committed by the State security forces during Guatemala's internal armed conflict that lasted 36 years. 
 
This historic day has been commemorated each year since 1999 as the when survivors, witnesses and families of those who died come together with human rights organisations and civil society in Guatemala to honour the memory of those who were massacred, tortured, disappeared and raped during the internal armed conflict. 
 
guatemala day of dignity
Top: Children light candles to remember the victims of the conflict. Bottom: Memorials to those who died or disappeared during the internal armed conflict. Photos: Aisling Walsh
 
The publication of ‘Memory of Silence’ in 1999 was a crucial step in the search for justice for victims of the conflict and their families. 
 
In the intervening years some progress towards achieving justice has been achieved, primarily as a result of the ceaseless activism and advocacy of civil society groups such as Trócaire’s partners the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). 
 
Most notable was last year’s trial of former president General Ríos Montt, who was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. /blogs/justice-in-guatemala-as-rios-montt-found-guilty-of-genocide
Nevertheless, it seems that for every step taken towards a more just society in Guatemala conservative forces pull the country another two steps back. 
 
Only ten days following the sentencing of Ríos Montt the Constitutional Court overturned the guilty verdict on the pretext of procedural irregularities during the trial, and set a date for retrial for January 2015. 
 
In February this year the Guatemalan Constitutional Court took the unanimous decision to dismiss the current Attorney General and Chief State Prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, before the completion of her full term in office. She presided over the historical Ríos Montt trial and has been active in pursuing cases of femicide, violence against women and corruption. 
 
This year’s celebration of the ‘National Day for the Dignity of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict in Guatemala’ was seen as an opportune moment to remind the government and the general public of the importance of the ‘Memory of Silence’ report and the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations and the non-repetition of past crimes. 
 
Many activities centred on creating spaces for children and young people to learn about the history of the internal armed conflict and the importance of continuing the pursuit of justice in order to achieve a truly peaceful and free Guatemala. 
School children, teenagers, performers, musicians and civil society organisations took over a whole block of downtown Guatemala City for a festival of art, theatre, music, poetry and dance to commemorate the victims of the conflict and to demonstrate their solidarity with Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey. 
 
This symbolic act of reclaiming public space was particularly powerful in the current context of increasingly oppressive laws aimed at restricted civil society mobilisation and repression of human rights advocates here in Guatemala.