President Clinton’s recent trip to China focused on the major issue of human rights abuses. However, the concern suspiciously seems to be motivated more by economics than ethics. Pressure from human rights organizations obligates the United States to conduct a human rights abuses cleanup campaign before any further opening of the trade doors with China. On the other side of the planet is Guatemala, not a strong contender for increased trade, but just as guilty of human rights horrors rivaling anywhere else in the world. In the aftermath of the murder of a Guatemalan Bishop last April and the rape of five American students from Maryland in January by thieves and gunmen, the Guatemalan Government responds poorly, and refuses to comply with human rights organizations in fulfilling obligations to victims of past atrocities.
A team of forensic anthropologists in Belen, Guatemala, have recently excavated the horribly brutalized remains of thousands of victims buried during the Guatemalan civil war. Crushed skulls and bone fragments tell most of the story. Atrocities were found at dozens of massacre sites. Thousands of interviews with survivors of the war fill in the details. Estimates of killings and disappearances hover around the 100,000 and 40,000 figures, respectively. Most victims were nonfighting citizens. Exhuming dozens of mass graves and burial pits started in 1991 when the government and leftist guerrillas declared peace. Many questions remain unanswered since many of the alleged perpetrators remain in power within the government and military. Some military officials claim the mass grave sites are victims of past earthquakes. As the government and military attempt to shift blame, they continue to refuse to hand over significant documents. A few military officials have come forward, but not enough.
Since 1997, Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission began an examination of thousands of human rights violations that took place in Guatemala during the bloody conflict between 1960 and 1996. Guatemalan authorities are accused of withholding certain information requested by the commission and are restricting access to military installations. The principal goal of the commission, as with any human rights violations aftermath, is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Survivors of the victims are due reparations and have the right to see that justice prevails.
Horror stories abound. Forensic anthropologists have been asked to assist in the analysis and inspection of other mass graves and burial sites in Bosnia, Rwanda, and other countries. DNA, matched with whatever remnants the victims’ survivors provide, holds the key to identification. These forensic anthropologists lead the way in bringing some kind of closure to the horrible nightmares so many survivors need. Their work uncovers the mysteries of the past and offers a shot at justice long buried with the victims. The work in Guatemala, supported by many human rights organizations, paves the way for a new democracy in Guatemala. America’s concerns and actions toward human rights violations ought not to be based on market potential, but based on ethics.