WORLD -- December 31, 2009 at 4:33 PM ET
Elizabeth Farnsworth: For Some World Crises, a Chance to Turn the Corner
NewsHour special correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth sent the Rundown this reflection on some of the international stories she has covered and where they stand today.
This month brought news I wouldn't have believed possible in 1984, when I first reported for the The NewsHour on a brutal counter-insurgency war in Guatemala. The piece covered the destruction of Mayan villages by soldiers pursuing leftist guerrillas. More than 400 villages were wiped out and thousands of people killed. I interviewed starving men and women whose children - those who survived the attack on their village -- had died of hunger in mountains where they fled to escape the killing. I was deeply affected by what I witnessed and disturbed by the justifications given by then-President Mejía Victores, a general, who oversaw the counter-insurgency campaign. The only way to defeat guerrillas, he said, was to uproot the peasants who fed them. The ends justified the means.
Earlier, I had written about U.S. policy towards Chile, where I lost colleagues in the repression that followed the overthrow of President Salvador Allende by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. More than 3,000 mostly young people were killed and "disappeared" during the years following that 1973 coup. I admit to despairing that anyone would ever be held accountable for the crimes of the Pinochet years or for the mass murder in Guatemala. How could Mayan peasants or Chilean students bring generals to trial?
But they have done just that. This month, a retired Guatemalan colonel was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison for "disappearing" eight members of one family during the counter-insurgency war. The Guatemalan president I interviewed is under indictment in Spain for war crimes. In Chile, 59 former agents of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet are in prison for human rights related crimes. Hundreds more have been indicted and are currently under investigation or on trial. Pinochet himself was indicted on multiple counts of torture and murder and placed under house arrest but died in 2006 before he could be tried.
There are many reasons for these breakthroughs, but for me the key lesson is that relatives of victims and human rights activists never gave up. At important stages of the legal process, courageous individuals dared risk their lives to pursue justice. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and - more recently -- the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco also persevered. They behave as if impunity were not a given but rather an aberration in human affairs, and this has made a profound difference around the world.
I have heard human rights attorneys in Chile debate whether the prosecutions of human rights crimes there leave the glass "half-empty" or "half-full." Many of those convicted have not gone to prison but received house arrest or suspended sentences. Many of those indicted haven't yet been brought to trial. But law Professor Jose Zalaquett, who risked his life in the 1970s trying to save people from kidnapping and torture, argues that the glass is "half-full" because his country has gone further than any other Latin American country in seeking accountability for past crimes. Though he recognizes more must be done, he is proud of what has happened up to now.
Guatemala is still in an early stage of this process. The retired colonel sentenced this month is the first army officer to be successfully prosecuted in connection with the counter-insurgency war. "This is the start of new times," says Mario Polanco of the Mutual Support Group, a Guatemalan human rights organization. "I see some light at the end of the tunnel."
In Cambodia, another place I've covered, a U.N.-sponsored tribunal just concluded its trial of the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where 14,000 people were tortured and killed in the 1970s. Three top Khmer Rouge leaders, including former head of state Khieu Samphan, have also been charged with murder and other crimes and are expected to be tried in the coming years.
These historic trials - and others around the world - have taught me a lesson about patience and hope. Justice is possible even after the worst of times, even when the powerful seemed permanently beyond the law.