Stories from the Field

The evolution of human rights

With support from the University of Georgia's Research Foundation, Amy Ross, associate professor of geography, is conducting a multi-scalar research project analyzing the prosecution of Guatemalan genocide cases.

Guatemala’s armed conflict lasted for more than three decades, from the early 1960s to the mid 1990s, and it left in its wake enormous social wreckage: 200,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a society warped by terror. A brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the early 1980s destroyed at least 600 villages, and in a country where more than half of the population is Mayan, indigenous communities bore the brunt of the scorched earth violence. 

More than a decade has passed since Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification determined that the violence constituted genocide; since that time struggles to translate the genocide determination into judicial and material consequences have occurred at many levels.  Now, thirty years after the genocide, cases have appeared before the regional court, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (in San Jose, Costa Rica), and the Spanish National Court (Madrid, Spain). Most recently and remarkably, former generals and heads of state, including the notorious General Efrain Rios Montt, are now facing charges of genocide in the Guatemalan courts.  On January 26, 2012, a Guatemalan judge ordered Rios Montt under house arrest. 

These arrests represents a precedent for Guatemala; a break from a long-entrenched track record of impunity.  But it is also a precedent for the evolving field of international human rights law.   This is the first time a national court has indicted, arrested and showed the intent to try one of its ‘own’ people in a national court for the crime of genocide.  The stakes are significant for Guatemala, but also for all of humanity.

With support from the University of Georgia’s Research Foundation, I am conducting a multi-scalar research project analyzing the prosecution of Guatemalan genocide cases.   In February-March of 2011 I traveled to villages in the highlands of Guatemala that were the sites of massacres during the ‘scorched earth’ phase of military operations in the early 1980s, and are now at the center of the legal proceedings against the generals for genocide.  In Rabinal, Plan de Sanchez, Rio Negro and Nebaj, I sought to understand local reactions to the multi-national legal proceedings, and to document how the violence of the past appears in the present.  The photographs shown here are of genocide memorials in rural Guatemala.  This coming year I will return to Guatemala to 1) witness the ongoing judicial processes, and 2) document the reactions of the genocide survivors.  I hope that this research in Guatemala will contribute to greater understandings of the causes and consequences of genocide, and the polemics and potentials of justice.

More about Amy Ross

Ross, Amy J.

Associate Professor

Research Interests

Human rights and wrongs, international justice, geographies of justice, international institutions and the global civil society, genocide, the spatiality of violence.

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