Survivors of wartime sexual violence in Guatemala have secured a landmark victory in the Sepur Zarco trial: a win for international human rights in a domestic court, writes Yifat Susskind in this guest post from Open Democracy.
By now, the words “Sepur Zarco” should be on the tip of the tongue of anyone with even a passing interest in international human rights. This landmark trial, charging two former military officers with sexual slavery inflicted during Guatemala’s civil war, concluded on February 26 with a guilty verdict against the perpetrators sentencing them to 360 years imprisonment—a blow against impunity and a step towards justice for the survivors.
This is a human rights victory, but a question remains: what does the Sepur Zarco trial
mean for survivors of all forms of wartime sexual violence beyond Guatemala’s borders?
The trajectory of this case helps point to an answer.
In 1982, after the army abducted and killed their husbands, assailants returned to kidnap
a group of Mayan indigenous women in eastern Guatemala. Soldiers destroyed the
women’s homes and farms, and raped them in front of their surviving family members.
Eleven of the 15 women testifying in this trial were held captive at a base near the
community of Sepur Zarco. They were made to cook and clean for their captors. Soldiers
forced them to report for “shifts” where they were repeatedly raped. For some, this went
on for months; for others, it was years.
These violations occurred during the most brutal period of Guatemala’s 36-year war.
Under the leadership of US-backed President Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala’s indigenous
population was targeted with massacres, forced displacement and systematic rape as a tool
of genocide. The rape and sexual slavery these women survived was not incidental to this
campaign of violence. It was a core tactic, mobilized specifically to inflict trauma, terrorize
their communities into submission and to obliterate their people.
And now, the women of Sepur Zarco have testified against their captors in a breakthrough
trial. For the first time, anywhere in history, sexual slavery has been tried as a war crime in
a national court in the country where the crime was committed.
The distinction of the move to a national court is crucial. Yes, sexual slavery has
been previously prosecuted in an international tribunal as a war crime and a crime against
humanity. The first time was in 1996 when eight Bosnian Serb soldiers were indicted by
the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for sexual slavery against Muslim
But there have been few successful prosecutions of any war crimes of sexual violence since
then, whether in a domestic or international court. Perpetrators know this. In many cases,
including Guatemala, the resulting impunity allows violence against women to become
normalized long after conflict ends.
This lack of prosecutions reflects a major weakness of the international human rights
system: namely, justice hinges on the political will of the powerful. When the interests of
the most monied and influential are protected through corruption and violence, what
chance does a lone individual stand to advance justice for crimes committed against her?
Compounding this is the cloak of silence surrounding any crime involving sexual violence,
and the marginal status of women—particularly poor and indigenous women—in most
This is the vital point that the Sepur Zarco trial illustrates: the best chance to overcome the
obstacles above lies in a robust civil society with a central role for grassroots women’s
organizing. The trial was the outcome of the work of indigenous women, rights activists,
legal scholars and practitioners, forensic archaeologists and a diverse panoply of local civil
society actors who have laboured for nearly a generation. They gathered testimonies,
documented evidence, held street protests and vigils, and pushed for legal charges to be
Women’s civil society support for the survivors of Sepur Zarco was coordinated by a
coalition of three major women’s organizations – la Unión Nacional de Mujeres
Guatemaltecas, el Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, and Mujeres
Transformando el Mundo – which came together as the Alianza Rompiendo El Silencio y
Impunidad (the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity). The survivors were bolstered
by international women’s rights organizations that sent representatives to sit in the
courtroom in support the women of Sepur Zarco.
In particular, the presence of prominent supporters in the courtroom helped to off-set the
intimidation tactics of the defence. During the trial, defence lawyers and pro-military
groups in Guatemala called the survivors “prostitutes” and “liars” and labelled the lawyers
and civil society groups who support the women of Sepur Zarco as “terrorists.”
Despite the vitriol of the defence and the local right-wing media, the Guatemalan
prosecutors steadfastly advanced their innovative strategy: to apply international human
rights law on crimes of wartime sexual violence, as established by international tribunals’
precedent, and moreover, to apply them through a domestic court.
But it’s survivors with the courage to testify who brought this legal strategy to life.
Meanwhile, the Alliance to Break the Silence ensured that women had the counselling,
human rights training and accompaniment they needed to step forward, and the
international presence in the courtroom gave women the assurance that the world was
watching. This multi-pronged, transnational partnership is the key to a winning model for
advocates seeking to advance international human rights at home.
Consider the varied contexts in which this partnership model can be activated. In Iraq, it
means strengthened opportunities for women to hold their government accountable for its
ban on vital women’s shelters providing refuge for women fleeing ISIS sexual slavery. It
could empower women in Rwanda who can no longer turn to the International Criminal
Tribunal to devise new collaborative strategies to seek justice for the atrocities they have
Now, Guatemalan women activists are considering next steps. Engracia Mendoza is part of
MUIXIL, a grassroots organization of Indigenous Ixil women war survivors. “This is an
emblematic case in our pursuit of justice in Guatemala,” she remarked. “All of us women
who suffered violence in those years are inspired to receive this news. This verdict gives us
hope that this will create pressure for other cases to be taken to court.”
Survivors standing alone can and do raise their voices to demand their rights. But the
guilty verdict of the Sepur Zarco trial shows that a partnership of empowered survivors
working with human rights and legal advocates—as well as international rights
organizations—gives survivors of sexual violence in conflict an even stronger chance to
Yifat Susskind is Executive Director of MADRE, working with women’s human rights
activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. She has written on US
foreign policy and women’s human rights for publications including The New York
Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus, and The W Effect: Bush’s War on
Women (Feminist Press). Follow her on twitter @yifats.
This article first appeared on OpenDemocracy.
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