Justice delayed may be justice denied, as the popular maxim says, but sometimes it isn’t. At least in the world of human rights, legal justice can proceed at despairingly slow speed, only to have circumstances change quite remarkably.
On January 26, a Guatemalan court charged Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity—the first former head of state in Latin America to face such accusations. Stunningly, it was 30 years after the crimes had been committed, and following a decade-long legal battle by Guatemalan citizens in Spanish courts, under the province of universal jurisdiction.
Even after Spanish authorities issued an international arrest warrant in 2006, Ríos Montt still managed to win a seat in Congress in 2007, enjoying immunity until this past January 14. Two weeks after his immunity lapsed, the world seemed to turn upside down, as Ríos Montt was placed under house arrest, and hundreds filled the streets outside the courthouse to witness accountability.
In a cruel irony, on February 9, Spain’s top champion of universal jurisdiction, Judge Baltasar Garzón, was sentenced and suspended from the Spanish bench for 11 years. Paradoxically, Garzón’s judicial activism helped open the door for foreign claimants in Spanish courts—which, in turn, served as a catalyst for legal change in Guatemala.
The intersecting paths point to this: if Judge Garzón takes his appeal to Spain’s Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights, today’s justice denied may be just another long delay. Yet is this good enough?
In retelling histories of protracted justice, it’s tempting to focus on the endpoints. But what of the lives compromised in the interim, between the time justice is suspended and an uncertain future? For those most centrally concerned in struggles over accountability, how are they to reconcile the hope for justice with the reality of the here and now?