Guilty: what the Sepur Zarco trial means for women’s rights worldwide

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.

Yifat Susskind
8 March 2016
Women sitting on chairs

Women survivors in the courtroom of the Sepur Zarco trial in Guatemala City. Photo: Camila UrrutiaBy 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.  

Man in hand-cufff with policer officers

Former base commander Esteelmer Reyes Girón charged with sexual and domestic slavery and forced disappearance. Photo: Camila Urrutia

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. 

Women sitting in rows

Mayan women sit in solidarity with the survivors during the #SepurZarco trial in Guatemala City. Photo: Camila Urrutia

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.

Three women sit holding signs

Law students in the courtroom of the Sepur Zarco trial in Guatemala City. Photo: Camila Urrutia

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 women.  

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 societies.  

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 filed.

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.

A six-woman panel sits beneath a banner.

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.

An outdoor, sculpted space

Memorial to the victims in the Sepur Zarcon trial. Photo: Camila Urrutia

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 suffered.

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 realize justice.

Read our series of articles for International Women's Day 2016

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