U.S. classified documents must be released on Guatemala

May 06, 1998|By Brian Jordan

THE recent murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in Guatemala should serve as a warning of how precarious the peace accord is working in that country.

There's no coincidence that the bishop, head of the Guatemala City Archdiocese's human rights office, was killed shortly after he filed a major report linking the deaths of 140,000 Guatemalan citizens during the country's 36-year civil war to its own military.

Among the answers Bishop Conedera and others wanted is the full extent of the U.S. government's involvement in the civil war -- beyond its training of Guatemalan military personnel at Fort Benning, Ga., and any details of the civil war atrocities. Their key concern is the deadly participation of the Guatemalan army.

Central America's largest and bloodiest civil war formally came to an end in December 1996 when delegations from the Guatemalan government and guerrilla forces signed a peace treaty. According to human rights reports, more than 100,000 civilians were killed and more than 40,000 disappeared by state security forces during the conflict. Equally shocking is that some 440 villages in the Mayan Indian communities were destroyed as a result of the Guatemalan army's scorched earth policy.

Time is of the essence in the search for truth. Although the peace accord established a truth commission to investigate human rights crimes committed during the war, human rights leaders are concerned that the effort has serious limitations. The commission has a year to report on a conflict that spanned nearly four decades. Unlike South Africa, where war criminals must confess their crimes to avoid criminal prosecution, the Guatemalan commission has no authority to prosecute human rights violators, or even to name the individuals responsible.

Working for peace

The U.S. government should participate in this call for reconciliation. It has many documents relating to the civil war in Guatemala that remain classified for "national security reasons." For the sake of humanity, this country needs to share this information with the Guatemalan people.

There is currently before Congress legislation that would require the U.S. government to declassify documents on human rights in Guatemala and Honduras. These bills would also broaden a declassification appeals panel to include two members recommended by U.S. human rights groups and academic organizations. The panel would review documents that government agencies refuse to declassify to ensure that there's a compelling national security interest for their action.

Many countries are impressed with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the emphasis on memory as a means to address social sin. In order for the sin to be forgiven, it must be named and someone must take responsibility for it.

The murder of Bishop Gerardi Conedera is indeed a social sin and so is the contents of his report. Now is the time for the U.S. government to shed full light on Guatemala's horrid past so the country can experience an authentic healing process and honor the memory of a courageous bishop.

The Rev. Brian Jordan is the former pastor of St. Camillus Roman Catholic Church in Silver Spring and has worked extensively with immigrants and refugees.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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