Landmark ruling in Guatemala a victory against sexual violence in armed conflict


In a historic verdict, the sentences and reparations decision in the Sepur Zarco trial in Guatemala is being hailed by human rights experts as a major victory in accountability for conflict-related sexual violence.

On 26 February, a Guatemalan court convicted two former military officers of crimes against humanity against 11 indigenous Q’eqchi’ women who were subjected to sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery, the forced disappearance of their husbands, as well as the murder and cruel treatment of a woman and her two small daughters. The court sentenced Esteelmer Reyes Girón to 120 years in prison, and Heriberto Valdez Asij to 240 years.

Sepur Zarco was the first case of conflict-related sexual violence challenged under Guatemala’s penal code. It was also the first time that a national court anywhere in the world considered charges of sexual slavery during an armed conflict—a crime under international law. In its path-breaking judgment, the court noted that the offenses were part of a deliberate strategy by the Guatemalan Army to destroy the local indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community. The court also recognized the impact on the entire community of these abuses committed against women.

On 2 March, the Guatemalan court further issued a wide-ranging reparations decision, “which is perhaps the strongest example to date of a national court instituting transformative and comprehensive reparations for women,” says UN Women Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, Luiza Carvalho. “The decision is also in line with international best practice.”

The far-reaching judicial decision provides for individual monetary compensation to each of the victims of sexual slavery as well as the victims of forced disappearances covered by the case. It also directs the Public Prosecutor to continue investigations into the forced disappearances of seven husbands of women survivors.

In addition to individual reparations, the court order seeks to address the broader causes and consequences of the human rights violations committed against the women and their community. The decision comprehensively addresses past denials of the right to health, education and access to land in Sepur Zarco—human rights violations which had rendered the Q’eqchi’ community vulnerable to violence, and exacerbated its consequences.

Specifically, the Government will be required to install a health centre in Sepur Zarco, improve primary school infrastructure in all victims’ communities, construct a secondary school, and provide scholarships for women, girls and the whole community, as well as reopen dossiers for land restitution. The reparations order also calls for the Government to institute local community development projects in Sepur Zarco.

To ensure that such crimes are not repeated in future, the reparations order requires the Ministry of Education to include the Sepur Zarco case in educational curricula country-wide and produce a documentary, to be translated into all Mayan languages. It calls for a monument dedicated to women’s access to justice to be built in Sepur Zarco, and for gender, women’s rights and prevention of violence against women to be incorporated into military education and training curricula.

“UN Women salutes the survivors of the Sepur Zarco military base, who waited 30 years to see their perpetrators held accountable. We also recognize the important roles played by the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio [Alliance to Break the Silence], women human rights defenders who provided psychosocial and legal assistance to the survivors, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which was committed to ending impunity for the women’s human rights violations suffered,” says UN Women Representative in Guatemala, Maria Machicado.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says: “We stand in solidarity with these women and men, who bravely worked to break the silence that so often accompanies sexual violence in armed conflict. The Guatemalan State is also to be applauded for bringing this case forward. The judgment is a major step towards accountability, and strengthens the rule of law in Guatemala.”

Reparations have particular importance for women, as they acknowledge their rights as equal citizens, provide justice and crucial resources for post-conflict recovery, while also helping to transform underlying gender inequalities.

“The reparations in the Sepur Zarco case should have a measurable impact on the lives of the survivors, while also advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment in the Q’eqchi’ community and Guatemalan society,” says Ms. Carvalho.