When Is A Genocide Not A Genocide?

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While presidential candidates insult each other like kids in a schoolyard, the media’s coverage has brushed by a story that might actually shed some light on our politics.

Late last week, before Congress, Secretary of State Kerry refused to attach the term genocide to the massacres of Christians by soldiers of the Islamic State.

“We are currently doing what I have to do, which is review very carefully the legal standards and precedents for whatever judgment is made,” he explained.

But in our own hemisphere, Kerry and the State Department have wantonly applied the term genocide to something which is demonstrably not that.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, genocide “is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against a group with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.” In regard to Guatemala, Kerry and the State Department have grossly misused this term.

Guatemala experienced a long and violent struggle during which the army, with predominant support from the people, defeated a radical guerrilla insurrection.

In 1996 the parties struck a truce that established an amnesty and full political participation for all sides. The guerrilla party never managed to win more than three or four percent of the popular vote. But it played its limited hand with skill and kept its foot in the door.

In 2009, guerrilla partisans got the windfall of their lives when Barack Obama came to power. The following year, pro-guerrilla activist Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed attorney general with the connivance of influential parties, among them the United States.

Paz y Paz began a series of reforms whose logic was to undermine the country’s rule of law. Her main target was the former head of state and army leader, General Efraín Ríos Montt, whom she charged with genocide.

“Crimes of humanity” had been exempted from the amnesty. Accusing Ríos Montt of genocide was a handy way to settle an old score. Even more, if the charge were upheld, it would set a precedent for defining the law by political whims. (Does it sound familiar?)

Ríos Montt was charged in the deaths of 1,771 Ixils, an indigenous tribe. To many Guatemalans, the accusation made little sense. When he ran for office after the truce, Ríos Montt had massive support from, of all people, the Ixils. One columnist was moved to wonder: “Why for the love of God did the Ixils vote in three consecutive elections for General Genocide?”

During Ríos Montt’s 17 months as head of state in 1982 and 1983, the U.S. State Department – in confidential memos, not press releases – had actually praised him for cleaning up human-rights abuses in the army’s campaigns. So why, for the love of God, was Obama’s State Department persecuting him?

In May 2013, a panel of judges found the 87-year-old Ríos Montt guilty. The U.S. embassy had energetically supported the trial, and Hillary Clinton’s ambassador was quick to praise the verdict.

But the judicial process had been hopelessly flawed. During the trial, the presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios, expelled Ríos Montt’s attorney from the courtroom. In a hurry to render her verdict, Barrios then ordered the two attorneys for Ríos Montt’s co-defendant to represent Ríos Montt as well.

It was a spectacular breach of the defendant’s rights. The country’s highest judicial authority, the constitutional court, threw out the verdict and suspended the trial, pending a review.

The Obama-Clinton-Kerry State Department was having none of it. In March 2014, it honored Judge Barrios with one of its International Women of Courage awards – presented to the judge, at a State Department ceremony, by Michelle Obama.

The department’s citation said of Barrios: “By initiating the judicial process against the former dictator, Barrios gave a voice to thousands of Ixil-Mayan victims, provided an important legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide, and demonstrated the importance of an independent judiciary.”

In December 2014, Kerry paid his own tribute to Barrios and the suppressed genocide verdict. But his tribute was only a rip-and-read from the department’s earlier citation of the judge.

Guatemala’s constitutional court allowed the genocide trial to resume, which it did in early 2015. But the state medical authority removed the now-90-year-old defendant from the court, declaring him medically unfit to stand trial.

As a result, the justice ministry – under a new attorney general – is looking for a surrogate to put in the old man’s place. The trial is scheduled to resume next month without a defendant or even a crime.

Above all, the ministry wants a guilty verdict on the genocide charge. In that quest, it will have the support of the State Department and the U.S. ambassador.

Amid all this political comedy, how long will the Christian victims of ISIS have to wait before they get their due from the United States?

David Landau, a novelist in San Francisco, has also worked in Guatemalan matters for 20 years.