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Guatemala Rule of Law

CSJ professors and students travel to Guatemala for fact-finding mission on current human rights violations

The Guatemala Rule of Law Program 2012

Guatemala_Rule_of_Law_ProgramDuring the fall break, Seton Hall Law students traveled to Guatemala as part of the Center for Social Justice’sLaw School’s Guatemala Rule of Law Program led by Professors Lori Nessel, Jonathan Hafetz, and Rachel Lopez. This year Seton Hall Law partnered with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which recently launched a project to advance the right to truth about human rights violations in Latin America through strategic litigation and advocacy.

In order to lay the groundwork for this project in Guatemala, the Seton Hall delegation researched freedom of information laws in Guatemala and under international law, investigated contemporary human rights violations with a particular focus on gender-based violence, land rights, and the criminalization of protest; and interviewed human rights activists and experts to identify possible areas of strategic litigation and advocacy. As Professor Nessel explains, “The purpose of the program is two-fold. We want to expose our students to human rights and access to justice issues in a post-conflict society while at the same time partnering with local and international organizations to ensure that we are also contributing to the positive work being done to promote social justice.”

As part of their investigation, students had the opportunity to meet with Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. They also visited Casa Alianza, a branch of Covenant House that serves as a safe house for girls who have survived sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Isabel_at_ArchivesIn addition, students learned about Guatemala’s tragic past through visits to the National Police Archives and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (“ODHAG”). At the Police Archives, students witnessed firsthand the current efforts to restore and preserve thousands of documents that remained hidden until 2005 when they were accidentally discovered at the Guatemala City compound of the National Civil Police. The documents date from 1882 to 1996 and include information about police involvement in the forced disappearances of Guatemalan civilians during the 36-year internal armed conflict and the sexually transmitted disease experiments performed at the behest of the United States government in the 1940s. For a moving first-hand look at the visit to the National Police Archives, see the video produced by William Snowden ’13, entitled, Nunca Mas.

At ODHAG, the delegates heard from human rights attorneys about the legal strategy behind their case against the intellectual authors of the Guatemalan genocide in which 200,000 civilians, mostly indigenous Mayans, were killed. ODHAG is a prominent human rights organization in Guatemala whose leader, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered in 1998 just two days after he released a comprehensive report which named members of the Guatemalan army and police believed to have authorized the murder of countless unarmed civilians during the genocide.

Student participants described the experience as a crucial part of their development as lawyers. Here are some of their reflections:

“A few days before the trip even began, we were alerted to a protest that had turned violent and resulted in potential human rights violations. Having performed extensive research on the current political and social climates in Guatemala, it left me uneasy, until our first meeting. Upon meeting this grassroots organizer, it quickly became apparent that the human rights movement in Guatemala was alive, surging, and a force to be reckoned with. I left that meeting feeling empowered by the tangible resilience of the Guatemalan people and returned from our trip with a newfound purpose and desire to continue the work we started, which was jam-packed and yet barely scratched the surface.”

- Isabel Heine ’‘14

“For me, the program was a reaffirmation of my passion for the rule of law and international human rights. To experience the juxtaposition of the different aspects of Guatemalan society ? -- its turbulent history, its beautiful landscapes, its vibrant culture, and its current societal and rule of law growing pains ?-- was extremely interesting and sobering at the same time. I appreciated having the meeting at the Archive and the meeting with ODHAG because not only did theyit put into context the contemporary human rights abuses, but it also highlighted an event that is both painful for Guatemala and integral to its identity. The trip was very rewarding for me, both personally and professionally, and I feel that I learned an extraordinary amount in a very short time.”

- Kristina Hon ’‘13

“The Guatemala Rule of Law Program was a tremendous experience. I learned more about that country in one week than I thought possible. We met with incredibly remarkable and inspiring individuals and for that I am very grateful. While Guatemala has extreme societal crises, the people working at the Archbishop’s Office and the National Archive, among many others, provide a glimmer of hope for the country's future.”

- Andrew Lavadera ’‘14

"The underlying theme of the trip for me was 'follow the truth and justice will follow.' This became evident particularly with our visit to the National Police Archives. There are many lessons in the history of Guatemala, and it is one the whole world needs to be aware of. I am thankful for the opportunity to study the Criminalization of Protest in Guatemala; the trip will forever be a highlight of my Seton Hall Law experience."

- William Snowden ’‘13

“In Guatemala, I learned that good lawyers must be good listeners and good story-tellers. While meeting with other lawyers, advocates and scholars, I realized that we, aspiring lawyers, must accurately weave together personal stories, history and the law in order to pursue justice and the truth.”

- Jason Stern ’‘14

The Guatemala Rule of Law Program continues to forge exciting partnerships and provide students the opportunity to engage in high level human rights work. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please contact Professors Lori Nessel at lori.nessel@shu.edu or Rachel Lopez at rachel.lopez@shu.edu.