Local justice for international crime: Law professor to study Latin American model

Oct. 29, 2013

When a Guatemalan court indicted Efrain Rios Montt for his role in the torture and deaths of at least 1,771 indigenous Mayan-Ixils, it marked the first time a former head of state would go to trial for genocide in his home country.

Photo: Alexandra Huneeus

Alexandra Huneeus

According to Professor Alexandra Huneeus, Rios Montt’s conviction last May —and the reversal of that conviction in just ten days — shows both how far Latin America has come with regard to prosecuting atrocity crimes and how much work remains. Huneeus, an expert in international law at the Law School, has received a $62,495 award from the National Science Foundation to study how Latin American countries prosecute the most heinous crimes, like the 1980s genocide in Guatemala.

For the study, Huneeus will focus specifically on the work of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which examines allegations of atrocity crimes in 21 Latin American and Caribbean states. She says the Inter-American Court, while not explicitly an international court, pressures states to prosecute atrocities, and also regularly orders reparations to victims.

“Actions like these have significant impact on Latin American politics,” Huneeus says. “They shift public attitudes, embolden people to confront injustice and, ultimately, influence policymaking and legislation.”

In contrast to the better-known International Criminal Court, the Inter-American Court fosters local processes of justice and memory, Huneeus says. And the Inter-American Court operates on a much smaller budget: $5 million annually to the ICC’s $100 million.

Early next year she will to travel to Columbia, Peru and Costa Rica — three countries that have had the most interaction with the Inter-American Court — to study the system up close.

“It’s been fascinating to watch how the Inter-American Court has begun to influence political life in Chile, after years of judicial isolationism. Plus, if Chile can do it, perhaps the United States can, too. ”

Alexandra Huneeus

Huneeus’ previous work on the regional human rights courts has received praise from the international law community. Her paper, “International Criminal Law by Other Means: The Quasi-Criminal Jurisdiction of the Human Rights Courts,” won this year’s Scholarly Paper Competition at the Association of American Law Schools and will be published later this year in the American Journal of International Law. A book on the topic is in the works.

For Huneeus, who is originally from Chile, the research is more than business. It’s personal.

“It’s been fascinating to watch how the Inter-American Court has begun to influence political life in Chile, after years of judicial isolationism,” Huneeus says. “Plus, if Chile can do it, perhaps the United States can, too. We’re one of the few liberal democracies that denies its citizens the right to petition for human rights protection at the international level.”

While part of the Inter-American System of Human Rights, the U.S. has yet to submit to the court’s jurisdiction.

—Tammy Kempfert