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KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, reliving the massacre at Rio Negro. And later, a progress report on plans for an International Criminal Court.
BRUCE BROOMHALL: The International Criminal Court is being set up by governments who are always mindful of their sovereignty, always wanting to control trials if they can do so themselves. And the way the court will work is it will only take cases if other, if governments aren’t willing or able to do justice themselves.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Two-hundred thousand people have died in civil unrest in Guatemala since 1960. Of the victims, a United Nations report states 94 percent were killed by Guatemalan state forces. The 1999 report also concludes the forces planned and carried out genocide in certain Mayan dominated regions of Guatemala. Rio Negro is one such community. The massacres were due in large part to a violent government resettlement program that displaced communities opposed to the construction of the Chexoy Hydroelectric Dam. Today, half the village of Rio Negro is submerged by the Chexoy Dam flood basin. Some who survived the 1982 Rio Negro massacres are now living throughout the world. And others returned to Rio Negro or moved to resettlement villages. Common Ground‘s Hélène Papper traveled to Algona, Iowa, to talk with one woman who was nine years old when she fled Rio Negro.
[the sound of a running stream or river]
HÉLÈNE PAPPER: This is Algona, Iowa, a town in the north central part of the state, with a population of about 6,000 people. The East Fork of the Des Moines River runs through this rural town, attracting some regular fisherman
[sound of a running stream or river and fishermen chatting in the background]
FISHERMAN: I caught one a while ago. I caught one. It looked pretty good to me.
PAPPER: What kind of fish?
PAPPER: Except for the river, Algona is a flat and fairly typical town for this part of Iowa.
DENISE BECKER: People told me that I would get used to it. Well guess what? I’m not used to it.
PAPPER: Denise Becker is an Algona resident, originally from Rio Negro, Guatemala. Denise’s story is unlike that of many other residents one would meet in Algona.
DENISE BECKER: I was born by a river, and I was a very happy child, that I remember of. I had a brother that died when he was two. My father was very loving; my mother was a disciplinarian. I remember Guatemala being very lush. We ate off the land and there was plenty of food to go around.
PAPPER: But unbeknownst to her, Denise was growing up in the midst of political turmoil.
DENISE BECKER: I was really protected by my parents. The first time I had somewhat of a clue was when I heard helicopters. I never knew they existed. I figured it out sooner or later.
PAPPER: And at age nine, Denise saw her family and town disappear before her eyes. First her father, and then a month later, her mother, soon to be followed by her baby sister.
DENISE BECKER: It was really early in the morning and my Mom was breast feeding on the floor. All of a sudden we just heard all this commotion, voices. Next thing we knew there was four or five soldiers around our house. I could see from the outside that they were just dragging people to any tree or pole and putting, like a rope or a noose around their neck. And through all that chaos they grabbed my Mom, the baby went to the floor. I picked her up and she’s just screaming. And I followed her to the doorway. And she told me to get a cloth, or a manta, and she strapped the baby on my back and she told me to, she told me to run.
PAPPER: Denise ran through the mountains and hid in a house. She saw prisoners being marched up the mountain. Several hours later she heard gunshots.
DENISE BECKER: The next memory I do have is of me and my little sister trying to keep alive, and trying to keep her warm and giving her berry juice and trying to, you know, keep moving. ‘Cause they hunted us. I really don’t know how I got away. We kind of found each other, the people that had been misplaced, and there was running all over. We found each other in the mountains. And my, one of my aunts had a two- or a three-year-old that she was breast feeding, so she would breast feed hers and then breast feed my little sister. But it didn’t help. She died and I buried her under a big old tree.
PAPPER: Up to very recently Denise says she always blamed the massacres on the Chexoy Dam project, but her husband, Blaine Becker, says they now know there was more to it than the dam.
BLAINE BECKER: The massacres would have happened with or without the dam. It was just a lot of political unrest. Civil war going on, genocide against the Indians. So it would have happened one way or another. Rio Negro was a village of farmers; nothing more, nothing less. There was not a militant bone in the entire town, but they needed a good excuse to exterminate them. They needed to eliminate the town to wipe out the guerrillas. And that made it more politically correct.
DENISE BECKER: We were innocent. We didn’t-you know, war is, you have a gun, I have a gun, and we fight it out. Well, that’s not how it happened. See, I always thought it was just the dam. That’s the only thing I ever saw and I saw it being, the water getting higher and higher. I couldn’t stand the idea that the river was gone, you know. So I really hated it. I still do. I think it’s really ugly now.
PAPPER: Denise recently returned to Guatemala for the first time since she was adopted at the age of 11 by a minister and his wife from Thompson, Iowa. After 16 years of living in Iowa, going through the hardships of adapting to new children, bearing the brunt of discrimination, Denise decided to make her way back to her native country. A family friend, Mary Purvis, helped her get in touch with different organizations that could point her in the right direction. Purvis tried raising money for Denise to go back to Guatemala, but the money only trickled in. That’s when a local Algona pastor decided to take Denise under his wing.
DENISE BECKER: He took, he kind of took charge of the whole thing. And he proposed to his deacons and within two weeks I had a thousand dollars in my hands. So now I had $1,800 and I know I have a savings of $200. And then in a way my mind totally went. I froze. I kind of died. I don’t know what happened. I was angry, mad, sad-all at once. I just-and yet I was so excited! But, and then I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll hold it off for a while. I don’t need to go right away.’ And that was scared, afraid to go. I didn’t have anybody to lead me. I really didn’t know where Rio Negro was, to tell you the truth.
PAPPER: Denise then discovered she still had family living in Rio Negro and Pacux. With the help of two humanitarian organizations, Physicians For Human Rights and Right For Action, Denise’s trip turned into a highly organized expedition.
DENISE BECKER: Rio Negro, when I first arrived, was very sad. The water was green or some putrid color. And there was a big old dam. And it wasn’t running any more, and it didn’t roar through the mountains like it used to. And the mountains were still there, though, and they were still as beautiful as ever. And they took me by boat. And that was strange within itself. I’d never ridden in a boat in the Rio Negro before. That’s crazy. I was so disoriented. And, but yet, it was the same. Except the people were really poor. There was nothing there. There was just-I couldn’t believe how Rio Negro had gotten so bad. There was some fish that I saw that were being dried on the roof. That was familiar. I couldn’t show him where my home was. It’s just all, all of it is gone.
BLAINE BECKER: Rio Negro itself was very difficult. It was hard, hard for her. It was hard for me to watch her. The people who are still in Rio Negro have absolutely nothing. The people who left Rio Negro and are resettled also have nothing. Little shoe boxes they were given to live in. They have no land, where before they had, each family would have a whole valley to live in, and now they have one little parcel of land that they were given. When they had so much to start with.
DENISE BECKER: The land there, when you ran out of land you just went higher. My father would get palmas, to make patates, and all that. And he would climb higher just to get the nicer, longer, bushier ones, you know. And it didn’t say “No trespassing” or anything. It was his land. His footprints are all over those mountains.
PAPPER: Denise says she’s had a lot of nightmares about her past, and needed to go back to find peace within herself.
BECKER: I would talk about Rio Negro like it was still there. And it was alive in my mind. And when I went back I acted like I was a 9-year-old. I actually picked up dirt and ate it.
PAPPER: Now, both Blaine and Denise want to take action in helping Rio Negro.
BLAINE BECKER: I think the first thing is to help her family, to try to help them directly. They need everything: clothing, financial support. And then move on from there to bigger projects such as the electric company that resettled them gave them nowhere near enough land. They divided one parcel of land up between all of the families in Pacux, all the resettled families. And the land is very, very tiny. All their villages that were resettled got a lot more land.
PAPPER: And as for the bigger picture, Denise says, both the hydroelectric company and the World Bank need to be pressured into realizing they are partially responsible for the disaster. And more importantly, should offer compensation.
DENISE BECKER: The World Bank needs to do a lot of thinking. Yeah. I think a lot of ’em right out knew what was happening. If they don’t know, I want them to know, that what they did was wrong, and that the money that they lent Guatemala did not go to feed the children. It was to kill the children.
BLAINE BECKER: The World Bank more or less denies having any responsibility. They are largely responsible, but I don’t know what, what we can do there. We can, we can fight. But…
DENISE BECKER: Yeah. Put pressure on ’em, and the more places that I appear I think the better chances I’ll have that they will know I exist and that they missed me. And I’m back. And I want to fight for what I’ve been missing for so many years.
PAPPER: Blaine says Guatemalans themselves also need to learn more about the atrocities that have plagued the Central American country.
BLAINE BECKER: Someday the truth will come out. People in Guatemala don’t even, don’t even realize what happened.
DENISE BECKER: They just stare at you blankly, like, ‘What are you talking about? That can’t be true. That’s my country you’re talking about,’ you know.
BLAINE BECKER: People in the city don’t realize what was happening out in the country. That, I mean, they knew there was violence and that there was, there was guerrilla warfare and paramilitary warfare. And they were pretty well shielded from it. They didn’t know for sure what was going on. So, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done in Guatemala. And people are working on it.
PAPPER: Denise says going back to Guatemala has helped put a lot of her past memories in perspective. She says she’s taking things one day at a time and hopes to return to Guatemala with her two children to show them about her past.
DENISE BECKER: My family. My little boy asks me questions like, ‘Mom, what did you do when you were five?’ When he was five, he asked me. And this year he’s seven and it’s like, ‘OK, what did you do Mom when you were seven?’ And in Rio Negro at the time-that was back in the, in ’80, it was the beginning of a lot of the problems that they had and how and why it ended the way it did. So it really made me think twice. When he asks me in a couple years what I did when I was nine, I cannot, there is no way I’m gonna tell him that my parents were erased from my life. And that, that I have, that I had nothing when was nine. So when he is nine and he does ask me, I’m gonna show him. He’s really a natured little boy and, I mean, his dream home is a big waterfall and a big house. And he wants it, the waterfall, in his backyard. And that’s, that’s Mayan blood. I’m pretty sure of it. That’s what I want, too. I want the birds and the trees and natural life. I have plans of going back. I would put a vacation home in the mountain that saved me. There was one mountain that I stuck to.
PAPPER: But Denise says until she has the money to go back to Guatemala, she takes her life in Iowa one day at a time.
BECKER: I take what I can get. [laughing]
PAPPER: For Common Ground, I’m Hélène Papper.
MCHUGH: Coming up, work on the International Criminal Court enters a critical stage.
BRUCE BROOMHALL: I think it’s a very hopeful sign that people are no longer simply talking about war crimes or genocide being against the law; they’re talking about, you know, how do we actually set up a prosecutor’s office, how do we set up a court, how do we finance a court, how do we create the systems of cooperation. We’re really getting into the nuts and bolts.
PORTER: In the summer of 1998 the nations of the world gathered in Rome to hammer out a treaty creating a permanent International Criminal Court. One-hundred and twenty nations voted in favor of the final treaty; the United States and a handful of other countries voted no. Since then, over a hundred countries have signed the treaty; 19 of those have ratified it. A total of 60 ratifications are needed for the court to come to life. In anticipation of that day, a prepatory meeting was held in New York last June. Another is scheduled for next month to nail down the final details of the court’s operation. The Lawyers Committee For Human Rights is one of many nongovernmental organizations working to create the court. For more background on the nuts and bolts of the International Criminal Court process, I spoke with the Lawyers’ Committees’ International Justice Coordinator, Bruce Broomhall.
BRUCE BROOMHALL: I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of exercise before, where people are really putting flesh on the bones of international justice in a real, practical, working way. It’s not some abstraction anymore; people are looking at trials of the genocidal killers who’ve been put on trial in the Rwanda tribunal; they’re looking at the people involved in ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; what’s been done to them in The Hague. And they’re learning from those precedents. And they’re folding them into this new permanent court that is-and asking hard questions about how it’s really going to work. So I think there-you know, there were things that we didn’t like in the final package or things that we wished had come out a different way. But when you look at the whole broad sweep of it, it was an amazing accomplishment. And we’re very optimistic about where it’s going.
PORTER: The United States has some very specific concerns about the court. Can you summarize their case? I mean, what is it that they’re most worried about?
BROOMHALL: What they’re most worried about is the prospect of a US soldier or a US official being prosecuted by the court. And they want to find a way to prevent that. The way the court works is that it’ll only be able to prosecute people who commit crimes in the countries that agree to the court, who ratify the Rome statute, in other words. But, the US is aware that it’s got troops all around the world who sometimes go into other countries on peacekeeping missions, or for other reasons, and they don’t want to see those people potentially dragged in front of the ICC. And they’re looking for ways to prevent that.
PORTER: Did they get anything out of this June meeting that makes the United States more likely to join the court? Or solves any of those problems?
BROOMHALL: No. I don’t think so. I think what they got out of the June meeting was a little procedural rule that they wanted, which, you know, the US government position has been that this kind of opens the door to negotiations in November or next year, to look at some way of cutting the US out of the court’s jurisdiction. I think other countries are saying that the rule they adopted does not do that. There’s a little bit of disagreement. But the US sees it as, the US sees the results of June as being a little bit of a green light to go ahead. And they’re probably going to come back in November, when the next session of this preparatory commission is held, and ask other countries to support a kind of exemption for US personnel.
PORTER: During the meeting there were a number of editorials and op-ed pieces written. And I just want to sort of summarize some of the criticisms that I saw in all those things, and get your response to them. One thread was that Slobodan Milosovec has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, but that’s not led to his arrest, it’s not led to his trial, it’s not persuaded him to give himself up; it’s not even persuaded the NATO troops to really go after him in any way. Will the International Criminal Court, if it comes into being, have any more power or be any more effective in a case like that than the Yugoslavia Tribunal?
BROOMHALL: No. No, it won’t. I mean, any of these courts, the enforcement system for these courts is still very much at the early stages. And we all know that. And sure, Slobodan Milosovec hasn’t been tried by the Yugoslav Tribunal. But at the same time, you know, the indictment of Radovan Karadzic, and the indictment of Ratko Mladic, who were leaders in, among the Bosnia Serbs who were committing ethnic cleansing, sending troops around to rape and pillage and destroy villages in Serbia, in the Bosnia Serb area, those people were indicted by the Tribunal at a key stage, when negotiations were going on for the Dayton Peace Accords. They were marginalized from those accords. They were pushed out of the political process because of the indictment. And their power has waned and waned ever since. We’re showing that this system can work. Is it gong to work all the time? Probably not. It’s not perfect. But no criminal justice system is.
PORTER: When the International Criminal Court is in operation, do you predict it will handle a few top-level cases a year? Or is this the kind of court that will handle hundreds and perhaps thousands of cases over the course of a year?
BROOMHALL: I think it’s a, I think that’s a tough question. It depends who’s on board. If the US is on board, the court is gonna have a much more substantial budget and be able to handle more cases. Just because of the resources the US can contribute. If other countries are doing it on their own, they won’t be able to handle as many cases. But either way, it’s gonna be-I mean relatively speaking, it’s gonna be a handful of cases a year, simply because the International Criminal Court is being set up by governments who are always mindful of their sovereignty, always wanting to control trials if they can do so themselves. And the way the court will work is it will only take cases if other, if governments aren’t willing or able to do justice themselves. And if they are willing, the ICC says ‘Hands off, it’s your case.’ So the number of cases that will actually go to the ICC might be quite small. That doesn’t mean justice isn’t being done. It just means it’s being done elsewhere.
PORTER: I have a few questions about that. Many of the critics talk about the power of the independent prosecutor. What are the checks that will exist on the power of this independent prosecutor for the International Criminal Court?
BROOMHALL: Well, I mean the biggest check of all is the jurisdiction of the court, which is very limited. As I say, it’s only going to try cases within the territory of states that ratify the statute, or crimes done by the nationals of those states. So it’s going to be a fairly limited jurisdiction. It’s only forward in time. We’re not looking into the past. It’s only when the national courts aren’t willing or able to do anything. So the number of cases that are left are few. Within those cases, yeah, you’ve got an independent prosecutor who can take information from any source, and as long as that information is credible and reliable they can pick up a case and run with it. But that prosecutor is by no means free to do whatever they like. There’s a panel of judges who have to certify that there’s enough evidence. And states can ask for appeals from those decisions. There has to be enough evidence, then, at a later stage to ask for an arrest warrant. You have to defer to countries who are willing to investigate. So there’s a lot of checks and balances there, that we are satisfied, I mean, after looking at the statute and discussing it with people who are involved in the negotiations, that the safeguards are there in abundance-maybe too much abundance.
PORTER: Nationals from one country could be arrested if they were operating in another country-say US peacekeepers in a country that has ratified the Rome statute. They could be arrested or alleged to have committed some war crime and brought before the court. Some people say this doesn’t seem fair. That if the United States does not ratify the treaty, no American should ever fall under the jurisdiction of the court.
PORTER: What do you say about that?
BROOMHALL: Well, I think that’s-I mean, two things. One is, it’s incredibly remote as a possibility, I think. But even if it were to happen, I think the question is, ‘Would you rather have the person tried by the national authorities or would you rather have them tried by the ICC?’ All the ICC-every country has the right to prosecute crimes within its territory, be they war crimes, be they common assault or whatever. And the ICC is only doing what those countries could do when they’re not able to do it, or they’re not willing to do it properly. If you had a US national and the authorities, say accused [them] of a war crime-and this is what people in Washington are concerned about-you’ve got some peacekeeper goes into a country, stands accused of a war crime, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly, and then you’ve got these national authorities. Well, the national authorities, be it Sierra Leone, be it Yugoslavia, whoever-currently under international law, under their own laws, can prosecute that person. So what’s wrong with having an ICC do it? The ICC is going to do it more fairly, more transparently, with more opportunities for intervention by countries like the United States who have procedural rights to intervene in front of the ICC. I think it’s a better deal for the US.
PORTER: If the court is created without US participation, what are the possible roles or relationships that the United States could have to the court?
PORTER: I know Madeline Albright, Secretary of State, has said that she would like the United States to be a good neighbor to the court.
BROOMHALL: Secretary Albright has said that she wants the US to be a good neighbor to the court. And War Crimes Ambassador David Scheffer, who conducts negotiations on behalf of the government, has said the same thing. What they mean is, we would like to be good-we offer to become good neighbors to the court if the states who are becoming parties to this court agree to give us an exemption. That’s where it stands at the moment.
PORTER: Bruce, one last thing. We know that in countries around the world the ratification process is moving forward for the International Criminal Court treaty document. And we have another prepatory meeting scheduled for November. What will happen there? What’s the next step here?
BROOMHALL: Well, on both those issues we’re making a lot of progress. I mean, one thing you know, when you see people working on negotiations in just the practical nuts and bolts way that we’re seeing now at the UN, you know that we’re moving into a real working legal system. And that’s a really fabulous thing I think, from the point of view of the many millions of victims of these atrocities in the 20th Century, and you know, the terrible conflicts that are happening around the world today. I think it’s a very hopeful sign that people are no longer simply talking about war crimes or genocide being against the law; they’re talking about, you know, how do we actually set up a prosecutor’s office, how do we set up a court, how do we finance a court, how do we create the systems of cooperation. We’re really getting into the nuts and bolts. And now we stand at the threshold of a good number of states ratifying the statute. We have Germany coming on board. We have, I think, almost every other member of the European Union coming on board by the end of the calendar year. We have 29 sub-Saharan African states who have signed the statute and are getting ready to ratify. A couple of them have ratified and many more are going to accelerate their efforts now that European states are showing that the financial and political clout is going to be there to make this court a living reality. So our estimate is, give us two years and we’ll have an International Criminal Court entering into force.
PORTER: That is Bruce Broomhall, International Justice Coordinator for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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