The left and liberal blogosphere has been in a state of wild excitement this week about the conviction of the former Guatemalan dictator Rios Mont on charges of Genocide. You can understand why: the conflict in Guatemala was one of the nastiest of the Cold War, and there has never been any real accountability for the terrible crimes committed, nearly all by the government. There’s an understandable sense of psychological release in seeing one of the more unpleasant representatives of the regime in court.
But watch it. The verdict, assuming it’s upheld, is likely to have at least two unforeseen consequences.
First, Rios Mont is not the only leader involved in the persecution of the indigenous inhabitants of the country, thought to be supporting the various rebel groups. Already, more prosecutions are expected. But international criminal justice is “evolving” as lawyers like to say, and it’s now taken for granted that foreign leaders like Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic can be indicted for acts committed by nationals of other countries, and in those countries, even if, like Milosevic, they had no idea that the acts were taking place. Given the massive support provided to the military régime by the United States (and to a much lesser extent by Israel) how soon will it be before we see indictments of individuals from those two countries as well? If I had been US Ambassador to Guatemala in the 1970s, I think I’d already be considering moving to a country where extradition would be difficult: Somalia, perhaps?
The other consequence is the effective end of even the most cursory attempt to define Genocide in terms of the 1948 Convention. This perversion of the idea has been going on for twenty years, but we are at the point now where the term is essentially meaningless, and seems to refer to he deliberate persecution or killing of members of one group by another. In hindsight, therefore, most of the wars of the twentieth century consisted of little more than acts of genocide. Bombing of Dresden? Kaytn massacre?, Lebanon 1982? Where do you stop? I have no idea.