Local Justice for International Crime

Professor Alexandra Huneeus studies Latin American model

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When a Guatemalan court indicted Efrain Rios Montt for his role in the torture and deaths of at least 1,711 indigenous Mayan-Ixils, it marked the first time a former head of state would go to trial for genocide in his home country.

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, such as the 1980s genocide in Guatemala.

For the study, Huneeus is focusing specifically on the work of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which examines allegations of atrocity crimes in twenty-one 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 versus the ICC’s $100 million.

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

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 United States has yet to submit to the court’s jurisdiction.

— Tammy Kempfert