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When Justice Prevails

In thinking about the power of international justice, July 17th is the day that stands out. On that day in 1998 the Rome Statute was passed, opening the way for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to come into being, seeking to change the paradigm of justice worldwide. (The date is now observed annually as World Day for International Justice.) The ICC  was established as a court of last resort to hold individuals accountable for the most heinous crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. 

We tell the story of the battle for the ICC  in our documentary, The Reckoning. That film drew us into activism around what is known as the justice cascade, the idea that international justice could profoundly affect national justice systems, emboldening judges, jurists and civil society to try cases in the countries where the crimes occurred.

A powerful recent example comes from Guatemala, a small country yet one where human rights defenders have ensured that it remains a model for calling on international justice mechanisms to bolster and broaden its domestic courts. The survivors of the country’s genocidal campaign against indigenous communities, and those in solidarity, have never given up their quest for justice.  

On May 27, 2021, the astonishing news broke that the Guatemalan police raided the homes of and arrested 11 former military and state security agents accused of kidnapping, torture, and in most cases, the execution of almost 200 people in the early 1980s. Known as the Diario Militar case (Death Squad Dossier), a collection of intelligence and police records about the purported crimes was first leaked to Kate Doyle, an analyst of U.S.-Latin American policy and human rights, in 1999. It’s the story we tell in our film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

Doyle, Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive, was an expert witness in the Inter-American Court for Human Rights’ case of 2012 and together with the testimony of  surviving family members, obtained a ruling determining that Guatemala was responsible for crimes associated with the Diario Militar case. The ruling ordered the government to determine who committed them, locate the victims’ remains, provide psychological support to families, and various reparations. 

I recently sat down with Doyle to discuss the case, which she has continued writing about and testifying about for more than 20 years. In our conversation she said, “It’s a tricky time to hold a human rights criminal proceeding of the magnitude and nature of this case. To try to go ahead with this case to proceed with a trial (which is not certain)….with these legal proceedings is really an act of courage and resistance on the part of all of those involved.” 

You can watch our conversation here:

She goes on to draw larger implications, “This case is hugely significant for the region. Latin America has gone through phases of trying to reckon with repression and state violence whether through Truth Commissions or memory projects, the building of monuments acknowledging criminal human rights atrocities of the past. One of the aspects of this case that is moving and important for Latin America….this is one of the first times for Guatemala and certainly for other countries in the region, that they have grappled with forced disappearance as an explicit government policy. That’s what the Diario Militar brings us. You really get a sense how the government in the 1980s used kidnapping, torture and execution as a straight up deliberate government policy to crush dissidents.”

For more about the Diario Militar historically as well as the latest news go to the National Security Archives. Watch my interview with Kate Doyle here.

Futures We Dream: A new Smithsonian Film Project

The featured activists, artists and collaborators on our short film “Tiichajil_Good Life” for the Smithsonian film series “Futures We Dream”. L – R: Francisco Chávez, Giovanni Batz, Gaspar Cobo, Saba.

We are pleased to be among a group of filmmakers who have been commissioned to make a new series of short films for the Smithsonian that spotlight the ways diverse communities across the U.S. are shaping their own more hopeful futures. Blending documentary, social activism, music, and poetry, “Futures We Dream” will feature new works by us and seven award-winning independent filmmakers, responding to this year of pivotal change and challenges in the country.

The project is a first of its kind partnership between the Smithsonian and the nationally acclaimed nonprofit Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, helmed by Wendy Levy, Skylight’s board chair. Grammy Award-winning entertainment icon LL Cool J and Kevin Bright, the longtime executive producer and director of the TV show “Friends,” serve as co-chairs of the series.

Our film for the series, “Tiichajil_Good Life,” is being created with Maya-Ixil human rights defenders seeking asylum, Gaspar Cobo (featured in our film 500 Years) and Francisco Chávez. The film also features Maya K’iche’ activist academic Giovanni Batz, and Saba, a Diné (Navajo) mural artist. Together they explore a future uniting indigenous peoples of the south and north, of Abya Yala (now known as the Americas), where their freedom of mobility in crossing the lands is not questioned. The project provided a continuum of sorts, as these are ideas central to our forthcoming film, Borderland.

Read more about the short films in the Smithsonian press release and the Variety article


Featured image: Faces of some of the 183 people who were forcibly disappeared, tortured and in most cases executed in Guatemala in the Diario Militar case. Graphic created by Takaaki Okada

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an award-winning film director and the co-founder of Skylight, a not-for-profit media organization that for over 35 years has combined cinematic arts with the quest for justice to inspire the defense of human rights. Skylight’s films and programs strengthen social justice movements and catalyze collaborative networks of artists and activists.

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