Lessons from Guatemala: Renewing US Foreign Policy on the Rule of Law. (Perspectives)

By Hendrix, Steven | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Guatemala: Renewing US Foreign Policy on the Rule of Law. (Perspectives)


Hendrix, Steven, Harvard International Review


Both former US Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton placed tremendous emphasis on promoting the rule of law and democratization in their foreign policy statements, and with good cause: neither ideal is regularly respected in many places around the world. Today, organized international crime syndicates are growing. The Italian Mafia, the Russian mobs, the Japanese yakuza, the Chinese triads, and the Colombian cartels are now coordinating with similar outfits in Nigeria, Poland, Jamaica, and Panama. These new organizations are more violent and powerful than their predecessors, and even have aspirations of taking over entire countries. With economic globalization, the United States is more vulnerable to corruption abroad. On the other side, US investors overseas will need adequate legal infrastructure to guarantee their investments. Third World citizens will need a way to benefit from increased global trade if we are to avoid repeats of the uprising in the Mexican province of Chiapas. Rules-based trade-integr ation policies presuppose legal systems capable of enforcing rights, but these do not exist in much of Central America. Illegal immigrants show up at the US border, fleeing regimes that lack democratic principles or that do not respect basic human rights or the rule of law. At the extreme, a lack of respect for the rule of law can blur the lines between criminal activity, trade, and national security, as nations like Libya, Iran, or North Korea seek to enter a nuclear black market.

Putting aside for the moment any sense of altruism that may impel the United States to help others improve their ability to enforce the rule of law or guarantee fundamental human rights, motivated self-interest compels Washington to help foreign governments improve their legal systems. One could argue that work on the rule of law, human rights, and the Third World crime explosion are now additional elements of the cleanup after the Cold War. The US State, Treasury, and Justice Departments and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are advancing rule-of-law programs around the world as necessary elements of broader packages to achieve sustainable economic and social development. After World War II, Churchill proclaimed that an "Iron Curtain" had descended on Europe. Today, not even a Berlin Wall will be able to stop international crime and corruption from entering the United States unless there is concerted international action beginning with US foreign policy

Guatemala is a case in point. The end of the Cold War motivated Guatemala to end its own internal conflict. In December 1996, Guatemala ended 36 years of civil war that had left more than 200,000 dead. For decades, Guatemala's justice system was simple. If someone was suspected of a crime, the military, or a paramilitary outfit, picked up the suspect and had him tortured or killed. This brand of justice was swift, immediate, and certain. It also routinely violated international human rights and constitutional due process, and the rule of law was nonexistent. Because it relied solely on the military, Guatemala needed no police, no prosecutors, no judges, and no public defenders.

Guatemala's tragic experience was paralleled by the past military governments of Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and myriad other governments in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In Guatemala, as in neighboring El Salvador, there was a peace process, leading to peace accords. However, exhaustion from fighting and a desire to stop is not the same as wanting peace and pledging to uphold the rule of law. It would be naive to believe that Guatemala could reverse 40 years of ignoring the rule of law with the signing of a peace accord. On the contrary, the biggest threat to democracy today in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, or Bolivia is not communism or insurgency; but crime, especially organized crime involving narcotics. US foreign policy must recognize the need to stay the course with increased levels of legal assistance if the rule of law is to be advanced. …

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