Interview with WISC Fellow-in-Residence Jo-Marie Burt

Interview with WISC Fellow-in-Residence Jo-Marie Burt

How did you hear about WISC?

Through Submittable. It’s a weekly newsletter with great articles and a list of opportunities for writers and artists. WISC is the first writers’ residency I’ve ever applied for.

What is the current status of your project?

I’m working on two projects right now, though they are really variations on a theme: how post-conflict societies address the legacy of state terror and grave violations of human rights.

One of the projects I’m working on examines the experiences of women in Guatemala who were direct victims of political violence, as well as those whose family members were victims of violence, and their pursuit of justice. I’ve been tracking justice efforts in Guatemala over the past several years, and especially since the 2013 genocide trial against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Observing these criminal processes, I was struck by the fact that women were playing a leading role in demanding justice, and I became interested in writing about the gendered aspects of post-conflict justice.

The other project is a book about the criminal prosecution of Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru. After fleeing the country amidst a series of scandals, Fujimori was eventually extradited, prosecuted, and convicted in 2009 for a series of grave human rights violations. This was a major departure from the impunity that heads of state implicated in grave human rights abuses typically enjoyed. I was an accredited international observer to the trial. I organized several conferences and international observation missions, and I wrote several journalistic and academic articles about the trial. Now, with some time and distance, I think it is important to reflect on the historic significance of the Fujimori trial and verdict, but also to try to understand how it is that Fujimori’s daughter has become so popular, despite the fact that she continues to point to her father’s authoritarian practices as a model for the future of Peru.

What are the most important questions for post-conflict societies?

I approach this question from the perspective of human rights. If one does that, one has to consider the fundamental importance of addressing the legacy of violence and human rights abuses during conflict. It is necessary to provide redress for the victims, who are often the most marginalized and excluded sectors of the population.

This is certainly the case in the two countries where I’ve done the most work, Peru and Guatemala. In Peru, 75 percent of the victims of the armed conflict were indigenous, while in Guatemala 80 percent were indigenous. It is inescapable that the profound racism of these societies contributed to this outcome. Redress for victims does not only mean reparations, though these are important; it also means truth, so that they know what happened to their loved ones, and justice for those responsible. This is necessary to acknowledge the human condition of the victims as well as to restore their rights as citizens.

Can you tell us about one of the cases you are writing about? 

One of the cases I’m writing about is a 14-year old boy, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, who was kidnapped and then forcibly disappeared by the Guatemalan military in Guatemala as a kind of reprisal after his sister, Emma Molina Theissen, had escaped from military detention. Emma detained at military checkpoint in 1981. She was brought to a military base where they soon learned her real identity. She was a member of the Guatemala Workers’ Party, a dissident group opposed to military rule. This was one of the most violent periods of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala.

Emma was tortured and gang-raped more than once. After a week and a half of no food, she had grown so thin that she was able to escape her cell. She walked out of the military base by posing as a prostitute. The military went to her mother’s home in Guatemala City, and not finding her, they kidnapped her little brother. It’s a heart-wrenching story. I’ve been monitoring this and other cases for International Justice Monitor. It’s a profoundly humbling experience to meet people who have endured such terrible violence, yet have the determination and resilience to continue to fight, year after year after year, for justice.

Do you have answers for any of your questions: what to do about the torturers? How does seeking justice effect the future fabric of society?

In my view, justice is important for the victims, that much is obvious, but it is also important for society itself. Impunity for grave human rights violations breeds new forms of impunity. Someone joked that Guatemala is the perfect place to murder someone, because 99 times out of 100 you go scott-free. This has led to the emergence of organized crime syndicates and massive corruption networks, often involving the most senior military officials of the counterinsurgency war. If the people that committed the abuses are still in power, whether it be formal power or some shadowy structure behind the scenes, it is going to be much more difficult to build the rule of law. Democracy dies when there is no rule of law.

How would you describe your role or position?

I guess I aspire to do a couple of different things with my work. As an academic, as a reseacher, I want to document, analyze, and help understand these processes.

But I am also an activist. I first became interested in Latin America when I learned about the massive violations of human rights occurring there, and was shocked to learn that my government was aiding and abetting abusive military regimes, from Argentina and Chile to Guatemala and El Salvador.

So, my work is also a way to practice my activism and to enact my solidarity with the victims of violence. Especially monitoring human rights trials, my role is as one of radical witnessing: being present, standing with the victims, bringing to light what’s going on in the courtroom, speaking out, when appropriate, when problems arise. The expertise that I’ve acquired puts me in a position where I can do advocacy work, engage policymakers, and help promote the idea that justice in post-conflict societies is not only possible but imperative.

How are women particularly affected by conflict?

I think that there is now a general understanding that women are affected by conflict in very specific ways. Sexual violence against women is one of the most terrible legacies of war. But there is still a great misunderstanding about this issue. It is sometimes still justified away as “boys will be boys” or the belief that women are the almost natural “spoils of war.”

There is now an understanding in international law that sexual violence in conflict has to be treated as the war crime that it is. Yet there is still such a big gap between what we say at the level of international law and what happens on the ground in conficts around the world. And we know, of course, that sexual violence is not just something that happens to women in wartime, but in normal peacetime as well. We face a global epidemic of violence against women that men and women need to come together to stop once and far all.

Has there been justice for cases of sexual violence against women?

It is extremely difficult, but there have been some cases that have made it to trial. I was particularly moved by one trial I monitored last year in Guatemala, the Sepur Zarco trial, in which two military officials were prosectued for sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery against 14 Q’eqchi’ women. This was in 1981, at the height of the war. A local land-owning family called on the military to “take care of” the Q’eqchi’ peasant leaders who were seeking to regain title to their land, which had been stolen from them. The military came, killed or disappeared the men, sexually violated the women, and then turned the women into their sexual and domestic slaves.

It took a long time, but the women eventually agreed to testify in court about the terrible abuses they suffered. It was so powerful to sit in that courtroom hearing a Q’eqchi’ woman tell about the terrible things that were done to her. Yet there she was, years later, demanding to be heard, demanding punishment of the military officials repsonsible, and demanding to be treated like a citizen of Guatemala and not a second-class citizen because she was indigenous or a woman. It was a profoundly transformative experience for me. To learn about the long process of healing that the women had to go through to get to that point. To hear how they were stigmatized by others in their own communities as the “military women.” To see how they had overcome the shame, the pain, and the fear, to speak out openly in court. That’s courage.  

By writing about and documenting these cases, I hope that I can shed light on the nature of the abuses, and the struggles of the victims for truth, justice, and acknowledgement, and how this helps transforms societies.

What can women do in leadership positions?

Women need to BE in more positions of power around the world. Women need to be in congress, in civil service, in the judiciary. Bringing women into powerful positions, makes it more likely that women’s issues and concerns will be taken into account. I also think there needs to be gender-sensitivity training at all levels. But gender has to be analyzed always in relation to race, class, sexual identity. This is critical, thinking about intersectional identities and how to overcome overlapping systems of oppression that do us harm.

Who’s work are you excited about? It can be an artist, activist, etc. 

I just finished reading the new memoir of Sherman Alexie. He is Native American, grew up on the Spokane reservation, but he now considers himself an “urban Indian.” He writes with this brutal honesty, speaking openly about the oppression that he endured at home, in his community, and after he left the reservation, but also how this oppression is intimately related to the legacies of colonialism. Genocide doesn’t just happen in far away places like Guatemala. It happened right here, and we as a country have not yet fully grappled with this terrible fact. Alexie poignantly articulates the wounds of colonialism and inherited trauma, how intergenerational wounds persist and play out in terrible ways. I’ve seen this in my work on human rights in Latin America as well. I was particularly moved by his discussion about the loss of his tribe’s language, Spokane. His mother, who died in 2015, was the last fluent speaker of the Spokane language. His book is a bridge across the cultural divides that separates us, that dehumanizes us all.

Top 3 most inspiring women. 

Eleanor Roosevelt is probably my all time hero. She was a firebrand. She was a life-long champion of human rights, which has been so central to my intellectual formation. She played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which offers us the promise of a world based not on power politics but on the respect for the fundamental rights of all men and women. After her husband died, she continued to be very active, she became the first U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. I mean, she is so inspiring!

I am also inspired by the many women I have come to know in Guatemala who have played very powerful roles in the justice sector there. One of them is Claudia Paz y Paz. She was a human rights lawyer working on behalf of victims of the armed conflict. In 2010 she was appointed Attorney General. At a time when there were near-total impunity in Guatemala, she took on the criminals, those responsible for human rights abuses during the armed conflict, as well as those involved in more contemporary forms of corruption and organized crime.

Claudia is probably most well-known for putting former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on trial for genocide. He was convicted but powerful sectors pushed back and managed to have the verdict vacated. Nevertheless the fact that 100 survivors and families of victims testified, broke their silence and told the world about the abuses they suffered, was a major shift in Guatemala. It laid the groundwork for the big corruption and human rights cases that are taking place there now. Claudia Paz y Paz did that.

I also greatly admire the many women I have met over the years who survived human rights abuses or whose fathers, husbands, siblings, or children were the victims of abuses. If I had to chose one, it would have to be Gisela Ortiz Perea. I’ve known Gisela for more than 20 years. I met her a little over a year after her brother Enrique was disappeared in 1992, along with eight other students and a professor from La Cantuta University by a death squad under the orders of former president Alberto Fujimori. She dedicated her life to finding out what happened to her brother “Kique” and the other victims of La Cantuta. She played a pivotal role in the extradition and later prosecution of Fujimori. And now she works at an organization that helps other families search for their disappeared love ones.

What can you say about balance?

That word balance! It’s the magic word that holds out the promise that we can have it all – be successful at our work, whatever that may be, and also be present fully for our families and our children, if we have them. I myself have a teenage son. I don’t really know what balance means, I certainly don’t have a magic formula for achieving it. What I do know is that I want my son to see his Mom as a capable, independent, woman who is fully engaged in the world. I think that helps model for him that men and women are equal, that women can be independent, strong, and competent. I think that is one of the ways we help break down patriarchy: by teaching our children, especially our boys, to be feminists.