A Moral Test for Guatemala

As Guatemalans prepare to go to the polls Sunday to elect new political leaders, including a president, the top candidates face a test of their democratic leadership for the good of a beleaguered people. They should embrace an initiative, backed by the United Nations and global, hemispheric and local human rights advocates, to convene a commission to investigate Guatemala's decades of violence, death and destruction.

The nation's 36-year civil war came to its formal end seven years ago. But the conflict in which 200,000 people, most of them Indians, were killed or disappeared haunts Guatemala still. It's not just the endemic poverty that afflicts 90% of the population, leaving an elite 2% to control 58% of the nation's wealth. It's the incessant instability of a society that, even during an election campaign, sees killing as routine; dozens involved in the campaigning nationwide have been slain. Those who went on a decades-long rampage of rape, torture and genocide continue to destabilize Guatemala, spreading chaos through the brutal and organized criminality of paramilitary armies.

Government officials and political and civic leaders, as well as human rights advocates, hope to break the cycle of violence by creating a national commission powerful enough to help authorities investigate abuses and to finally bring wrongdoers to justice. The U.N., the United States and many European nations endorse the plan. It will, of course, need significant work to ensure it fits with Guatemalans' laws and wishes.

The proposed commission cannot work without the wholehearted support of Guatemala's top leaders, especially whoever is elected to the presidency. The commission and its best aims would require the moral as well as the political and practical backing of the new president.

The alternative is grisly and unacceptable. Assassinations, assaults and kidnappings for ransom increased 163% last year in Guatemala, Prensa Libre, the nation's largest newspaper, reports. This country of less than 4 million adults also has 1.5 million firearms circulating in it.

With the courage of individuals like Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala has pulled itself from the brink before. It has a far distance to go still, though, and its present and next leaders must pledge themselves anew to peace and justice for their people.

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