Access to Justice for Victims of Conflict-related Sexual Violence: Lessons Learned from the Sepur Zarco Case
Despite persistent impunity for conflict-related sexual violence, there have been a limited number of significant cases holding perpetrators accountable within national justice systems. One of these cases is the Sepur Zarco case, in which two former military members were accused of committing acts of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery near a military outpost in Sepur Zarco during the civil war in Guatemala. In a landmark verdict issued in February 2016, a Guatemalan court convicted the two accused, marking the first time a Guatemalan court has convicted former military members for acts of sexual violence committed in the context of the country’s civil war, and the first instance of a domestic court prosecuting sexual slavery as an international crime. In acknowledging that these acts amounted to grave crimes, the Sepur Zarco verdict changed the narrative about sexual violence in Guatemala’s conflict. Up until then — as in other conflicts in the region and beyond — sexual violence had not been recognized as a separate crime, equivalent to other crimes committed during the conflict, for which perpetrators could be held accountable. This chapter will highlight some of the critical developments prior to the case, as well as the legal and political strategies employed in the case, which led to its remarkable success. It will also offer some reflections about the challenges that have emerged since the Sepur Zarco case and the potential lessons learned for pending and future litigation of similar cases in the region.