Research helps rectify human rights abuses

Travis Knoll

Last spring, I interned at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, an interdisciplinary center housed at the University of Texas School of Law. Their 2013 annual conference, which I attended, focused on “Impunity, Justice and the Human Rights Agenda” and included a speech by Fredy Peccerelli, a Guatemalan anthropologist who exhumes the bones of victims of the Guatemalan Civil War. These bones, however, are more than artifacts. They have been used as evidence in the recent genocide trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan head of state who presided over the deaths of an estimated 60,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, from 1982 to 1983. 

The ongoing legal saga of Ríos Montt may seem far removed from the UT campus. However, as I move toward earning my master’s in Latin American studies at the University, I realize that academic research can promote understanding, bring our international neighbors closer and help the University to play the role of an advocate for the marginalized. 

When I visited Guatemala recently, I encountered the land of polarized opinions talked about in UT lecture halls, a polarization exemplified by an argument between my taxi driver, who supported Ríos Montt, and our indigenous guide, who was glad that Ríos Montt “was finally going to pay.”

The UT-run Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive, a collaborative effort of the Rapoport Center, the Benson Latin American Collection and the Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, helps us explain the complicated country of Guatemala. Part of an agreement formalized in January 2011 between UT-Austin and the Guatemalan Police Archives, it contains records that span from U.S.-backed syphilis experiments in the 1940s to the Guatemalan Civil War that ran from 1960 to 1996. This archive allows us to document the crimes of others, but also to come to terms with our own role in those crimes.

As we travel, we notice that this University is not just known for burnt orange-clad football fans or Bevo’s iconic horns. Those are necessary parts of UT’s identity, but UT at its best is both an advocate for the oppressed and a repository of knowledge. While sectors of our University promote power, both political and economic, parts also champion those who suffer the consequences of power’s dark side. This institution should strive to help students understand their lives and neighbors better and help them expose uncomfortable truths about U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic.

Knoll is a first-year masters student in Latin American Studies from Dallas.