_Adjudicating Genocide

A study of the way nations confront the aftermath of genocide reveals new ideas about the best path to peace.

_Rachel López

López is an associate professor of law and director of the Community Lawyering Clinic in the Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

Legal scholars often position truth commissions as an alternative to seeking justice, but Associate Professor Rachel López found a much more symbiotic relationship between the two that could be revelatory for countries trying to heal from mass atrocities.

López spent six months as a Fulbright Scholar and six months as a Schell Fellow at Yale Law School researching transitional justice in countries addressing the human rights violations of predecessor regimes. Specifically, she looked at the interplay between traditional criminal courts and truth commissions, which are non-prosecutorial efforts to confront wrongdoing and heal a nation.

López analyzed the judicial record of the cases that led to convictions tied to the 36-year-long conflict in Guatemala responsible for an estimated 200,000 deaths, and interviewed judges, prosecutors and human rights attorneys involved in the legal proceedings.


Estimated number of indigenous Mayans and Ladinos in Guatemala killed in a decades-long genocide perpetrated by a U.S.-backed military regime.

Two truth commissions released reports that documented the human rights abuses that occurred in Guatemala, and those narratives, she found, played a significant role in aiding the criminal justice system — a complementary relationship that had previously gone unobserved by legal scholars.

Such findings could influence the way nations such as Colombia and El Salvador pursue peace and justice following their civil wars, she says.

“There is recent research by two political scientists that showed that empirically when you employ a variety of mechanisms — truth commissions, reparations, amnesties and trials — you get better results for human rights and democratic consolidation,” she says. “But there was little understanding of why there was that difference.”

“I’m hopeful my research can give insights into how the interaction of the various approaches to post-conflict justice can be improved in practice, and also raise some questions about how we can build justice systems that better integrate these approaches,” López says.