University of Melbourne Magazine

'Completely absorbing': Human rights in Guatemala

  • Lucy Turner and Maria Salome Garcia at a ceremony to bury exhumed remains

    Lucy Turner and Maria Salome Garcia at a ceremony to bury exhumed remains

    The exhumation of human remains from clandestine burial sites, matching DNA from the dead with living relatives and the handing back of remains to families.

    This is the work overseen by Lucy Turner, Coordinator of the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Transitional Justice Program in Guatemala, which aims to help the nation heal and reconcile with crimes of the recent past.

    A resident of Guatemala City for the past decade, Lucy first visited the metropolis in 1997. It was one year since the signing of the Peace Accords, which ended 36 years of civil war and statesponsored terror that claimed more than 200,000 lives and decimated the cultural fabric of the country.

    Lucy had just completed her Arts/Law degree and was travelling while waiting to start her articles at Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

    Four years later in 2002 and the young associate with an intellectual property specialty was on a commercial law career path she wasn’t completely sure about.

    “I felt maybe there was something more,” she says. So she applied for six months’ leave of absence to “do something completely different”.

    She contacted a university mate who was working in human rights law and he gave her a lead at the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action in Guatemala City.

    “I contacted them and said I would be willing to work for nothing for six months if they would have me in their office.” They said yes and the work transformed her.

    “I was working on litigation with family members of victims of enforced disappearance or torture and survivors of massacres committed during the war,” she says.

    “Once you get involved in that personal dimension it becomes completely absorbing.”

    After six months “I had only scratched the surface of the cases I was working on” so she quit her job and a new career in human rights law and advocacy opened up.

    “Satisfaction comes from being able to use your training in terms of analysis, advocacy, litigation, research and legal ‘Completely absorbing’ Human rights in Guatemala writing while gaining some progress and achievements for people who have suffered the worst injustices you can imagine.”

    In 2005 she joined the newly formed UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2009 she headed the NGO Impunity Watch and in August 2012 joined the UNDP.

    Four key tenets – Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-Repetition – underpin the holistic approach of the programs, which are focused on delivering outcomes for the community.

    It’s human rights justice beyond the textbook and in action.

    “What it actually means to work and promote human rights in the field can be worlds apart from the theory,” she says.

    Key initiatives include the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which undertakes forensic investigations to exhume remains of victims, and a state-of-the-art DNA laboratory to identify and match DNA with family members.

    “Once that has happened the remains are returned to the families to be buried according to their beliefs.”


    – Angela Martinkus