Guatemala's presidential candidates should publicly commit themselves to supporting a commission to investigate political violence in Guatemala, Human Rights Watch said today. In their political agendas, candidates in the November 9 election should make human rights accountability a core element.

"The biggest challenge for democracy in Guatemala remains reestablishing the rule of law," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Putting a stop to political violence is an essential step in that process."

Sunday's presidential election will be the fifth since civilian rule was restored in Guatemala in 1986. It will be the second since the 1996 peace accords that brought an end to a 36-year internal armed conflict in which as many as 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives, primarily at the hands of the Guatemalan military.

One of the leading candidates, General Efraín Ríos Montt, headed a military government in the early 1980s that engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign responsible for hundreds of massacres of unarmed civilians and-according to a U.N.-sponsored truth commission-"acts of genocide."

Neither Ríos Montt nor his fellow officers have been tried for the massacres. In the seven years since the war ended, only two major human rights cases have resulted in the conviction of senior army officers. These rulings came only after witnesses were assassinated, and investigators, judges and prosecutors fled the country. Both convictions were subsequently overturned on dubious grounds and remain under review in the courts.

The most pressing obstacle to progress on human rights cases has been the country's climate of political violence and intimidation. Rights activists, justice officials, journalists, and others who have promoted accountability have faced scores of threats and attacks over the past two years.

There is a solid consensus among local and international observers that the perpetrators of many of these acts of violence and intimidation are affiliated with clandestine groups that have links to both state agents and organized crime. These groups threaten not only specific individuals and organizations, but also Guatemalan society as a whole, given their capacity to corrupt public institutions and undermine the rule of law.

Earlier this year, the Guatemalan government, the national human rights ombudsman and civil society leaders agreed to support the creation of a special U.N.-sponsored commission to investigate and promote the prosecution of these groups. The current foreign minister, Edgar Gutiérrez, signed an agreement committing the Guatemalan state to establishing the commission, known as the Commission of Investigation into Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CICIACS).

The proposal has strong support from the international community, including the United States. As a condition for its participation, the United Nations recently submitted recommendations to the Guatemalan government to strengthen the initial proposal. It is unclear whether a final agreement can be reached before the current administration leaves office in January.

"The proposed commission could offer Guatemala its last, best opportunity to restore the rule of law," said Vivanco. "It's critical that the next government honor Guatemala's commitment to making the investigative commission a reality."