David Rice, human-rights observer

November 30, 2005
David Rice, human-rights observer

Les Todd

Between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during one of the twentieth-century's longest civil wars. Government soldiers and paramilitaries were responsible for the vast majority of the civilian deaths. The last massacre of the civil war occurred on October 5, 1995, when soldiers interrupted a community meeting in rural Xam·n and, after an intense argument, opened fire on the crowd. Eleven civilians died.

Out of 623 civilian massacres in a country the size of Tennessee, Xam·n is the only case to have been successfully prosecuted. David Rice, a graduate student in political theory, was assigned by Amnesty International to be a human-rights observer for Xam·n during the trial.

Rice served as an unarmed bodyguard for witnesses during the trip between the village and the courthouse. The military has strong influence over a corrupt judicial system and is known for threatening any person who dares testify against it. He felt this pressure when a government official called him a "gringo" during a proceeding and demanded he account for his presence. The judge refused the demand, but Rice was still faced with the uncertainty that, perhaps, he didn't belong.

"In a situation like that," he says,

"I was worried that my presence, which was supposed to be indirect and passive, would get in the way of the people I was supposed to enable." After consulting with Amnesty officials, however, Rice decided to stay, and he assisted in helping protect and advise those who testified in the conviction of those soldiers.

Raised in Keyport, New Jersey, Rice is the oldest of six children. His interest in the implications of justice and responsibility was galvanized by his father, a Baptist preacher and truck driver. "I've always been drawn to political theory," Rice says. "My father would read these books while driving his delivery truck and say, 'Hey, you ought to read From Kant to Nietzsche by Jules De Gaultier. It's really interesting.' "

Rice carried this interest to Rutgers University, where he studied political science and history and became involved in community service. Before applying to graduate school, Rice says, he decided he needed to get an outside perspective. "There are problems in academia where we end up talking to each other too much and don't get out and listen to the community." He seized an opportunity to employ his Spanish-language skills and passion for politics in the Amnesty International operation in Guatemala.

At the time he arrived, Xam·n housed a fraction of the approximately one-million returned refugees who had been forced to flee during the war.

Virtually all, from ex-guerillas to struggling farmers, bore scars from the conflict. Over the course of his stay, Rice became friends with a boy named Gerardo, who had been trampled during the chaos of the massacre and still suffered, both physically and mentally, from its aftereffects.

As Rice was preparing to fly back to the U.S. to celebrate Christmas, Gerardo was hospitalized. Assured that the boy was in stable condition, he decided to take the trip. The day he returned, Gerardo died of complications related to anemia. Could it have been prevented if the doctors had been willing to communicate and work with the family?

"I learned by experience that miscommunication was common in Guatemala, where they speak twenty-seven different Mayan languages, and city doctors don't have the patience to translate everything into standard Spanish," says Rice.

Rice says his experiences in Guatemala have awakened him to the dangers inherent in miscommunication, whether it's between soldiers and civilians, doctors and patients, or laymen and philosophers. "The worst atrocities in the world," he says, "happen when philosophers are removed from the implications of their thoughts, and the actors are not thinking about the philosophical underpinnings of their actions."

Rice is planning to write his dissertation on the intersection between political theory and theology. Using his appreciation of the importance of communication, he hopes to find a way to bridge the gap.