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This article analyses selected cases of mass killings and genocide during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s and the way in which the truth commissions in both countries reframed locally grounded narratives to fit the state-centred language of human rights. Redefining wrongdoings as human rights violations produces stories that communicate poorly with local worldviews because the 'truths' that human rights language proposes disregard local realities and transform local conflicts into a type of 'modern', nationwide struggles. Thus, while the concept of genocide might capture well the horrendous nature of a mass killing, it will also ethnify the conflict. Comparisons between local readings and human rights-based reinterpretations reveal a 'modernizing' or 'Westernizing' bias of international law; the article argues for more awareness about such effects in analysis as well as in policy-making.