El Salvador's civil war ended seventeen years ago. Immediately after the war, a UN Truth Commission heard testimony about many crimes and atrocities committed during the war and issued its report, "From Madness to Hope" in 1993. Rather than institute the recommendations of the report for a process of national reconciliation and justice for the victims, the Salvadoran National Assembly quickly passed a law providing for amnesty for all events occurring during the war years.
Since that time, any justice for the victims of human rights abuses during the 1970s and 1980s, has come only in forums outside of El Salvador itself. Civil trials for damages were brought in US courts by torture victims against Salvadoran officers, cases were brought before the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights, and now a proceeding has been commenced in Spain seeking to impose responsibility for the 1989 murders of the Jesuits. But El Salvador has not had any internal mechanism to allow victims of human rights violations to petition for justice.
Last month, however, a "Tribunal of Restorative Justice" was convened to hear the testimony of some of those victims. The tribunal was organized by the National Coordinator of Committees of Victims of Violations of Human Rights in the Armed Conflict and the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America (IDHUCA). The tribunal came into being because the government of El Salvador has used the amnesty law of 1993 as a reason not to investigate serious human rights violations which occurred during the civil war. The tribunal was seen by its organizers as an alternative and complementary mechanism to begin the process of restorative justice in the country, a process which has been absent since 1993.
The Tribunal included an eminent panel of jurists and human rights experts:
President:Over three days, from March 25-27, the panel heard the testimony of 11 victims and witnesses of human rights violations during the 1980s in El Salvador. The hearings took place in the chapel of the UCA, where the six Jesuit priests, murdered by the army in 1989 are interred and paid silent witness to the proceedings. The witnesses included Francisco Ramírez, a journalist detained and tortured for being a critic of the government, and Julián Terezón, a father who saw his son murdered and his daughter forcibly disappeared during the conflict. The panel also heard from Miriam Ayala and Julio Rivera, child survivors of the 1980 massacre at the Rio Sumpul, who described the army's actions massacring hundreds of women, children and the elderly fleeing into the river and towards Honduras. Descriptions of some of the other testimony can be found at the blog of the IDHUCA here and here.
- Don José María Tomás, Spanish Magistrate Judge and president of the Justice Foundation, Valencia, Spain. (background)
- Doña Gloria Giralt de García Prieto, Salvadoran woman who has struggled for justice in her country (background)
- Don Paulo Abrão Pires Jr., lawyer and law professor, president of the Brazilian Amnesty Commission.
- Don Belisario dos Santos, former secretary of justice and defense of the citizenry from the state of Sao Paulo Brazil and member of the International Commission of Jurists.
- Don Ricardo Iglesias, lawyer, consultan on human rights, and member of the American Association of Jurists (El Salvador)
- Don José Ramón Juániz, lawyer, president of Lawyers of the World of Valencia, Spain.
As the Voices on the Border blog noted:
The testimonies heard by the Tribunal were powerful and disturbing. They narrated stories of incredible human suffering -death threats, tortures, disappearances, assassinations, scorched earth campaigns, massacres- all committed directly by or with the complicity of the Salvadoran Armed Forces.The power of these testimonies, and the absence of any action by the Salvadoran state to address these wrongs, led for a renewed call to repeal the general amnesty law which was passed in 1993, soon after the close of the armed conflict:
It is not a little thing that a group of international jurists, a Salvadoran human rights specialist and a valiant woman who struggles for justice, demanded the repeal of the Amnesty Law imposed on the country 16 years ago. It is not, because their call was made after listening to the testimonies of various victims of the past political and armed conflict. The atrocities committed then can not remain in obscurity. The population tortured, massacred, assassinated or disappeared does not deserve to have its victimizers hidden behind official impunity. (From an IDHUCA blog entry).Yesterday,on April 24, 2009, the Tribunal released its written decision. The 55 page document is well worth reading. The decision summarizes the testimony heard by the tribunal and the considerations of human rights law involved in resolution of such matters. It rejects the justifications of the Salvadoran state concerning its action or inaction in addressing these events (although no government representative participated to present its case). Among other things, the Tribunal's decision calls for compensation for the victims and for El Salvador to move forward to create mechanisms to learn the truth of these events and others and to make the information known throughout Salvadoran society.
Along with the release of the Tribunal's decision, the following video was released on the theme of restorative justice: