Truth of war atrocities lies in military and government archives
Three recent news articles remind us that part of the road towards justice in El Salvador runs through military and government archives in El Salvador and in the United States.
Elizabeth Malkin's recent article in the New York Times offers another story of the search for justice by survivors of the massacre of children and others at El Mozote and surrounding communities. As she notes, some questions might only be answered in those military and government archives:
“The survivors say they don’t even know who to forgive,” she said, adding a refrain she hears from the witnesses: “‘What were we doing that they wanted to inflict so much harm on us?’”
The explanation could lie in the military archives, but the army has told the court that records of the operation do not exist.
What may help uncover the military secrets are records kept far from El Salvador.
American support means that “the U.S. archives are chock-full of information about the El Mozote massacre,” said Kate Doyle, an El Salvador expert at the National Security Archive, an organization that seeks to declassify government documents.
The Clinton Administration did release many records, but Ms. Doyle said there are more that El Salvador could ask the United States to declassify.The government of El Salvador was sanctioned by the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights with respect to the El Mozote case. In a separate case, the government was also judged liable for failure to provide justice for victims of another category of war atrocity, the military's cruel abduction of children from families in guerrilla-controlled parts of the country. The organization Pro-Búsqueda continues the search to reunite the abducted children, now adults, with their families. Its story is told in a recent article at Ozy.com titled She's finding El Salvador's Lost Children.
Pro-Búsqueda's task would be made easier with access to military operation files:
Meanwhile, Pro-Búsqueda is fighting a legal battle to gain access to military archives that would aid their cases and help victims seek justice. For decades, military officers were protected from prosecution under the country’s amnesty law. But in July 2016, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, and Pro-Búsqueda is supporting families who seek justice. The Supreme Court ordered the military to open the archives, and the military has refused, often by saying that these files don’t exist. Pro-Búsqueda is filing an appeal to the court and will take the case directly to the president if they have to, the group’s director, Eduardo Garcia, tells me.Thankfully human rights groups are starting to have some success in getting access to more records from that time period. For example, the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington has been fighting to get files through Freedom of Information Act requests to the CIA and other agencies. Recently, they achieved success in obtaining more than 100 previously classified documents released according to the Seattle Times:
The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights has settled its 2015 Freedom-of-Information lawsuit against the CIA, receiving new information in its quest to reveal alleged abuses by U.S.-backed troops during El Salvador’s civil war.
The settlement, reached last week, resulted in the release of 139 CIA documents formerly designated “secret “ or “top secret,” some of which have never been seen outside the agency, said center Director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, who holds the Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights at the UW.Now that war crimes prosecutions can proceed in El Salvador following the 2016 repeal of an amnesty law, human rights advocates have renewed focus on the tasks of gathering the documentary record for those trials. What happened is usually known: children were kidnapped, civilians were massacred, etc. But why the orders were given and who gave the orders needs the support of government records in order to establish liability for the military chain of command.