El Salvador to investigate the assassination of Oscar Romero

Yesterday I described the determination of El Salvador's president Mauricio Funes to make an act of public atonement on the 20th anniversary of the murder of the six Jesuits in 1989. Today, in an equally significant departure from the policies of the past ARENA governments, El Salvador announced that it would investigate the 1980 assassination of archbishop Oscar Romero, determine culpability, and make reparations.

The announcement came at a hearing of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. In 2000, the IACHR had ruled that El Salvador had violated basic human rights for its role in the assassination of Romero and the subsequent lack of any judicial inquiry or punishment. The ruling required that El Salvador:
1. Undertake expeditiously a complete, impartial, and effective judicial investigation to identify, try and punish all the direct perpetrators and planners of the violations established in this report, notwithstanding the amnesty that has been decreed.

2. Make reparations for all the consequences of the violations set forth, including the payment of just compensation.

3. Adapt its internal legislation to the American Convention with a view to nullifying the General Amnesty Law.

For the next eight years, the government controlled by the right-wing ARENA party did nothing to comply with this directive.

Today's hearing was a report to the IACHR on how the new government in El Salvador does plan to comply with the IACHR mandate. David Morales, the new government's human rights lawyer, told the commission that the current government is committed to comply. A commission will be established to investigate the crime, a statue is being erected to the memory of Romero, and a video produced dedicated to his memory. The Funes administration is studying the issue of reparations according to Morales, but he stopped short of committing to a repeal of El Salvador's amnesty law -- noting that such a repeal was not solely within the power of the executive branch.

Of course, there have been investigations of archbishop Romero's killing before. The UN Truth Commission dealt with the murder, as did the IACHR, and a court trial in the US granted a judgment against one Salvadoran, Alvaro Saravia, involved in the killing. However this will be the first time that an institution of the Salvadoran government will act on the assassination of the beloved Catholic pastor. It is a first blow against impunity in El Salvador. One can only wonder where this process will take El Salvador, if the investigating commission looks at the role of Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of ARENA and sponsor of death squads, as the intellectual author of the assassination.

One thing struck me about today's hearing before the IACHR, and it pointed out the 180 degree turn of the Salvadoran government. David Morales, representing the official government position, last appeared before the IACHR as the lawyer for Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the archdiocese of San Salvador. Last time he was there as the lawyer representing the parties demanding justice for Romero from the government -- today he appeared as the lawyer for the government.

March 24, 2010 will by the 30th anniversary of Romero's killing while he said mass at the chapel of the Divina Providencia cancer hospital in San Salvador.