20 years since Truth Commission report

March 15 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the report of the UN Truth Commission which investigated human rights abuses during El Salvador's twelve year civil war.  The three member commission spent 8 months gathering testimony  and evidence to produce its report titled  From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.  

The United States Institute of Peace summarized the reports' main points:
  • Among over 22,000 complaints documented, 60% involved extrajudicial killings, 25% involved disappearances, 20% involved torture, and some alleging more than one form of violence.
  • Based on collected testimony the commission attributed 85% of the acts of violence to State agents, which took place predominantly in rural areas. Approximately 5% of the acts of violence were attributed to the FMLN.
  • The report named individual actors allegedly responsible for human rights violations.
  • The recommendations of the commission were legally binding according to its mandate.
  • The commission recommended dismissal of culpable army officers and civil servants from government employment and the disqualification of any other person implicated in wrongdoings, including those investigated by the commission, from public office.
  • The commission called for extensive judicial and legal reform (especially the use of coerced confessions in trials) and security and institutional reforms.
  • It did not call for prosecution of incriminated perpetrators, since it saw the Salvadoran legal system as incapable of executing such prosecutions effectively.
  • The commission recommended reparations for victims including memorials and monetary compensation.
  • The commission recommended that a forum, comprising a representative sector of society, should be established to monitor the implementation of the recommendations.
Five days after the Truth Commission's report was issued in 1993, the National Assembly passed an amnesty law which has blocked judicial proceedings for crimes committed during the war ever since.

International human rights groups used today's twentieth anniversary to point out how far El Salvador has fallen short of compliance with the Truth Commission's recommendations.

Amnesty International wrote:
“20 years on from the Truth Commission report, however, the perpetrators of this crime, and the thousands of other crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict must also be investigated and brought to account. The truth about what happened must be revealed, and reparations and justice provided for all victims and survivors. Further, the authorities must comply with the Inter-American Court demand for the Amnesty Law to be repealed,” said Esther Major, Central America researcher at Amnesty International. 
“The survivors and relatives who pinned their hopes on the implementation of the Truth Commission’s recommendations, cannot afford to wait another 20 years.”
The Washington Office on Latin America commented:
The Truth Commission called for the establishment of the rule of law and the end to de facto impunity in El Salvador. It identified those presumed responsible for a number of high profile human rights abuses and called for a series of institutional reforms, as well as an investigation into the continuing existence and possible mutation of death squads and illegal armed groups into organized criminal bands with links to politicians and the security services. But the amnesty thwarted further action on the specific cases, the process of institutional reform has been partial and uneven, and the danger of organized crime and its penetration of the state is perhaps higher today that it was in 1993. El Salvador and its friends in the international community need to face these challenges in order to consolidate the modern, democratic state that the Truth Commission called for and El Salvador deserves.
 An article from John McPhaul at New America Media titled On Anniversary of Truth Commission Findings, New Hope for Justice in El Salvadortakes a more optimistic note, but that hope all seems to be based on last year's ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declaring that El Salvador must repeal the amnesty law and provide justice for the victims of the El Mozote massacre.   The problem is that El Salvador has been ordered to do this before by the Court in other cases, and has never complied.

Another reason for pessimism --  FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren who said two months ago that he would seek to repeal the amnesty law, now says that repealing the law is up to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

In fact, the Constitutional Chamber might be the only state institution with the courage to void the amnesty.  


Ron said…
The fact that the Salvadoran Amnesty Law is still under debate twenty years after the UN Truth Commission Report is indicative of the falling short of the spirit or purpose of the Truth Commission itself. That original spirit called for all atrocities and war crimes to be put out on the table, for the truth to be known. Only once the truth was known, a pardoning process could begin; a national catharsis of sorts. The actual implementation of the Commission fell far short of that ideal.
Most of the “findings” by the Truth Commission were well-known cases already published in local and foreign newspapers. The one exception to that was the case of the ERP. Astutely or naively (you be the judge on that) the ERP leadership believed wholeheartedly in the spirit of the Truth Commission. The “findings” regarding ERP crimes were delivered, by the ERP to the Commission, in written documents, citing names, locations, dates, reason for the action taken and full acceptance of responsibility. This resulted in the naming of six members of the leadership of the ERP as directly responsible for the assassination of civilians during the war. It is notable that no other participants in the conflict took this approach with the Truth Commission.
Those who are calling to repeal the Amnesty Law, on the basis of the El Mozote Massacre, should realize that they are unsheathing a two-edged sword. The removal of amnesty opens parties on both sides equally to criminal prosecution. A notable case which comes to mind is that of Mayo Sibrian, one which may even rival the number of deaths in El Mozote. Do your own research on this; it may help explain certain hesitance at some levels to push for a repeal of the Amnesty Law.
The truth must come out. Unfortunately, going the way of judicial prosecution will open a Pandora’s Box. The Peace Process and the Salvadoran people would have been served much better had that box been opened twenty years ago with the true spirit of the UN Truth Commission.