Restorative Justice for El Salvador

Raquel Caballero de Guevara
I was at two events this week which were also attended by Raquel Caballero de Guevara, El Salvador's new Procuradora para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH.   Into English, this is usually translated as Human Rights Ombudsman, but I think a better translation would by Advocate for the Defense of Human Rights.   She has been in her current position since September.

In each of the appearances Caballero de Guevara spoke of one of her priorities being programs of "restorative justice."   As the 25th Anniversary of the 1992 Peace Accords approaches, the PDDH wants to see restorative justice provided for the victims in El Salvador.

Both of the appearances of Caballero de Guevara were at events where Father Michael Lapsley was presenting.   Lapsley founded the Institute for Healing of Memories in South Africa and was in El Salvador this week to discuss the process of healing and reconciliation for countries emerging from conflict.  Lapsley himself was a victim of violence after the apartheid regime of white South Africa sent him a letter bomb in 1990 which exploded costing Lapsley both of his hands.  Out of that experience, and participation in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Lapsley brought to El Salvador a message of its need for healing and restorative justice.   You can watch this video with Lapsley's remarks at the Monument to Truth and Memory in San Salvador on November 1.

After the nullification of the 1993 Amnesty Law earlier this year, added weight has been given to the call for restorative justice in the country.    And perhaps the absence of amnesty might give the government and other elements of society reason to consider such a process.

In America Magazine:
After the decision, rights defenders argued that Salvadoran officials should not seek to jail hundreds of "war criminals," explaining instead that restorative justice efforts would better bring truth and relief to victims of the violence. 
"We want the perpetrators to apologize, and the country must seek appropriate mechanisms to forgive and repair, so that that does not happen again," Miguel Montenegro, director of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, told CNS.
This call for restorative justice is also supported by the Roman Catholic bishops in the country.

What might restorative justice look like in El Salvador with respect to the wounds of 12 years of civil war?    A good illustration is provided by the International Tribunal for the Application of Restorative Justice in El Salvador.   This tribunal has been annually sponsored by the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) since 2009.   International human rights lawyers and judges come to El Salvador for three day sessions to hear the testimony of victims of massacres and other crimes committed during the civil war.   While the tribunal has no actual power, it provides an opportunity for the victims to be heard and acknowledged, many of them for the first time.

One of the members of the tribunal,  Carol Proner, described some of its restorative power:
The court uses a number of symbolic elements that give it a formidable narrative ability. Among these elements is to hold trials in the same locations at which massacres took place, with community members participating alongside the authorities, politicians and non-governmental organisations. Here, victims and survivors are encouraged to speak in front of an audience made up primarily of their own people. It is in these conditions that they are empowered to verbalise their memories, to condemn those responsible for their wrongdoings and to build a narrative that uncovers the story of a town and of a country that until the present day had preferred to hide and forget their past....
This is a moment in which a certain sort of individual and group catharsis takes place, one which takes on unimaginable proportions, comparable to the gravity of the violations perpetrated. The effect of initiatives such as these is tremendous, so much so that it could never be achieved via the usual legal channels, given their inherently limiting formalist logic. Similarly, the extraordinarily detail of the accounts helps create a map of what occurred, which can contribute to restoring the ‘historical memory’ so necessary to reach their goal: to ensure that these events will never reoccur. 
Accordingly, as the victims themselves are granted a position of authority, so they are converted in actual authors of conscience, on which bedrock and moral fortitude the tribunal is built. The process of restoration developed over the course of the long sessions has two immediate effects: it provides victims with moral compensation and, at the same time, it helps retrieve a town’s past, thus contributing to the collective restoration of society as a whole—the indirect victims.
This video (in Spanish) produced by the UCA provides an overview of the process and offers excerpts of the testimony given by some of the victims in previous years.

You can see pictures and read the resolution of the 2014 Tribunal at the website of Unfinished Sentences.

El Salvador has much unfinished business to heal the deep inner wounds left by the civil war.   Processes of restorative justice could begin the process of healing.    We can hope that the words of the PDDH earlier this week supporting restorative justice will eventually bear such fruit.


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