International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in The Truth Commission for El Salvador

We already have looked at a Spanish court’s recent issuance of 20 criminal arrest warrants regarding the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador[1] and the provisional facts of the murders themselves[2]  and the Salvadoran military’s attempts to cover up its being the one responsible for the killings.[3]  We also have summarized the Salvadoran criminal case regarding this crime.[4] Along the way we have encountered the findings regarding this crime by the Truth Commission for El Salvador. Now we see what that Commission was and how it did its work.[5]

In January 1992, under United Nations’ auspices, the Government of El Salvador and the FMLN, a Salvadoran guerrilla group, successfully concluded their long negotiations to end the 12 years of civil war. The Peace Accords represent a genuine compromise: the FMLN renounced its aspiration to seize the state by military force and impose radical economic changes while the government and its political supporters relinquished their historical control and violent opposition to change.[6] The Accords laid out sweeping reforms to permit the FMLN to participate in political life, to transform the institutions that had accounted for the major human rights violations and to achieve greater equity in the economic and social life of the country.[7]

The Peace Accords also created the Commission for the Truth for El Salvador.[8] Its inclusion developed out of the desire of both sides for at least symbolic justice focused on the most notorious cases with the U.N. providing the compromise formula for such a commission.[9] The U.N. Secretary-General appointed the three members of the Commission. Notably none of its members was Salvadoran because its work was perceived to be too dangerous for anyone who lived in the country.[10]

The Commission was charged to consider and resolve “the need to clarify and put an end to any indication of impunity on the part of officers of the armed forces, particularly in cases where respect for human rights is jeopardized.”[11]

More specifically, the Commission was to investigate “serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980 and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth.”[12] In conducting these investigations, the Commission was to take into account “the exceptional importance that may be attached to the acts to be investigated, their characteristics and impact, and the social unrest to which they gave rise” and the “need to create confidence in the positive changes which the peace process is promoting and to assist the transition to national reconciliation.”[13]

In addition, the Commission was to make “legal, political or administrative” recommendations for specific cases as both sides had agreed that the Commission could recommend criminal prosecutions.[14] More generally, the Commission recommendations “may include measures to prevent the repetition of such acts, and initiatives to promote national reconciliation.”[15] Under the Peace Accords, the parties “undertake to carry out the Commission’s recommendations.”[16]

The Commission was to conduct its activities “on a confidential basis.” It was not to “function in the manner of a judicial body.” It could use “whatever sources of information it deems useful and reliable.” It could “interview, freely and in private,” anyone. Its procedures should “yield results in the short term, without prejudice to the obligations incumbent on the Salvadoran courts to solve such cases and impose the appropriate penalties on the culprits.”[17]

In evaluating and implementing this Mandate regarding its procedures and methodology, the Commission made the following decisions:

  • It would investigate individual cases or acts that outraged Salvadoran society and/or international opinion as well as a series of individual cases with similar characteristics revealing a pattern of violence or ill treatment that also outraged Salvadoran society.
  • Its sources would be confidential.
  • It would interview people and receive reports from governments and international bodies.
  • It would take all possible steps to ensure the reliability of the evidence used to arrive at a finding; to verify, substantiate and review all statements of facts by checking them against a large number of sources whose veracity had been established and by not basing any finding on a single source or witness or only on a secondary source.
  • It would name perpetrators of human rights violations.
  • Its report would specify the degree of certainty for each finding.  “Overwhelming evidence” would indicate “conclusive or highly convincing evidence.”  “Substantial evidence” would indicate “very solid evidence.”  “Sufficient evidence” would indicate “more evidence to support the . . . finding than to contradict it.”[18]

On March 15, 1993, the Commission delivered its report to the U.N. Security Council, the Government of El Salvador, the FMLN and the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). The Report made findings on 32 cases of serious acts of violence, one of which was the murders of the Jesuit priests.[19]

The Commission had no power to prosecute anyone, and it recommended against immediate prosecutions by the Salvadoran government because the Commission believed the Salvadoran judicial system was not capable of handling such cases.[20] Instead, the Commission’s findings on specific cases were intended to be used by the Salvadoran judicial system after it had been reformed to make “whatever final decisions they consider appropriate at this moment in history.”[21]

Finally  the Truth Commission Report has been held by U.S. federal courts to meet standards of trustworthiness and thus was admissible into evidence in cases involving El Salvador.[22]  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has reached the same conclusion for cases from the country.[23]


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May31, 2011).

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 2, 2011).

[3]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s Military’s Attempt To Cover-Up Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011).

[4]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Criminal Prosecution of the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).

[5]  Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 13-14, 26-171 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html  [“Commission Report”]; Margaret Popkin, Peace without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador at 3, 6-7, 41, 46-48, 50-57 (University Park, PA: Penn. State Univ. Press 2000) [“Popkin”]; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report 1991, ch. IV (Feb. 14, 1992); Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in El Salvador § I (1) (Feb. 11, 1994).

[6]  Terry Karl, El Salvador’s Negotiated Revolution, 71 Foreign Affairs 147, 148 (1992).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace (1992) [“Peace Accords”]; Unitarian Universalist Service Comm.,  Provisional Summary of Key Accords by Salvadoran Negotiators (Jan. 15, 1992); Search for Justice, The Salvadoran Peace Accords: A Synopsis (circa Jan. 15, 1992) [“Accord Synopsis“]; El Rescate Human Rights Dep’t, The Salvadoran Peace Accords: An Outline (1992); Popkin at 3-4, 83-95; Human Rights Watch, World Reports: El Salvador (2001); Human Rights Watch, World Reports: El Salvador (2002).

[8]  Id.

[9]  Popkin at 87-94.

[10]  Accord Synopsis; Commission Report; Popkin at 87-88, 94-95, 121-24; Buergenthal, The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, 27 Vanderbilt J. Transnat’l L. 497, 499-500, 503-04 (1994) [“Buergenthal”]. Thomas Buergenthal was one of the members of the Truth Commission, and from 2000 to 2010 he was a judge on the International Court of Justice. (Int’l Court of Justice, Judge Thomas Buergenthal, http://www.icj-cij.org/court/index.php?p1=1&p2=2&p3=1&judge=11.)

[11]  Peace Accords at 53; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[12]  Peace Accords at 17, 29; Commission Report at 18.

[13]  Peace Accords at 17, 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[14]  Peace Accords at 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 94.

[15]  Peace Accords at 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[16]  Peace Accords at 31; Commission Report at 19.

[17]  Peace Accords at 30, 53; Commission Report at 22.

[18]  Commission Report at 22-25; Popkin at 112-20. The El Salvador Government tried to persuade the Commission not to name individuals. Buergenthal at 519-22 (Commissioners assumed from the start that alleged perpetrators would have to be named and not to do so would reinforce the impunity that was supposed to end); Popkin at 113-14; David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process  at 499-500 (4th ed. 2009) [“Weissbrodt”].

[19]  Commission Report at 43-171.

[20]   Commission Report at 177-79; Popkin at 131-39, 140-43.

[21]  Commission Report at 13.

[22]  Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112, 1131-32, 1255 (E.D. Cal. 2005); Chavez v. Carranza, 413 F. Supp. 2d 891, 903-04 (W.D. Tenn. 2005), aff’d, 559 F.3d 486, 496 (6th Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 130 S. Ct. 110 (2009); Fed. R. Evid. 801 (c), 803 (8).

[23]  Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 37/00, ¶¶ 30-54, 88, 120 (IACHR April 13, 2000); Ignacio Ellacuria, et al. v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 136/99, ¶¶ 79-86 (IACHR Dec. 22, 1999); Admissibility of El Mazote Massacre, Rep. No. 24/06, ¶¶ 30-42 (IACHR Mar. 2, 2006).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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