International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

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 and what that Commission was and how it did its work.[5] Yet another facet of this case has been exposed: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and its impact on the Jesuits case.[6]

Now we look at the Jesuits case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), headquartered in Washington, D.C.  It receives and analyzes petitions alleging human rights violations under the American Convention [Treaty] on Human Rights. When a petition meets certain conditions of eligibility, the IACHR solicits the views of the concerned State, investigates the violations and issues a report that typically sets forth its findings and conclusions plus recommendations to the State concerned.[7] As of 1993, according to a U.S. bar association, the IACHR “decides few cases, usually after a long delay, and often its decisions are not drafted in a persuasive manner,” and its “decisions receive very little notice, are not cited or relied on in other cases, and are often not obeyed.” [8]

On the same day the Jesuit priests were murdered (November 16, 1989), Americas Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization, filed a complaint with the IACHR alleging that the Salvadoran government had violated the American Convention [Treaty] on Human Rights with respect to the murder of the Jesuits and their cook and her daughter.  Subsequently the government asked for dismissal on the ground that the case had been duly prosecuted in the country.[9]

Ten years later (December 22, 1999), the Commission issued its report making detailed findings about the murder and subsequent events and concluding that the state had violated the American Convention. It found the Truth Commission Report to be credible and placed heavy reliance on it.[10] As a result, the IACHR recommended that the government conduct an expeditious, effective investigation and prosecute and punish those who were involved “without reference to the amnesty,” to make reparations and to render the General Amnesty Law null and void.[11] The IACHR set forth its legal reasoning why that Law was invalid.[12]

Almost another 12 years now have passed since the IACHR’s decision, and still the government of El Salvador has not complied with these recommendations.[13]

In November 2009, however, on the 20th anniversary of the murder of the Jesuit priests, El Salvador at least partially complied with the recommendation for reparations. President Mauricio Funes presented the nation’s highest award (National Order of Jose Matias Delgado) to the Jesuit priests’ relatives as an act of atonement. Finally the Funes’ Administration formally advised the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the Salvadoran state accepted the binding nature of their past decisions involving the country and the state’s responsibility to implement their recommendations in those cases.[14]

The IACHR has had three other cases that were investigated by the Truth Commission and at least two other cases of human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war. In all of these cases the IACHR concluded that the country had violated the American Convention on Human Rights and made recommendations similar to the ones in the Jesuits case. For the most part, El Salvador has not adopted IACHR’s recommendations in these cases.[15]

In January 2010, however, President  Funes took steps for compliance with the recommendations to make reparations to the victims of these crimes, including the Jesuits case. President Funes admitted that during the civil war state security forces “committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power,” including “massacres, arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary deprivation of freedom” and other acts of repression. Fuenes also made a formal apology to all of the victims of these crimes and asked for their forgiveness. In addition, Fuenes created three commissions (i) to offer redress to the victims, (ii) to search for children who went missing during the war; and (iii) to provide attention to disabled combatants. (The country’s Vice President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, simultaneously apologized for the actions of FMLN guerrillas during the civil war.)[16]

[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 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]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011).

[6]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011). A future post will discuss the current Salvadoran controversy regarding the General Amnesty Law and the Constitutional Chamber of the country’s Supreme Court.

[7]  IACHR, What is the IACHR?, . (The other human rights body for the Americas is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is located in San José, Costa Rica.)

[8]  Comm. on Int’l Human Rights of the Ass’n of Bar of City of N.Y., The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: a Promise Unfulfilled at 3 (1993).  The author believes these 1993 conclusions about the IACHR are still valid and invites comments on this topic.

[9]  Ignacio Ellacuria, et al. v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 136/99 ¶¶ 1-3 (IACHR Case No. 10.488, Dec. 22, 1999).

[10]  Id. ¶¶ 25-26, 52, 59-60, 69-72, 75-86, 179-80, 184, 209, 219, 230-31.

[11]  Id. ¶¶ 4, 52-142, 143-96, 237-38, 241.

[12]  Id. ¶¶ 192-232. Accord  Cea et al v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 1/99  ¶¶ 105-17, 160 (Case No. 10.480, Jan. 27, 1999).

[13]  CJA, El Salvador: The Jesuits Massacre Case,

[14] IACHR, Press Release No. 78/09: IACHR Concludes Its 137th Period of Sessions (Nov. 13, 2009); Aleman, El Salvador awards highest honors to 6 Jesuit priests killed by army 20 years ago, Washington Examiner (Nov. 16, 2009).

[15] Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 37/00 ¶¶ 1-2 (IACHR Case No. 11.481, April 13, 2000); Admissibility of  El Mozote Massacre, Rep. No. 24/06, ¶¶ 1-29  (IACHR Case No. 10.720, Mar. 2, 2006); COMADRES, Rep. No. 13/96, ¶¶  1-2, 5-7, 28 (IACHR Case No. 10.948, Mar. 1, 1996);  Cea, et al. v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 1/99 (IACHR Case No. 10.480 Jan. 27, 1999); Vasquez v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 65/99 (IACHR Case No. 10.228 Apr. 13, 1999).

[16] Cervantes, Funes pide perdon por abusos durante la Guerra (Jan. 16, 2010),; IACHR, Press Release NO. 4/10: IACHR Welcomes El Salvador’s Recognition of Responsibility and Apology for Grave Human Rights Violations During the Armed Conflict (Jan. 21, 2010); El Salvador President Apologizes to War Victims, Latin American Herald Tribune (Jan. 22, 2010). The author is not aware of what has happened with these three commissions and invites comments with such information.


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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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