Oscar Romero’s Assassination Case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


Oscar Romero

In late 1993, a complaint regarding the Romero case was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) by the Director of Oficina de Tutela Legal of the Archdiocese of San Salvador and by Romero’s brother. The petition alleged that the State of El Salvador had violated Romero’s right to life, to a fair trial and to judicial protection as well as the state’s obligation to respect and guarantee the rights set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights.[1]

The Salvadoran government did not question the admissibility of the petition and did not controvert or challenge its factual assertions. Instead, it asserted that the release of the persons implicated in the crime was in accordance with, and required by, the General Amnesty Law.[2]

Nearly seven years later, on April 13, 2000 (just after the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination), the IACHR issued its report making detailed factual findings.[3] In relying extensively on the Truth Commission Report, the IACHR stated that the Truth Commission had a “seriousness of methodology” and a “guarantee of impartiality and good faith derived from its composition,” that had been agreed to by the State. Therefore, the IACHR concluded “the results of [the Truth Commission] investigations into this case merit faith” and will be considered.[4] This is an example of what I have called the interactive global struggle against impunity.

The IACHR concluded that El Salvador had violated various provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights as alleged by the petitioners.[5] The Commission then recommended that the government (a) undertake “expeditiously a complete, impartial, and effective judicial investigation to identify, try and punish all the direct perpetrators and planners of the violations . . . notwithstanding the amnesty” law; (b) make reparations for the violations; and (c) “adapt its national legislation to the American Convention with a view to nullifying the General Amnesty Law.” [6]

The last recommendation regarding the General Amnesty Law followed the Commission’s lengthy analysis of the legality of that law under international law. The Commission noted that it had held similar laws in other countries to violate a state’s obligations under the American Convention [7] and that it previously had advised the Salvadoran government that its General Amnesty Law was also invalid.[8]

Although El Salvador as a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) has an obligation to comply with the Commission’s recommendations, it had not done so as of July 2007. This failure was the subject of a hearing before the Commission in October 2007, when it was revealed that the government and the San Salvador Archbishop’s office had been engaged in a dialogue about the Romero case and other issues. What, if anything, was accomplished in this dialogue is still unclear.[9]

In any event, El Salvador did not adopt any of these recommendations during the administrations of President Flores and Saca from the ARENA Party from 2000 through June 2009.

Since taking office in June 2009, however, President Funes from the FMLN Party has taken steps to adopt at least some of the IACHR recommendations in this case.

In November 2009 at an IACHR hearing on the status of the Romero case, the Funes government advised the Commission that El Salvador accepted responsibility in the case for the State’s violation of the right to life and to justice. It also announced that the State would produce an official video about Romero’s life and legacy and would make a public confession of the State’s responsibility. In addition, the Funes administration formally advised the IACHR that the Salvadoran state accepted the binding nature of the Commission’s past decisions involving the country and the state’s responsibility to implement its recommendations. The Funes government, however, told the IACHR that it could only request the prosecutor to reopen the Romero case and that repeal of the Amnesty Law was up to the Salvadoran legislature. [10]

In January 2010, at a ceremony to mark the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, President Funes on behalf of the Salvadoran state admitted that during the civil war state security forces “committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power, made an illegitimate use of violence, broke the constitutional order and violated basic norms of peaceful coexistence.” These crimes included “massacres, arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary deprivation of freedom” and other acts of repression. Funes on behalf of the state then said “I apologize to children, youth, women and men, elders, religious, peasants, workers, students, intellectuals, political opponents and human rights activists.” Funes also announced the creation of a commission to offer redress to the victims.[11]

Romero Mural at San Salvador Airport, March 2010
Romero Poster, March 2010

In March 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination, Funes dedicated a mural about Romero in the departure lounge between all the souvenir shops and restaurants at the country’s international airport. There in his capacity as President, Funes said, “I apologize on behalf of the Salvadoran State for this assassination.” He also apologized to Romero’s family and extended his condolences. Later to journalists Funes said he apologized because the state failed to investigate and that any new investigation was a decision for the courts, not the President.[12]

At the same time, March of 2010, the President made positive remarks about Romero at one of the public rallies commemorating Romero’s life.  In addition, at a concert in honor of Romero at that time, Funes said that Romero was the spiritual guide for El Salvador and for his government and that Romero would not want more hate, more confrontations or more violence; instead Romero believed in a civilization of love which is justice and truth.[13]

[1] I-A Comm’n on Hum. Rts., Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, ¶¶ 1-2 (Case No. 11.481; Rep. No. 37/00 April 13, 2000).

[2]  Id. ¶ 3.  After the dismissal of the criminal charges against Saravia, he was a defendant in a civil case in a U.S. federal court about the Romero murder. See pp. 21-22 infra.

[3]   I-A Comm’n on Hum. Rts., Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, ¶¶  30-55.

[4]  Id. ¶ 30-54, 88, 120.

[5]  Id. ¶¶ 4, 87-122, 157.

[6]  Id. ¶¶ 4, 159.

[7]  Id. ¶¶ 123-51.

[8]  Id. ¶¶ 131-32; I-A Comm’n on Hum. Rts., Report on the Situation of Human Rights in El Salvador § II (4) (Feb. 11, 1994); I-A Comm’n on Hum. Rts., Annual Report 1994, ch. IV (Feb. 17, 1995); Massacre Las Hojas v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 26/92 ¶¶ 11-13 & Conclusions ¶¶ 3, 4, 5(a), 5( c) (Case No, 10.287 Sept. 24, 1992)(1987 amnesty law).

[9]  El Salvador: Who’s Defending Monsignor Romero, Revista Envio Jan. 2008.

[10] Inter-Am Comm’n on Human Rights, Press Release No. 78/09: IACHR Concludes Its 137th Period of Sessions (Nov. 13, 2009); Assassination of Archbishop Romero: 30 Years of Impunity, Revista envoi (April 2010).

[11] Caravantes, Funes pide perdon por abusos durante la Guerra, http://www.elfaro.net (Jan. 16, 2010); El Salvador President Apologizes to Civil War Victims, Latin American Herald Tribune (Jan. 22, 2010). Earlier that same day the country’s Vice President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, apologized for the actions of the FMLN guerrillas during the war. Immediately after President Funes’ apology, two former presidents from the ARENA political party (Calderon Sol and Alfredo Cristiani) and three other officials form their administrations criticized the speech and said it was “revenge without equanimity.” (Caravantes, supra.) The IACHR, however, announced its satisfaction over Funes’ recognition of state responsibility, apology and creation of a reparations commission. (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).

[12] Assassination of Archbishop Romero: 30 Years of Impunity, Revista envio (April 2010).

[13] Email, Ann Butwell (Center for Global Education) to the author (Mar. 15, 2010).

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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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