The El Mozote Masacre: Inter-American Court of Human Rights Determines El Salvador Violated American Convention on Human Rights

El Mozote
El Mozote

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military detained and systematically executed virtually all of the 200 men, women and children in the small village of El Mozote in the northern part of the country. Others in nearby villages also were executed in the military’s “scorched earth” offensive.[1]

Now we look at this case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court).

 Invoking the Court’s Jurisdiction

As previously reported, the Commission on November 3, 2010, decided that the State of El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights in various respects regarding the Massacre and recommended various actions be taken by the State to redress the crimes. The State was given two months from December 8, 2010, to do so.

As of March 8, 2001, however, the State had not responded to the Commission regarding its implementation of the recommendations. Therefore, on that date, the Commission submitted the case to the Court for enforcement of those recommendations.

At the Court’s April 23, 2012, hearing in the matter, an attorney for the State said it would comply with whatever the Court decided.

The Court’s Judgment

Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On October 25, 2012, the Court rendered its judgment concluding that El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to the Massacre, and on December 10, 2012 (International Human Rights Day and the day before the 31st anniversary of the Massacre), the Court publicly released the judgment.[2]

Preliminarily the Court commended El Salvador for accepting all of the factual assertions of the petitioner and victims’ representative and for Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’ January 16, 2012, apology for the Massacre and commitment to provide remedies for victims and their relatives.[3]

The Court essentially endorsed or affirmed the Commission’s conclusions that the Salvadoran State had violated the following provisions of the American Convention of Human Rights regarding the Massacre:

  • (a) the rights to life, humane treatment and personal liberty of the victims who were executed extrajudically;
  • (b) the special rights of children who were executed extrajudically;
  • (c ) the rights to humane treatment and privacy of the women who were raped;
  • (d) the right to property of the murdered victims and the survivors whose homes were destroyed and whose means of livelihood were stolen or eliminated;
  • (e) the right to humane treatment of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims;
  • (f) the right of freedom of movements and residence of those who were forcibly displaced; and
  • (g) the rights to a fair trial and judicial protection of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims.

The court devoted considerable attention to the Salvadoran Law of General Amnesty after noting that unlike its earlier cases invalidating amnesty laws, this Law refers to acts committed in the context of an internal armed conflict and, therefore, implicates the competing considerations of Article 6(5) of Protocol II to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts. That article provides:

  •  ”At the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavour to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are interned or detained.”

According to the Court, this provision of the Additional Protocol is not absolute as there is an obligation under international law for a state to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Therefore, the Court concluded, the General Amnesty Law is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Peace Accords ending the Salvadoran civil war, to international law and to the American Convention on Human Rights. Accordingly that Law is without legal effect in this case and may not continue to obstruct the investigation of the facts and the identification, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for these crimes.[4]

The Court, therefore, ordered the State of El Salvador to:

  • (i) continue with the full commissioning of the “Register of Victims and Relatives of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations during the Slaughter of El Mozote “and take the necessary measures to ensure its permanence in time and budget allocation to operate effectively;
  • (ii) initiate, promote, reopen, direct, and continuing conclude, as appropriate, with the utmost diligence, investigations of all the facts of the violations declared in this judgment, in order to identify, prosecute and, if necessary, punish those responsible;
  • (iii) ensure that the General Amnesty Law . . . [is] not an obstacle to the investigation of the facts of this case or the identification, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for them and other serious human rights violations similar that occurred during the armed conflict in El Salvador;
  • (iv) investigate . . . the conduct of the officials who obstructed the investigation and allowed [offenders] to remain in impunity and, after due process, apply . . . administrative sanctions, disciplinary or criminal sanctions to those found responsible;
  • (v) carry out a survey of the available information on possible burial or burial sites . . . which should be protected for preservation, . . .[in order to] initiate a systematic and rigorous, with adequate human and financial resources,. . .  exhumation, identification and, if necessary, return of the remains of those executed to their families;
  • (vi) implement a development program for [the affected] communities] communities . . . .;
  • (vii) ensuring appropriate conditions so that the displaced victims can return to their home communities . . .permanent[ly], if they choose, and implement a housing program in the areas affected by the massacres of this case;
  • (viii) implement a comprehensive care and treatment of physical, mental and psychosocial [injuries];
  • (ix) publish the judgment;
  • (x) [produce and] perform an audiovisual documentary about the serious crimes committed in the massacre of El Mozote and surrounding areas;
  • (xi) implement a permanent program or compulsory course on human rights, including gender and childhood [rights], . . . [for] all ranks of the Armed Forces of the Republic of El Salvador; and
  • (xii) pay the compensation by way of compensation for material and moral damages, and reimbursement of costs and expenses.

The Court concluded with a statement that it would monitor full compliance with the judgment and terminate the case only after there has been such compliance.

Reaction to the Court’s Judgment

Immediately after the public release of the judgment, the Salvadoran government issued a public statement that it respects the judgment and assumes responsibility for complying therewith. The government specifically recognized that the victims and their families are entitled to moral and economic reparations which would be met within the government’s resources and powers. As the Court’s judgment acknowledged, the Salvadoran government since at least December 2011 had started the process of moral and economic reparations for these crimes.

Another problem of Salvadoran law that was not present in the Salvadoran criminal case about El Mozote and, therefore, was not addressed by the Inter-American Court in this case is a relatively short statute of limitations (10 years) for such crimes that were committed in 1981. Although, in my opinion, such limitations are subject to the same legal analysis and conclusion of invalidity as the Court’s treatment of the General Amnesty Law, difficulties in complying with the Court’s order will probably be presented by these short statutes of limitation with respect to any attempted criminal prosecutions.

Indeed, Salvadoran courts already have used the 10-year statute of limitations to bar criminal cases regarding the 1980 rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen and the 1989 murders of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

Moreover, one of the reasons for statutes of limitation for civil and criminal cases around the world is to protect the right to fair trial for both parties, but especially defendants. The longer that time passes between the events in dispute and the investigation and trial, the greater the risk of loss of evidence through death or incapacity of parties and witnesses and loss or destruction of documents and other physical evidence plus general loss of memory of the events. Here, 31 years already have passed since the Massacre.

Perhaps a Salvadoran criminal court could adopt in such circumstances the U.S. legal doctrine of “laches.” In U.S. law, it is an equitable defense in civil cases, not criminal cases, when the defendant alleges that as a result of delay in the plaintiff’s asserting the claim, circumstances have so changed that make it unjust for the plaintiff’s claim to be granted. One example of such changed circumstances is relevant testimony or other evidence is no longer available to defend against the claim. Laches is similar to a statute of limitations defense, but laches may be invoked before the statute of limitations has expired.

We will have to see how this and other issues develop initially in El Salvador and then in the Inter-American Court.


[1] A prior post set forth a brief summary of the facts of the Massacre, the investigation of same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador and the subsequent adoption of the Salvadoran General Amnesty Law and the dismissal of a criminal case on the basis of that Law. Another post  reviewed the El Mozote case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

[2]  Available online are the judgment itself, an official summary of the judgment and the Court’s press release about the judgment.

[3] An earlier post discussed the Salvadoran government’s December 2011 public apology for the Massacre and its January 2012 commitment to commence moral and economic reparations.

[4] The President of the Court, Judge Diego Garcia Sayan (Peru), submitted a concurring opinion with a more extensive analysis of the issue of the validity of the General Law of Amnesty. He emphasized the difficult choices facing a country that seeks to end an internal armed conflict. Another concurring opinion was submitted by Judge Eduardo Vio Grossi (Chile), who urged the Court in another case to focus on whether a fetus should be considered a “person” or “human being” under the American Convention on Human Rights.

The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent Salvadoran General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of Criminal Case

 

El Mozote
El Mozote

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military (Atlacatl Battalion) detained and systematically executed virtually all of the men, women and children in the small village of El Mozote in the northern part of El Salvador. The men first were tortured and then executed. Then the women were killed. Finally the children were killed. Over 200 of the victims subsequently were identified plus many others who were not so identified. This happened as part of the military’s “Operacion Rescate” that sought to eliminate the guerrilla presence in the area and that also committed massacres in other villages at the same time.[1]

In late January 1982 information about the massacres started to become publicly available, and protests began. The Salvadoran government, however, “categorically denied” that a massacre had taken place and did not immediately initiate any judicial investigations of the events.

Over eight years later (1990) criminal proceedings were commenced in El Salvador, and in November1992 court-ordered exhumations started.

These horrible crimes have reverberated ever since then.

The Truth Commission for El Salvador in March 1993 delivered its report on the El Mozote Massacre, which will be described below along with the immediate Salvadoran adoption of the General Amnesty Law and its being the basis for dismissal of the country’s criminal case about the Massacre.

Additional posts will discuss the following subsequent developments regarding the Massacre:

  • In March 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) made a preliminary decision in a case about the massacre, and four years later (November 2010), it made its decision on the merits.
  • On January 16, 2012, the President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, made an important public statement about his Administration’s decisions regarding redresses for the Massacre.
  • On October 25, 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had accepted the IACHR’s appeal from its own decision in order to enforce its recommendations, rendered its judgment in the El Mozote case and released that judgment to the public on December 10, 2012 (International Human Rights Day).

Truth Commission for El Salvador

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[2] in its April 2003 report found “full proof” that Atlacatl Battalion  soldiers “deliberately and systematically killed . . . more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population” of the village of El Mozote. There was “sufficient evidence” that these troops committed other massacres at the same time in nearby other villages. Names of the officers in charge were given. The Commission’s findings on what happened at El Mozote were aided by its retention of an international forensic team that conducted exhumations at the village and by its interviewing eyewitnesses. These efforts constituted a major advance in establishing the truth of the most egregious crimes.

In addition, the Truth Commission found that the Armed Forces High Command had “repeatedly denied” that a massacre had occurred and that Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia (“full evidence) and Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff General Rafael Florez Lima (“sufficient evidence”)  had initiated no investigation of the matter. Finally, the Commission found that the President of the Supreme Court “had interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”

El Salvador’s Adoption of the General Amnesty Law

Only five days after the delivery of the Truth Commission Report, El Salvador’s National Assembly adopted the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of the Peace (Decree 486).[3] It granted in Article 1:

  • “a full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any                 way in   the commission, prior to January 1, 1992 [the end of the civil war], of political crimes or common crimes linked to political crimes or common crimes in which the number of persons involved is no less than twenty. “

This law’s Article 6 stipulated that the amnesty shall apply “to the persons referred to in article 6 of the National Reconciliation Law . . . of January 23, 1992 [i.e., to those who would be named or implicated in the anticipated Truth Commission Report].” In addition, Article 2 of the Law broadened the definition of “political crime” to include “crimes against the public peace,” “crimes against the activities of the courts,” and crimes “committed on the occasion of or as a consequence of the armed conflict, without regard to political condition, militancy, affiliation or ideology.” Article 4 stated that all pending cases should be dismissed and all individuals being held should be released while anyone charged in the future could obtain dismissal of the charges. In addition, Article 4 provided that the amnesty extinguished all civil liability.

Dismissal of El Salvador’s El Mozote Criminal Case

As noted above, a Salvadoran criminal case about the massacre was commenced in 1990, and in late 1992 court-ordered exhumations started. However, the court suspended the exhumations in February 1993 and declined to hire international forensic specialists to assist in this effort, at the urging of the President of the country’s Supreme Court.

 In September 1994 the court dismissed the criminal case on the basis of the General Amnesty Law, and there were no appeals of that dismissal. (In 2000 Oficina de Tutela Legal obtained a court order for resumption of the exhumations as it was not covered by that Law.) [4]

Thus, no one was ever convicted for this crime in El Salvador.


[1]  This post supersedes a prior post about the El Mozote Massacre. This preliminary factual statement is based upon the Truth Commission report and Mark Danner’s The Massacre at el Mozote. There also is a detailed account of the Massacre in the November 3, 2010, decision of the IACHR (¶¶ 55-75) that will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[2] The mandate and procedures of the Truth Commission were discussed in a prior post.

[3] A prior post reviewed the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the General Amnesty Law and the Salvadoran courts’ rejection of challenges to the constitutionality of the Law. Another post reviewed U.S. courts’ refusal to use the Law to dismiss civil cases against Salvadorans while another post talked about a 2011 Salvadoran controversy regarding its Supreme Court that may have been related, in part, to another possible challenge to the validity of the Law.

[4]  IACHR, Admissibility of  El Mozote Massacre, Rep. No. 24/06, ¶¶ 17, 19  (Case No. 10.720 Mar. 2, 2006).

The 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador

   On December 10 and 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military (Atlacatl Battalion) detained and systematically executed virtually all of the men, women and children in the small northern village of El Mozote. The men first were tortured and then executed. Then the women were killed. Finally the children were killed. Over 200 of the victims subsequently were identified plus many others who were not so identified. This happened as part of the military’s “Operacion Rescate” that sought to eliminate the guerrilla presence in the area and that also committed massacres in other villages at the same time.[1]

In late January 1982 information about the massacres started to become publicly available, and protests began. The Salvadoran government, however, “categorically denied” that a massacre had taken place and did not conduct any judicial investigations of the events.

Over eight years later (1990) criminal proceedings were commenced in El Salvador, and in November 1992 court-ordered exhumations started. By September 1993, however, there were no identifications of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre, and the trial court, therefore, dismissed the case. Thereafter there was no appeal of that dismissal. Thus, no one was ever convicted for this crime.

These horrible crimes have reverberated ever since then. The Truth Commission for El Salvador in 1993 delivered its report on the massacre. In 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human rights (IACHR) made a preliminary decision in a case about the massacre, and in 2011 it referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court). And this year, 2012, the Salvador President made an important statement about the crime.

Truth Commission

The Truth Commission for El Salvador in its April 2003 report found “full proof” that Atlacatl Battalion  soldiers “deliberately and systematically killed . . . more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population” of the village. There was “sufficient evidence” that these troops committed other massacres at the same time in nearby other villages. Names of the officers in charge were given. The Commission’s findings on what happened at El Mozote were aided by its retention of an international forensic team that conducted exhumations at the village and by its interviewing eyewitnesses. These efforts constituted a major advance in establishing the truth of the most egregious crimes.

In addition, the Truth Commission found that the Armed Forces High Command “repeatedly denied” that a massacre had occurred and that Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia (“full evidence) and Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff General Rafael Florez Lima (“sufficient evidence”)  had initiated no investigation of the matter. Finally, the Commission found that the President of the Supreme Court “had interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In October 1990 the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the San Salvador Archbishop’s Office filed a petition with the IACHR alleging various human rights violations by the State of El Salvador in connection with the massacres in El Mozote and five other nearby villages.[2]

The government did not seriously challenge the allegations as to what happened in the villages. Instead, it asserted that (a) the case was not admissible to the IACHR because the petitioners had not exhausted their remedies in the country; (b) there was a criminal investigation precipitated by a complaint that was not made until 1990; (c ) the investigation proceeded properly despite great external difficulties caused by the war; (d) the case properly was dismissed in accordance with the General Amnesty Law; and (e) and the petitioners had failed to appeal that dismissal.

In March 2006 (16 years after the filing of the petition), the IACHR issued a report determining that the petition was admissible, i.e., eligible for further proceedings. The parties (petitioners and the government) were proper parties under the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged violations of the Convention occurring within the territory of a party to the Convention after it had become such a party. Most importantly for admissibility, the exception to the requirement for exhaustion of domestic remedies was satisfied: the systematic violations of human rights in the country made it impossible to file a complaint prior to 1990, appeals of dismissals based on the General Amnesty Law were not necessary, and the state had the responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings based on the Supreme Court’s recognition or creation in 2000 of possible exceptions to that Law and had not exercised that option. In reaching these conclusions, the IACHR relied, in part, on the Truth Commission Report.

Apparently sometime before March 2011, the IACHR issued its decision on the merits apparently concluding that El Salvador had violated various provisions of the American Convention on Human rights, but this decision is not available on its website.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

 On March 11, 2011, the Commission referred this case to the Court. The Commission’s press release about this referral stated:

  • “Due to the application of the General Amnesty Law for Consolidation of the Peace, as well as repeated omissions on the part of the Salvadoran State, these grave acts [at El Mozote and other surrounding villages] remain in impunity. To this day, the massacres have not been clarified judicially, nor have appropriate sanctions been imposed, despite the fact that a significant number of the persons responsible have been identified through various sources. Some exhumations were performed in subsequent years, but these did not lead to a reopening of the investigations, despite repeated requests made to the relevant authorities. The case was sent to the Inter-American Court . . .  because the Commission deemed that the State had not complied with the recommendations contained in the report on the merits.”

Presumably the Court will be holding a hearing in this case and thereafter rendering a decision on the merits.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’ Statement About El Mozote

El Mozote Memorial
President Funes @ El Mozote

January 16, 2012, was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Salvadoran Peace Accords. On that date President Funes went to El Mozote where he made an important speech about the massacre, He publicly acknowledged that Atlactal Battalion soldiers committed the massacre and apologized on behalf of the State for this atrocity. He asked for forgiveness for what he called “the biggest massacre of civilians in the contemporary history of Latin America.” (A video of the speech in the original Spanish is on the web.)

Funes said there could be no true peace until there is justice to provide compensation to victims and penalties for perpetrators. He also announced the following in response to the massacre:

  • He asked the Attorney General to review existing legislation and propose amendments or new laws to allow criminal sanctions to be imposed on those who participated in the worst human rights violations. Funes also noted that the Salvadoran Supreme Court already had decided that the General Amnesty Law did not protect those guilty of war crimes and could not be used to self-amnesty those who were in charge of the military during the period 1989-1994 (government officials from the Arena political party).
  • Funes instructed the Armed Forces to stop honoring former officers who were linked to this massacre, including Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, who was the commander of the Brigade involved.
  • Funes also requested political parties and others to stop honoring people who could be linked to such violations, which was interpreted as a message to the ARENA political party to stop honoring its founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson, and to the FMLN party to do likewise with Shafik Handal.
  • The government will conduct an investigation to identify all victims of the massacre.
  • The government will create a National Reparations Program for Victims of massacres and other human rights violations.
  • The government will declare El Mozote a cultural center.
  • The government will establish a community health clinic for El Mozote.
  • The government will assist agricultural production in the area, construct paved roads and improve potable water service, build a lodging house for elderly people without families and provide computers to the local school.

This presidential statement at El Mozote went far beyond the previous apology Funes had made for the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the one for the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.


[1]  This preliminary factual statement is based upon the Truth Commission Report  and Mark Danner’s  The Massacre at el Mozote . The mandate and procedures of the Truth Commission were discussed in a prior Post.

[2]  Background about the IACHR is set forth in a prior Post.

 

Developments in El Salvador Cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1999 determined that El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests along with their housekeeper and her daughter. As a result, the Commission recommended that El Salvador undertake a complete and impartial investigation to identify, try and punish the perpetrators of that crime, make reparations for the violations and repeal its General Amnesty Law.[1]

In 2000 the IACHR determined that El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and made similar recommendations with respect to this crime.[2]

As we have seen, El Salvador has not implemented these recommendations other than making  important symbolic public confessions of state responsibility and pleas for forgiveness along with praise for the victims of these crimes.[3]

In October 2011, the IACHR held a working session on the status of El Salvador’s implementation of the Commission’s recommendations in these cases. Two non-governmental human rights organizations (Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America and the Center for Justice and International Law) expressed frustration over the failure of the state to implement these recommendations. They also complained about the failure of El Salvador to cooperate with the Jesuits case in the courts of Spain by failing to enforce the INTERPOL Red Notice for the arrests of some of the defendants in that case.[4]

Unfortunately there is not much that the IACHR can do to change these circumstances. Nor can President Funes do much more because his political party (the FMLN) does not control the country’s legislature or office of the prosecutor.

[1] Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (June 13, 2011).

[2] Post: Oscar Romero’s Assassination Case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Oct. 13, 2011).

[3] See nn. 1, 2 supra.

[4] Center for Justice & Int’l Law, El Salvador is still in breach of the IACHR recommendations in the case of Monsignor Romero and the slaughter at the UCA (Oct. 27, 2011); Impunity continues for the crimes of the 1980s, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Nov. 5, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011); Post: The Current Controversy Over El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court (June 16, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Developments in Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (Aug. 26, 2011).

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).

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).

International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests

A Spanish court yesterday issued arrest warrants for 20 of the top military leaders of El Salvador’s civil war, accusing them of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in meticulously planning and carrying out the killings of six Jesuit priests in November 1989.[1]

Among the men named in the indictment were Rafael Humberto Larios, who was the Salvadoran defense minister at the time; Juan Orlando Zepeda, the vice defense minister; Rene Emilio Ponce, leader of the Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Inocente Orlando Montano, the vice minister of public safety. Mr. Ponce, who is believed to have given the order for the killings, died this month in El Salvador. Mr. Montano is in custody.

The Jesuit priests were the leader and professors at the Universidad de Centro America (UCA) in San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. The Rector of the University of Central America, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, had organized an open public forum about the country’s problems. All six were noted professors who had published papers about the country’s problems, and most of them also had served as pastors in communities around the capital city.[2]

At the time of the murders, El Salvador was engaged in a civil war with leftist guerillas, and supporters of the Salvadoran government said that UCA was the “logistical center of Communist subversion.” The Jesuits at UCA were “agents of the Marxist conspiracy at the service of the Kremlin.” Ellacuria, they said, directed “all Marxist-Leninist strategy in Central America.” The Jesuits, according to these government supporters, were “the intellectual authors who have directed the guerillas.” [3]

This important development raises many issues that will be discussed in subsequent posts: (a) the work of the priests and UCA in the life of El Salvador; (b) the facts relating to the murders; (c) the criminal prosecution of some of the military officers in El Salvador; (d) the investigation and report about this horrendous crime by the Truth Commission for El Salvador; (d) the subsequent general amnesty adopted by the Salvadoran legislature; (e) the investigation and report about this crime by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; (f) the background of the case before the Spanish court; (g) the important work by international human rights non-governmental organizations like the Center for Justice & Accountability that has been a leader in the case in Spain; and (h) the international law principle of universal jurisdiction and Spain’s implementation of that principle.

As a result of my involvement with El Salvador over the last 26 years, my six visits to the country and to UCA itself and my investigation of the above issues, the latest development in the Spanish case is very important to me legally, spiritually and emotionally. Through all of these activities, I have come to see that there is an ever-evolving interactive global struggle against impunity for violators of human rights and that many courts, other international and domestic governmental and non-governmental institutions and people play different and important roles in this process.  [4]


[1] Malkin, From Spain, Charges Against 20 in the Killing of 6 Priests in El Salvador in 1989, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2011); Center for Justice & Accountability, Spanish Judge Issues Indictments and Arrest Warrants in Jesuits Massacre Case (May 30, 2011), http://www.cja.org/article.php?id=1004.

[2] Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador  (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993) [“Doggett”]; Jon Sobrino, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books 1990).

[3] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 49 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html;  Doggett at 17.

[4] See Post: My First 10 Years of Retirement (April 23, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Introduction (April 26, 2011); Post: The Sanctuary Movement Case (May 22, 2011); Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011); Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).