Countries like the U.S. that are parties to certain regional organizations like the Organization of American States can be sued for alleged violations of human rights treaties in bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Complaints about a country’s alleged violations can be reported to special rapportuers with specific subject-matter competence for an investigation and report.
Countries like the U.S. that are parties to certain human rights treaties like the Convention Against Torture submit reports to treaty bodies for review and recommendations for improving their compliance with the treaties.
All members of the U.N. are subject to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council and obtain recommendations for ways they can improve their human rights records.
Victims of certain human rights violations can obtain protection through being recognized as a “refugee.”
Truth commissions can investigate and promulgate the results of those investigations as the “truth” of past violations which then can be used as evidence in the previously mentioned procedures.
These various institutions or mechanisms operate independently of one another. Other than the first two, they have limited power to force a recalcitrant government to change its behavior. Yet they also are all engaged in an interactive global struggle against impunity for violators of international human rights norms.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
On July 22, 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued an important decision regarding judicial independence when it concluded that Ecuador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights over its 2004 dismissal of eight of the 18 judges of its Constitutional Court. A little over three months later, in November 2011, the Commission referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The key fact for this case was the Ecuadorian National Congress’ November 25, 2004, termination of all the 18 principal and alternate members of Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, eight of whom filed a complaint with the IACHR. This key fact occurred in the following context:
In January 2003 during the presidency of Gustavo Noboa three of the petitioning former judges were designated by the Congress as Judges of the Constitutional Court for four-year terms.
In March 2003 during the presidency of Lucio Gutierrez the other five of the petitioning former judges were designated by the Congress as Judges of the Constitutional Court for four-year terms.
On March 24, 2003, all of the 18 Judges of the Court took office.
Apparently sometime between March 24 and June 13, 2003, the Court in Case No. 004-2003-TC (“Case # 4”) decided that a labor statute was unconstitutional.
On June 13, 2003, a resolution was introduced in the Congress to censure five of the judges for their votes in Case # 4. Another version of this resolution was introduced three days later.
Apparently sometime between March 24, 2003, and May 31, 2004, the Court in Case No. 025-2003-TC (“Case # 25”) decided that certain provisions of Ecuador’s Electoral Law were unconstitutional.
On May 31 and July 7, 2004, two similar resolutions were introduced in the Congress to censure six of the Judges for their votes in Case # 25.
On November 9, 2004, an application for the impeachment of President Gutierrez was thwarted, but the details of this are not spelled out in the IACHR’s decision.
On November 24, 2004, President Gutierrez announced the Government’s intent to ask Congress to reorganize the Court in order to “depoliticize” it. In response the Court published an announcement in the national press that removing the sitting judges by a mere congressional resolution would be illegal and that impeachment was the only proper method for such removal.
On November 25, 2004, the Congress passed a resolution declaring that all the judges of the Constitutional Court had been illegally designated in 2003 and, therefore, terminating them. On the same day, the Congress designated new members of the Court.
On December 1, 2004, the Congress held an impeachment proceeding for five of the petitioners and one other Judge. In that proceeding the Congress debated the previously mentioned four proposed resolutions censuring the judges, but did not adopt any of these resolutions. Nor did the Congress overturn its November 25th resolution terminating the judges.
In February 2005 eight of the former Judges filed a complaint with the IACHR alleging that their removal violated the American Convention on Human Rights. Two years later, in February 2007, the Commission decided that most, but not all, of the complaint was admissible, i.e., was entitled to be treated on the merits.
Another four-plus years passed, and on July 22, 2011, the Commission issued its decision on the merits. It concluded that the State of Ecuador had violated the rights to a fair trial, to freedom from ex post facto laws and to judicial protection enshrined in the following articles of the American Convention:
“Article 8. Right to a Fair Trial. 1. Every person has the right to a hearing, with due guarantees and within a reasonable time, by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, previously established by law, in the substantiation of any accusation of a criminal nature made against him or for the determination of his rights and obligations of a civil, labor, fiscal, or any other nature.”
“Article 8. Right to a Fair Trial. 2. Every person accused of a criminal offense has the right to be presumed innocent so long as his guilt has not been proven according to law. During the proceedings, every person is entitled, with full equality, to the following minimum guarantees: .
b. prior notification in detail to the accused of the charges against him; . . .
h. the right to appeal the judgment to a higher court.”
“Article 9. Freedom from Ex Post Facto Laws. No one shall be convicted of any act or omission that did not constitute a criminal offense, under the applicable law, at the time it was committed. A heavier penalty shall not be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offense was committed. If subsequent to the commission of the offense the law provides for the imposition of a lighter punishment, the guilty person shall benefit therefrom.”
“Article 25. Right to Judicial Protection. 1. Everyone has the right to simple and prompt recourse, or any other effective recourse, to a competent court or tribunal for protection against acts that violate his fundamental rights recognized by the constitution or laws of the state concerned or by this Convention, even though such violation may have been committed by persons acting in the course of their official duties.”
Note that the above provisions of the Convention do not specifically address the issue of termination of judges. The Commission, however, concluded that the principle of judicial independence was set forth in Article 8 (1) and “represents one of the basic pillars of a democratic system” and that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had stated that “one of the principal purposes of the separation of public powers is to guarantee the independence of judges.” Thus, “the duty of respecting and ensuring that right [of persons facing prosecution or appearing before courts] has implications that are directly related to the procedures whereby judges are appointed and removed.” Indeed, said the IACHR in this case, it and the Inter-American Court “have repeatedly held that the principle of judicial independence gives rise to a series of guarantees: appropriate appointment procedures, fixed terms in office, and guarantees against external pressure.” Therefore, judges “can be removed from office solely for the commission of disciplinary offences that are previously and clearly set out in the Constitution or domestic law, and in strict compliance with the guarantees of due process.”
As a result, the IACHR recommended that the State of Ecuador (1) reinstate the petitioners in similar positions with the same remuneration, benefits and rank for the period of time remaining in their four year terms or to reasonably indemnify them; (2) pay them their wages and other benefits from the time of termination to the end of their terms; (3) publicize the violations; and (4) adopt measures to assure the independence of the judiciary.
This July 22, 2011, decision was kept confidential while Ecuador considered whether and how to implement these recommendations. However, by November 28, 2011, the IACHR concluded that Ecuador was not going to implement the recommendations. The Commission, therefore, referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and asked the Court to order Ecuador to do what the Commission had recommended.
According to the Commission, this case was not just important for Ecuador. The Commission told the Court, this case “will allow [the Court] to establish principles that will contribute to the strengthen[ing] of the independence of the Judiciary in the democracies of the Hemisphere” and will “affect the inter-American public order of human rights.” We now await further proceedings in this case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Judicial independence is not just an important issue in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America. It is also an issue in the U.S.A. with Newt Gingrich’s outrageous recent suggestion that U.S. federal law enforcement authorities should arrest judges who make controversial rulings in order to compel them to justify their decisions before congressional hearings. It surfaces too in the European Union’s current concern over Hungary’s proposed mandatory early retirement rules to force out judges and allow the government to appoint their replacements.