Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS: Guatemala, El Salvador Ordered to Heed Rulings

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - Guatemala and El Salvador have a terrible record in terms of compliance with the recommendations and sentences handed down by the inter-American human rights bodies on cases involving appalling abuses like forced disappearance, torture and massacres committed during the armed conflicts in the two Central American countries.

Since the peace agreements that brought the civil wars to an end – in 1992 in El Salvador and 1996 in Guatemala – governments in both countries have been resistant to implementing the recommendations and rulings issued by the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The two regional human rights bodies are autonomous Organisation of American States (OAS) organs.

In Central America, Guatemala holds the record of 14 Inter-American Court sentences which are, at least in theory, binding and unappealable.

The most recent sentence, issued Nov. 24 and announced in late December, ordered Guatemalan authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for a December 1982 massacre in which at least 251 children, women and men in the mountain hamlet of Dos Erres were killed over the space of three days by an elite army counterinsurgency unit in the northern department (province) of Petén.

Dos Erres was one of the most brutal massacres during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war between leftist guerrillas and government security forces. According to a United Nations-sponsored truth commission, the security forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for the vast majority of the killings of some 200,000 – mainly rural indigenous – people.

The ruling also ordered 3.1 million dollars in compensation to be paid to Dos Erres survivors and the families of victims, and a memorial to be built at the site of the massacre, where many of the bodies have been exhumed by forensic teams.

The case was first filed in Guatemala in 1994, and was presented to the IACHR in 1996 by the Association of Families of the Detained and ‘Disappeared’ (FAMDEGUA) and the Washington-based Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).

In April 2000, the Guatemalan government announced a “friendly settlement” with the IACHR, promising an apology from the state, reparations, and an investigation to bring to justice both those who carried out the massacre and those who planned and ordered it.

A public apology was issued in 2000 by then president Alfonso Portillo, who admitted government responsibility for the killings, and more than one million dollars in compensation was paid in 2001. But when no real progress was made in the investigation, the IACHR referred the case to the Inter-American Court in 2008.

In its Nov. 24 ruling, the Inter-American Court condemned the Guatemalan government for failing to fully investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the Dos Erres murders.

On Feb. 8, the Supreme Court ordered immediate compliance with the Inter-American Court sentence, and a reopening of the case against 17 former members of the military, which was stalled in the Guatemalan courts. On Feb. 9, two former sergeants from the elite Kaibil army unit became the first to be arrested in connection with the massacre.

FAMDEGUA lawyer Edgar Pérez told the local press that what human rights groups are seeking is justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators.

Alejandra Nuño, CEJIL director for Latin America, told IPS that “30 years after the massacre, none of those who were responsible are serving a fitting sentence.”

Nuño said human rights organisations in Central America have turned to international bodies in search of justice when they find it is impossible to achieve at home.

The Guatemalan state has one year to live up to the binding sentence handed down by the Inter-American Court on Nov. 24, she said.

The first Inter-American Court sentence against Guatemala was issued in 1998 in what is known as the “White Van” case (Paniagua-Morales et al. v. Guatemala) because of the type of vehicle typically used by the Guatemalan Treasury Police, who were accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering several people in 1987 and 1988, during the government of Christian Democratic President Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990), who launched the peace talks.

Across the border

In neighbouring El Salvador, the case of the forced disappearance of two sisters, Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano, led to the first Inter-American Court ruling against the state, issued in March 2005 during the government of Antonio Saca of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which ruled the country for 20 years, until June 2009.

The two sisters were seven and three years old when they were forcibly disappeared by soldiers during a June 1982 military operation in the northern department of Chalatenango

The sentence ordered El Salvador to investigate the case, bring the perpetrators to justice, search for the Serrano girls and pay reparations to their family.

It also ordered a public apology by the government, the creation of a national committee, web site and DNA database to search for people who went missing during the armed conflict, the designation of a day dedicated to missing children, and the provision of medical and psychological treatment to the families of the disappeared children.

The Saca administration initially denied the existence of the Serrano sisters. But in 2006, the president held a public ceremony, although he did not actually apologise to the family, but merely “lamented” what had occurred.

The government carried out no investigation, and failed to pay compensation to the family.

On Feb. 16, the Inter-American Court gave the leftwing government of President Mauricio Funes until Jun. 30 to fulfill the sentence.

The arrival of Funes, of the leftwing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), to the government in June 2009 has awakened new hopes for justice in the case of the Serrano sisters and other victims of forced disappearance.

Another unenforced Inter-American Court ruling involves the March 1980 assassination of Arnulfo Romero, Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, by a death squad sniper while saying mass.

The case was presented to the IACHR in late 1993, and in April 2000 the Commission issued a series of recommendations for the state to make reparations for the “grave moral, spiritual, and psychological impact on Salvadoran society” caused by the murder of a beloved bishop who was known as the “voice of the voiceless” for speaking out against abuses by the military, and was hated by the extreme right.

The recommendations included a “complete, impartial, and effective judicial investigation to identify, try and punish all the direct perpetrators and planners” of the assassination, which shook El Salvador and fuelled the 1980-1992 armed conflict that cost around 80,000 – mainly civilian – lives.

The U.N.-sponsored truth commission set up in 1993 to investigate the human rights abuses committed during the civil war found Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA, guilty of ordering Romero’s murder.

D’Aubuisson, who died in 1992, is also considered the founder of the far-right death squads that hunted down leftist activists and other opponents of the government in the 1980s.

Since the IACHR issued its recommendations in 2000, El Salvador’s governments have failed to investigate Romero’s murder and make a public apology to the Salvadoran people.

But in January, on the 18th anniversary of the end of the armed conflict, Funes made the first formal apology for the abuses committed by the state during the war.

The Funes administration also requested a hearing with the IACHR, which was held on Nov. 6. At the meeting, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s human rights commission, David Morales, recognised the state’s responsibility for Romero’s assassination – a gesture that Nuño at the time described as “historic.”

However, when Funes apologised for the abuses in January and honoured the victims of the armed conflict, he did not explicitly refer to Romero, as required by the IACHR.

In November, he had also honoured six Jesuit priests killed by the army by bestowing the nation’s highest award on them, on the 20th anniversary of the slayings.

Many of the rights abuses committed during the armed conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala have never been investigated because of amnesty laws passed in those countries as part of the national reconciliation process.

International human rights bodies say the amnesty laws violate human rights commitments assumed by the two countries in international treaties.

“In the great majority of cases, the impossibility of obtaining justice has been demonstrated, and for that reason the Inter-American Commission has established that the amnesty laws must be struck down,” said Nuño.

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