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

OP-ED-RIGHTS: “We Just Want to Know Where They Are”

LONDON, Sep 7 2011 (IPS) - The last time Supaya Serrano saw her sisters Erlinda and Ernestina, they were just three and seven years old, respectively.

The three of them were walking through the bush, escaping from a Salvadoran army operation in Chalatenango province. It was 1982 and a bloody armed conflict was being waged in El Salvador. When Supaya heard shots, she hid her little sisters and went to find shelter. When she came back for them, her sisters were no longer there.

Later she heard that witnesses had seen soldiers capture Erlinda and Ernestina and take them away in a helicopter.

They were never heard from again.

Nearly 30 years after the disappearance of the Serrano sisters, no serious investigation into the case has been held, and no one has been brought to justice.

Today, Supaya talks about her sisters’ disappearance as if time had stood still. “I want to know the truth and find out what happened to them, that’s all. I hope some day I’ll see them again,” she says.

Aug. 30 was International Day of the Disappeared, instituted in 1983 by the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of Detained-Disappeared (FEDEFAM) to draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are detained in isolation, completely cut off from their relatives and legal counsel.

In over 30 years of work with Amnesty International in Latin America, I have met many people like Supaya. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, they have spent years going to courtrooms, demonstrating with posters of the missing, following leads and knocking on doors, in their own countries and abroad.

They are people who just want to know what happened to their loved ones.

Many things have changed since my first trips to Chile and Argentina, back in the 1970s. Nearly three decades after the demise of the last Latin American dictatorships, we are beginning to see significant progress towards justice, especially in recent years.

In Argentina, for example, dozens of top military brass have been put on trial for their roles in human rights abuses, including thousands of forced disappearances, during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Dozens of stolen children, taken from illegally detained mothers and given in adoption, have discovered their true identities.

In Peru, members of the “Colina Group” death squad and former high officials in the government of ex-president Alberto Fujimori were recently found guilty of the murders of 15 people and the forced disappearances of 10 others, committed in 1991 and 1992.

In Colombia, retired colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas was sentenced in 2010 to 30 years in prison for the forced disappearance of 11 people in 1985, after an army attack on the Palace of Justice where leftwing M-19 guerrillas had taken 300 hostages.

Few of us would have imagined, just 20 years ago, that we would see these people brought to account. However, in other countries there has been little or no progress.

In Bolivia, for instance, prosecutors investigating forced disappearances perpetrated in 1980 and 1981 are still having difficulty gaining access to military records, in spite of the Supreme Court having twice ordered the declassification of the files.

And Brazil has steadfastly refused to repeal a 1979 amnesty law that prevents the investigation of hundreds of cases of torture, murder and disappearance.

Meanwhile, in the United States those responsible for crimes under international law, such as torture and forced disappearances committed during the “war on terror” – the global campaign against terrorists declared by ex-president George W. Bush in 2001 – have not been brought to book.

Even today, Amnesty International continues to receive hundreds of complaints about forced disappearances from every corner of the planet.

In Mexico, for example, we have seen a rise in reports of disappearances allegedly perpetrated by the armed forces in the context of operations to combat organised crime.

It is no coincidence that disappearances continue to happen in the Americas. When those responsible for human rights abuses are not brought to justice and punished, it is likely that such abuses will recur. The message that is sent when rights abusers are not prosecuted is a very dangerous one.

The situation is so critical that in 2006 the United Nations adopted the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Forced Disappearance, under which each of the signatory countries must prevent forced disappearances, initiate investigations when they are committed and bring those responsible to justice.

The convention, which has been ratified by most Latin American countries, is an important step towards clarifying these crimes against humanity. However, for the convention to be really useful, it is essential that all states commit themselves to putting it into practice.

“It’s very hard to delve into the past, but what keeps me going is the hope of seeing my sisters again one day,” Supaya said.

This hope is all that is left when someone loses a loved one, without knowing what happened, without knowing whether they are alive or dead and without being able to say goodbye at a funeral ceremony. They are left with no option but to spend each day of their lives wondering: ‘Where could they be?’

But they are not alone: we will never abandon them.

* The author is a Special Advisor at Amnesty International.

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