Can impunity be licked?

AT GROUND LEVEL By Satur C. Ocampo, (The Philippine Star)

Last Dec. 25 in this column, I hailed as a big victory against impunity the recent sentencing to life imprisonment of Argentina’s former dictator, Gen. Jorge Videla, 85, for the murder of dissidents during that country’s “dirty war” (1976-1983).

It turns out that wasn’t the only pre-Christmas judicial victory in the long campaign to end impunity in Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

One week earlier, on Dec. 15, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that the Brazilian state was responsible for the forced disappearance of 62 alleged members of the leftist Araguaia guerrilla movement that the military suppressed in 1972-74. The court said the Brazilian government “must investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators involved in the Araguaia case, find and identify the bodies of the disappeared, and make amends to the surviving relatives.”

The IACHR further directed the Brazilian government to: 1) release the archived information on the Araguaia case and other instances of human rights violations; 2) enact legislation, within a reasonable time, providing for sanctions on forced disappearances; 3) set US$45,000 as payment for “immediate harm” to each relative of the victims, US$15,000 to non-direct relatives, US$3,000 for “cost of search” to each relative, and US$45,000 as payment to the three NGOs that filed the complaint for the victims.

More significantly, the IACHR struck down the Brazilian Amnesty Law of 1979 as being “incompatible with Brazil’s commitments under the American Convention on Human Rights,” which came into force in 1978. This law barred the prosecution of both government officials and leftist militants who had committed politically-related crimes during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Ironically, the Brazilian Supreme Court only recently upheld the constitutionality of the amnesty law, which every post-dictatorship government has respected.

Reacting to this trail-blazing court ruling, the Brazilian government’s National Human Rights Secretariat stated that the government would comply with the court’s orders, and that the Brazilian Congress is considering a bill to create a Truth Commission to handle the investigations.

Whether the IACHR ruling had influenced the Argentinian court to convict and consign Videla in prison for the rest of his life can’t be immediately ascertained. However, the impact of the ruling on the Argentine victims and the severity of the sentence cannot be overstressed. For the fact is, after the fall of Videla’s dictatorship, extrajudicial killings committed by state security forces continued under the first democratically-elected president, Raul Alfonsin.

In the case of Brazil, the IACHR decision certainly came as a boost for the ruling Workers’ Party, whose co-founder (with the highly popular former President Inacio Lula da Silva), Jose Genoimo, is one of the 20 survivors of the Araguaia crackdown. The new president, Dilma Rousseff, herself survived torture as a captured guerilla fighter in the 1970s.

It’s important to point out that these victories against impunity in the two biggest Latin American states — along with the earlier extradition, trial and conviction for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law of Chile’s former military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and Peru’s former president, Alberto Fujimori — happened in the context of the human rights conventions and institutions established by the Organization of American States (OAS).

But nothing could have happened by way of redress to the victims had not their families, human rights lawyers, and support organizations persevered over 30 long years to exhaust the legal and judicial remedies provided by these conventions and institutions.

The OAS was formally set up on April 30, 1948 in Bogota, Colombia, with 24 countries signing its charter alongside the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, “the first international document proclaiming human rights principles” that preceded the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was later expanded as the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969, which came into force in 1978.

To carry out the provisions of the Convention, two institutions were set up: 1) the IACHR, composed of seven judges elected to six-year terms; it is based in San Jose, Costa Rica; and 2) the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights based in Washington DC, USA; it has seven independent experts elected to four-year terms by the OAS General Assembly.

The mechanism allows individuals and organizations in their respective countries to elevate their complaints to the Inter-American Commission. If merit is found, the case can be brought to the IACHR. As of 1992, however, only 13 of the 35 OAS member-states had accepted IACHR jurisdiction.

To us in the Philippines, the Latin American experience points to an approach to defeating the presumed impunity enjoyed by the state and its agents when they commit abuses and crimes. For so long have most of us given up on the idea that justice can be obtained against powerful individuals, families and institutions.

In particular, the survivors and the families of victims under the Marcos dictatorship have found themselves on the losing end, again and again, as successive governments support and protect the claims of the Marcoses over the human rights of the thousands of ordinary citizens who suffered grievously.

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