Truth Commission: El Salvador

Truth Commission: Commission on the Truth for El Salvador
Duration: 1992 – 1993
Charter: El Salvador: Mexico Peace Agreements—Provisions Creating the Commission on Truth
Commissioners: 3
Report: Public report

 

Truth Commission: Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador, CVES)

Dates of Operation: July 1992 - March 15, 1993 (8 months)

Background: The conflict in El Salvador took place during a time of social upheaval and dissention within the military. The 1970s brought about growing public support for leftist movements as well as increased government repression including, ultimately, the creation of government organized ‘death squad’ to combat opposition movements. Both trends were influenced by unrest in other Latin American countries.

In 1980 a series of failed military juntas took power, but none were able to quell the violence. By 1981, leftist guerrillas and political groups jointed forces, forming the FMLN. Then, throughout the 1980s civil war was waged between the FMLN and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military forces. Increased international attention to the fighting led to an investigation by the U.S. Congress into the conflict and, eventually, the UN intervened to help mediate a resolution upon request of the two warring parties. The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was mandated by the January 16, 1992 U.N.-brokered peace agreements that ended the war. The commission was set up in July.

Charter: El Salvador: Mexico Peace Agreements—Provisions Creating the Commissions on Truth (PDF-185KB), April 27, 1991, brokered by the United Nations and signed by the government of El Salvador and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). The report was reprinted in Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Vol. 3, Laws, Rulings, and Reports, page 174-179.

Mandate: The commission was mandated to investigate serious acts of violence occurring since 1980 and the nature and effects of the violence and to recommend methods of promoting national reconciliation.

Commissioners and Structure: The commission was comprised of three international commissioners, all men, appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The commission was chaired by former Colombian president Belisario Betancur.

Report: The Commission presented its report, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (PDF-2420KB), on March 15, 1993.

Findings:

Conclusions

  • Among over 22,000 complaints documented, 60% involved extrajudicial killings, 25% involved disappearances, 20% involved torture, and some alleging more than one form of violence.
  • Based on collected testimony the commission attributed 85% of the acts of violence to State agents, which took place predominantly in rural areas. Approximately 5% of the acts of violence were attributed to the FMLN.
  • The report named individual actors allegedly responsible for human rights violations.

Recommendations

  • The recommendations of the commission were legally binding according to its mandate.
  • The commission recommended dismissal of culpable army officers and civil servants from government employment and the disqualification of any other person implicated in wrongdoings, including those investigated by the commission, from public office.
  • The commission called for extensive judicial and legal reform (especially the use of coerced confessions in trials) and security and institutional reforms.
  • It did not call for prosecution of incriminated perpetrators, since it saw the Salvadoran legal system as incapable of executing such prosecutions effectively.
  • The commission recommended reparations for victims including memorials and monetary compensation.
  • The commission recommended that a forum, comprising a representative sector of society, should be established to monitor the implementation of the recommendations.

Subsequent Developments:

Reforms

  • The civilian government and the armed forces rejected the commission’s report and no follow-up organization was established.
  • The commission’s recommendation of judicial reform was not implemented to the extent the commission suggested.
  • Approximately 200 senior officials were removed from the army. Members of the high command who were named in the commissions’ report were retired, although with full honors, a few months after the release of the report.
  • Under significant pressure from the United Nations, a new Criminal Procedure Code was passed in 1996, enhancing the procedural rights of defendants and of victims, which was one of the commission’s recommendations. The structure for judicial appointments and review of performance was also reformed.

Prosecutions

  • Five days after the release of the final report and after rumored threats of a military coup, the legislature passed a general amnesty law covering all crimes related to the civil war. In 1999, the Inter-American Commission ruled that El Salvador's amnesty law violated international law by foreclosing further investigation in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women.
  • A handful of other human rights trials were conducted. Evidence collected by the commission was crucial for these rare prosecutions, although they have seldom resulted in convictions.
  • In late 2008, human rights lawyers filed a complaint in the Spanish High Court alleging that former President Burkard and 14 former members of the military played a role in the death of six Jesuit priests and other individuals. The Truth Commission's final report in 1991 mentioned that General René Emilio Ponce ordered the killing of one of the priests and the rector of the Central American University in San Salvador.

Reparations

  • The government has not implemented the recommendation of establishing a fund for the payment of reparations to victims.

Special Notes: After the publication of the commission’s report, the UN Mission in El Salvador held monthly meetings with representatives of the peace agreement to push for the implementation of the truth commission recommendations.

Sources:

Buergenthal, Thomas. "The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador." Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 27, no. 3 (1994): 497.

Burnett, Victoria. “Rights lawyers file Spanish court case on El Salvador killings”. International Herald Tribune, November 13, 2008. Available at http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/11/13/america/spain.php (accessed November 20, 2008).

Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. "Justice in Perspective - Truth and Justice Commission, North America - El Salvador." Available at http://www.justiceinperspective.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=65&Itemid=138 (accessed June 24, 2008).

Cuya, Esteban. "Las Comisiones De La Verdad En América Latina." Ko'Aga Roñe'Eta iii, (1996): July 1, 2008. Available at http://www.derechos.org/koaga/iii/1/cuya.html (accessed July 1, 2008).

"El Salvador: War, Peace, and Human Rights 1980-1994." George Washington University, 1996. Available at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/publications/elsalvador2/index.html (accessed July 1, 2008).

Gutiérrez, Raúl. "Amnesty a ‘Monument to Impunity’ Say Activists." Inter Press Service, October 12, 2007. Available at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=39625 (accessed June 24, 2008).

Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Human Rights First. El Salvador's Amnesty Legislation Violates International Law: Human Rights First Welcomes Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Findings in Jesuit Case. New York: December 23, 1999. 

Kritz, Neil J. and Nelson Mandela. Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. Vol.3, Laws, Rulings, and Reports. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995, 174-179.

Popkin, Margaret. Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Segovia, Alexander. "The Reparations Proposals of the Truth Commissions in El Salvador and Haiti: A History of Noncompliance." In The Handbook of Reparations, edited by Pablo De Greiff, 154. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

United Nations. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. De La Locura a La Esperanza: La Guerra De 12 Años En El Salvador: Informe De La Comisión De La Verdad Para El Salvador (1992-1993). San Salvador, El Salvador: Editorial Arcoiris, 1993.

UN Security Council. Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, Equipo Nizkor, 1993. Available at http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html (accessed June 24, 2008).

 

July 1, 1992
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