Working for Justice in El Salvador

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Nancy Joseph 05/08/2013 May 2013 Perspectives

During El Salvador’s brutal civil war in the 1980s, more than 75,000 civilians were killed. While both sides committed atrocities, more than 90 percent of those deaths were at the hands of the El Salvador government and its paramilitary adjuncts, according to a U.N. Truth Commission convened after the war.  But two decades later, no government officials have been convicted for their crimes. No Salvadoran citizens have received reparations.

Students and faculty at the UW’sCenter for Human Rights(UWCHR) are working with a human rights organization in El Salvador to change that. They launched the ambitious History, Memory, and Justice in El Salvador project in 2011;  this year renowned human rights activist Judge Baltasar Garzónjoined the UW team. Garzón—who first rose to international prominence after issuing an arrest warrant to former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1998—has been appointed the Puffin-ALBA Visiting Lecturer in Human Rights at the UW thanks to the Puffin Foundation, a major supporter of the El Salvador project.

UW graduate students Ursula Mosqueira (far right) and Dacia Saenz spoke with Salvadorans during a visit in January 2013.

Even with Garzón’s involvement, the UWCHR team faces an uphill battle as they seek justice for victims of the war in El Salvador. “Just five days after the UN Truth Commission issued its report on war crimes, El Salvador passed an amnesty law that provided immunity to all those responsible for the crimes,” explains Angelina Godoy, UWCHR director, Helen H. Jackson Endowed Chair in Human Rights, and associate professor of international studies and law, societies, and justice.  “That was 20 years ago. Since then, the El Salvador government has thwarted justice for Salvadorans on both sides of the conflict, withholding even the most basic information about the fates of citizens’ loved ones.”

Immersed in Real Cases

UWCHR launched its History, Memory, and Justice in El Salvador project about two years ago, after Godoy spoke with friends at the Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), a Salvadoran human rights organization. When the friends invited UWCHR to join their reparation efforts, Godoy saw an opportunity to involve UW students in a meaningful way.

“There’s no better way to learn about human rights than by immersing oneself in concrete cases and learn by doing rather than reading about it in a textbook,” says Godoy. “Through this project, students are not just learning what happened in El Salvador but actually offering their services to victims and their families and supporting their push for justice.”

Angelina Godoy.

Justice can sometimes mean criminal convictions; other times it can mean restorative justice—proceedings aimed at acknowledging the suffering of victims, dignifying the memory of those killed, and providing an avenue for survivors to tell their stories. IDHUCA has conducted a restorative justice tribunal annually for the past five years.

This year, IDHUCA filed an unprecedented 43 criminal cases on March 15, the 20th anniversary of the amnesty law. “By bringing so many cases in one day, IDHUCA called attention to the fact that the amnesty law can no longer be justified as an excuse for failing to investigate crimes against humanity,” says Godoy, who was among those who accompanied the victims to the prosecutor's office.

UW students are working to strengthen those cases. They are reviewing U.S. government declassified documents pertaining to El Salvador—documents that were declassified mostly at the request of the UN Truth Commission or as part of high profile human rights cases involving American victims—in search of information that might prove useful to Salvadoran victims and human rights attorneys who lack access to the declassified materials.  Godoy offers the example of a Department of Defense document that includes a “death list” recovered by an American journalist in El Salvador.  If names on the list turn out to be related to victims in human rights cases, the document could constitute key evidence in these cases.

There’s no better way to learn about human rights than by immersing oneself in concrete cases and learn by doing rather than reading about it in a textbook.

UW students are working with two sets of digitized declassified documents that are part of the UW Libraries collection. The documents—from the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and other federal agencies—total tens of thousands of pages. Two students traveled to Washington, DC last summer to review and digitize even more declassified documents, since the UW’s collection represents just a small sampling of what’s available.

Inspired by Salvadorans' Resolve

Currently nine students are involved with the UWCHR project.  While some are reviewing declassified documents, others are creating videos and a social media plan to publicize the ongoing need for justice in El Salvador.  The team is adding a new component to the project this coming year, reaching out to an El Salvador community hard hit by the war to learn what justice might look like to them. “From conversations with people from that community, we know that they are interested in building a museum,” says Godoy. “They don’t want their history to be lost, so they’re thinking about how to preserve it at the very local level.”

For that project, students will travel to El Salvador to meet with community members—something Godoy wishes all UWCHR volunteers could do. “The leaders of our teams have all been to El Salvador and met specific victims we’re working with,” says Godoy, “but some undergraduates who have come on board recently have not yet had that opportunity. I’m hoping that we can make that happen, because the drudgery of poring over all these declassified documents becomes so much more real and meaningful when you can see that there’s a person who’s looking for their son or uncle or sister.”

UWCHR volunteer Ursula Mosqueira, a graduate student in sociology, traveled to El Salvador in January. The experience, she says, was meaningful both personally and professionally. “I met individuals who experienced grave human rights violations during the civil war but somehow I found it difficult to refer to them simply as ‘victims,’” she says. “These individuals showed great resolve, creativity, resilience, and dignity in overcoming the difficulties that their life histories included. They have never passively watched their life go by. They have endlessly fought for social justice and for truth. This was tremendously inspiring to me.”  

Mosqueira has also been inspired by Judge Garzón’s involvement with the project, having participated in meetings with Garzón to discuss legal strategies and define the project’s scope. “It has been very motivating to work with someone who changed the history of human rights,” she says. “Garzón's  visionary and bold outlook on the mechanisms to defend human rights have been an important contribution to my graduate experience at UW.”

Godoy, who vividly recalls the moment when Garzón issued Pinochet’s arrest warrant 15 year ago, is particularly thrilled to have him join the project. “I teach a large class about human rights in Latin America and I lecture about him and his impact,” she says. “I don’t mention him because of this project, but rather because he’s made change in the world. He hasn’t acted alone, of course, but this is one of those cases where it is really clear that an individual can make an enormous difference.”

Godoy hopes that the History, Memory, and Justice in El Salvador team can also make an enormous difference. 
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why should we care about this? It’s decades old. It’s in the past,’” says Godoy. “But when you sit down with somebody who lost their loved one, it doesn’t matter that years have passed. They still feel that pain. The issues are still very real and present.”

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