When it comes to political corruption, the first countries that come to your mind are probably prominent ones that you have heard about in the news such as North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq, and countless many others. This article will concentrate on a smaller country that is having a more profound impact on the human rights of its citizens: El Salvador. It will be done by analyzing the leadership of its president, Nayib Bukele, and how he transformed the political and social landscape of Central America by going head-to-head with gangs and crime. His actions, rather than lowering crime in his country, have only exacerbated the crisis. While many Western citizens believe that taking the fight directly to the front is justified and right, it actually does not remedy the cause of the violence: a lack of socioeconomic stability and development.
El Salvador is the tiniest country in Central America, but it was nicknamed the “murder capital” of the Western hemisphere because of the severely high homicide statistics in the world, excluding war zones. Gangs run rampant and have a staggering amount of control over the population as they facilitate the transfer of drugs and materials from the black market. For years, the previous government administrations ineffectively attempted to damper these issues, but they were unable to, which led to the rise of Nayib Bukele.
Who is Nayib Bukele?
With his rise to power as President of El Salvador in 2019, Nayib Bukele became the face of a new era of political aspirations for the people of his country. However, despite the pressures that came with him being the youngest governmental leader in Latin America at age forty-one, he faced the more daunting task of creating a government that would do away with the corrupt administrations prior to his own. By creating a political party under the name, “Nuevas Ideas”, with its English translation being “New Ideas,” while previously serving as the mayor of San Salvador, he advocated for change against the political establishment. He initially relied on the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (F.M.L.N.), a major political party that rose to power after the war between the guerrilla and government forces. The organization returned the favor years later by helping him win the office of mayor of San Salvador. However, it was his ability to form an independent party for his presidential campaign that caught the attention of the public. By becoming a political outsider, Bukele corruptly used this publicity and power of being the unheard-of candidate, and later incumbent president, to crack down on the gangs and rise in crime that have dominated the streets and consequently, which had a negative influence on the standard of living for all Salvadorans because the manner in which he did so was morally and legally wrong.
On June 1, while speaking to celebrate the beginning of his fourth year as president, he renewed his promise to construct a prison that would contain criminals and gangs. This prison, later named the Center for Confining Terrorism, was built with the idea of housing over forty thousand inmates together. Bukele, in order to present a strong front against gangs, temporarily removed constitutional rights within the country, enabling those even under suspicion for being a criminal or being a part of a gang to be arrested without any form of trial or due process. Policies that control and get rid of crime are necessary and should be implemented to the fullest extent that they can, but this course of action is not representative of a democracy but rather a dictatorship. By referencing himself as “the coolest dictator in the world,” he is recklessly enforcing a vision of control that directly disobeys the constitution of his country. Furthermore, Bukele has allowed tens of thousands of armed military personnel to roam the streets of various cities, which he then justified because it worked in one city. These measures, along with multiple drone flybys over cities and sudden detainments of any citizen, strip Salvadorans of their basic human right to live without fear of being wrongfully imprisoned. A government that rules with fear is one that does not properly rule at all because the purpose of government is to provide hope and help to people in ways that others cannot.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images; The unnecessary torture of prisoners being for the public to witness and hopefully enact action.
Ending it once and for all?
Image 2 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of citizens taking to the streets to demonstrate how pressing of a matter it is.
Going forward, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has provided solutions for how to better solve issues with crime and gangs in El Salvador. They directly addressed various contributors to human rights violations, such as the Bukele administration, legislative body members, the attorney general, and other government officials. The most compelling course of action given to the Bukele administration was to confront why someone would want to join a gang, which would consist of resolving the economic and educational disparities that deprive citizens of having the chance to maintain a prosperous lifestyle. Putting people behind bars is seldom the answer to reducing crime because it does not address the issue at its core. For the legislative body, the HRW recommends that they immediately terminate the state of emergency that has allowed President Bukele to enforce soldiers in the streets and imprison any person with suspicion of being in a gang. Applying this course of action will be a challenge for the legislators because of their unicameral body that has typically leaned towards supporting Bukele.
Image 3 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of family that represents plenty of other families that could be experiencing similar hours.
The human rights violations that have exponentially grown in El Salvador are because of the discourse and leadership of President Nayib Bukele and his advocators. They believe that they are effectively getting rid of gangs and other forms of crime in their country, but the manner in which they are doing so has caused them to have a destructive aftermath on citizens who want no part in this war. Furthermore, the deterioration of conditions in prisons that are already housing an increasing number of inmates demands the attention of people from around the world as these atrocities deserve to be seen and heard so that its enablers are held accountable.
Note from the author: This blog was written to accompany the social justice cafe on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00 pm on zoom. To join, sign up here. Alongside this event, this post focuses on an international scale while the recent post by Maya Crocker focuses on transitional justice in the United States.
Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end, it is worthwhile, because, in the end, only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
What is transitional justice?
Transitional justice (TJ) refers to a set of judicial and non-judicial processes addressing previous injustices of authoritarian regimes (or multiple perpetrator groups) and establishing rule of law. Transitional justice has several aims and synthesizes aspects of punitive and restorative justice.
According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), these aims include:
Providing recognition to victims
Building trust between citizens and state institutions
Reinforcing the rule of law
Committing to human rights and building solidarity with victims
Reconciliation between victims, perpetrators, and bystanders
Preventing new violations
But only characterizing transitional justice through its aims would not highlight the transformative effect this approach attempts in states where massive or systematic violations have occurred. While providing redress to victims and undertaking prosecutorial avenues as practical solutions, this approach also takes a strategic initiative to change the political systems, conflicts, and conditions that contributed to violations occurring in the first place.
This field first emerged in the 1980s and early 90s in response to the drastic political changes in Latin America and East Europe. Human rights advocates and citizens alike questioned how and what kind of redress should occur in the wake of widespread and systematic violence. Fears over disrupting political changes by pursuing indictments of former leaders were salient: how could justice exist without compromising democratization?
Thus, “transitions to democracy” and “justice” intersected and involved multiple processes to be sensitive to these concerns during a critical period in the country.
Truth Commissions: ad hoc commissions of inquiry established in, and authorized by, states for the primary purposes of investigating and reporting on key periods of recent past abuse.
Amnesty: a pardon granted to perpetrators, usually granted to those who comply with truth commissions and offer testimonies
Purges, lustrations, and security reforms: (1) removal of known collaborators of oppression from office and state institutions, (2) process of vetting personnel in state institutions, (3) transformation in state institutions involved in repression, like the military, police, judiciary
Reparations: state-sponsored initiatives that aim at repairing, on a massive scale, the consequences of past abuse experienced by certain classes of victims, including material and symbolic benefits
Gender Justice: focusing on the intersections of human rights abuse and gender during a period of repression, fact-finding initiatives to establish the nature of gendered abuses
Memorialization: museums, memorials, and other means of preserving the public memory of victims and raising moral consciousness about past abuse
Ultimately, TJ is a context-specific process that crucially (and historically) is led by the nation where the violations happened.
Specific attempts at transitional justice: the good and bad
Days after the restoration to democracy in 1982, the government created the National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances. No reports or prosecutions were produced. In 1986, prosecutions began against the former military leader, General García Meza, and some of his officers. The trial was not complete until 1993, by which point Meza had gone into hiding to avoid a 30-year sentence for torture and murder. Notably, this court case rejected pardons for those convicted of crimes against humanity.
After a 12-year military rule in 1985, the new government avoided truth commissions. Instead, President Sanguinetti issued a pardon (1986) to all soldiers and officers of the previous regime, with no distinction as to those who followed orders and those who gave them. He claimed this was the ‘safest path’ but ‘not a moral decision,’ highlighting that TJ attempts are not pursued in every situation. This is often a result of corruption and officials often rely on a dialogue of ‘national reconciliation by granting large amnesties but failing to pursue any other TJ processes, essentially dismissing victims’ realities. Victims were denied any form of reparation and violators remain in high office in the police and military. An official Commission for Peace was established in 2000 under President Jorge Batlle with the official report released in April 2003 confirming that the military dictatorship was involved in some of the disappearances.
This history of Chile’s dictatorship and eventual prosecutorial redress can be read about in my next blog. Part of the reason for the near-decade gap between the restoration of democracy (1990) and Pinochet’s arrest (1998) was due to Pinochet’s change of the constitution during military rule. Not only did he pardon himself and his torturers in 1978, but he enshrined legal protections from purges and lustration attempts. Nonetheless, Chile has engaged in memorialization and reparations in the cases of successful prosecution of former DINA police.
A Commission on the Truth of El Salvador was established in 1991, led by three international jurists and staffed and financed by the United Nations. While only fully investigating 33 disappearances out of the reported 22,000, the commission did identify 40 individuals connected to the armed forces and involved in crimes against humanity. Additionally, the Commission was able to confirm the El Mozote massacre, where nearly 1,000 villagers were killed by US-trained and equipped Salvadoran army members. The Commission also called on the Supreme Court to retire, which they declined. René Ponce was named general and ordered the execution of 6 Jesuit priests (one the then head of the Human Rights Institute). Due to Ponce’s involvement in the peace negotiations and settlement with FMLN, his prosecution was never attempted. The report from the truth commission was rejected and the then-president offered a blanket amnesty for all political crimes which the Supreme Court upheld (1995). After 20 years, no other transitional justice attempts have been implemented.
Haiti suffered massive human rights violations under the Duvalier reign between 1957 to 1986. Over 40,000 Haitians were killed and it wasn’t until 1990 that democracy was established with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Soon after, he was ousted by General Raoul Cedras, showing just how volatile transitions toward democracy can be. Under Cedras, hundreds were killed by the paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), funded in part by the CIA. Democracy was restored in 1994 and power returned to Aristide but at the cost of blanket amnesty for all rapes, murders, and political killings. He went on to establish a National Commission for Truth and Justice which in February 1996 urged for the prosecution of individuals who committed crimes against humanity by an international tribunal. There has been no tribunal and no prosecutions, and to this day impunity is chronic.
Argentina took the most extensive approach of the states discussed so far. In 1983 after the defeat of the military in the Falklands Wars, President Raoul Alfonsín annulled the amnesty the military had given themselves. He also set up the Commission on the Disappeared which produced the report Nunca Más (Never Again) which was a national bestseller – fulfilling some forms of memorialization. The evidence the commission gathered was used to prosecute 5 of the most senior members of the military junta, but when indictments began on less senior officers the military revolted in 1987. Trials ceased to end the conflict but Alfonsín refused to give any pardons. His successor Carlos Menem was the one to pardon ex-president Videla and others on grounds of “national reconciliation.” In spite of Menem’s undermining, human rights groups and families of the disappeared renewed the vigor for criminal accountability in 2003, and as of 2010, more than 800 face criminal charges and 200 have been sentenced.
When one thinks of “truth and reconciliation” or “truth commissions,” the most likely example to come to mind is South Africa. After the end of apartheid (a crime against humanity) in 1994, the new democratic government formed the unique tripartite Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It had three responsibilities: (1) record the apartheid era for memory, (2) make recommendations for reparations, and (3) grant amnesty to individuals based on application and only in limited circumstances.
This was a revolutionary step for transitional justice and helped citizens come to terms with the violent and discriminatory apartheid. In spite of the success of this TRC, no prosecutions have ever been mounted and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International fear the TRC suggestions are not being fully implemented.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the commission was chaired by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose ceaseless human rights efforts have helped define the role of TRCs as both forward and backward-looking. In his words, “True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”
For an in-depth examination of the transitional justice movement in the United States, please read Maya Crocker’s blog here.
Without addressing the seeds which sprouted violence, the threat of their reoccurrence cannot be escaped. This means acknowledgment, and hardest of all, forgiveness. While a generation suffered, hatred should not be allowed to pass down and threaten long-lasting peace.
This is not easy, but if you believe in human rights, affirming the realities of victims and perpetrators and all those in between is crucial. As Desmond Tutu says, “We must not only speak about forgiveness and reconciliation, we must act on these principles.”
This post draws a lot of information from the book Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson, originally published in 1999 with multiple editions given the continuous development of human rights. I will be utilizing information from a 1999 edition, and thus, certain information on the results of transitional justice attempts will have developed more in the last two decades. If you are interested in obtaining a copy for yourself, the latest edition was updated in 2013 and includes additional sections on Iraq, Guantanamo, the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare, the Charles Taylor conviction, and the trials of Mladic, Karadzic, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Geoffery Robertson is an internationally acclaimed lawyer and human rights advocate who has served as a UN war crimes judge and founded Doughty Street Chambers in London, a leading human rights law practice. In his book, he deconstructs international human rights law, beginning with the foundational philosophy of rights dialogue (natural rights, social contract, Enlightenment) and moving through the defining events of 20th-century human rights law formation. His book is written in a non-legalese, prose-like style and is a strong starting point for learning a breadth of information about the very complex processes behind prosecutions (and more often why they don’t happen).
If this interests you, read Robertson’s book or check out more blogs from IHR below:
What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?
Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.
Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.
In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.
The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports.
In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.
Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.
Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.
In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software.
Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors).
Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations:
On Monday, November 12, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based, and law organizations at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 2: Focus on the United States. The panel discussion, moderated by Anne Ledvina ( Associate Director at BSC – Ellie and Herb Sklenar Center for International Programs), included Yanira Arias (Campaign Manager at Alianza Americas), April Jackson-McLennan (Attorney at The Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C.), Sarai Portillo (Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice), Roshell Rosales (Member at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), and Jessica Vosburgh (Executive Director at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), addressing the Central American migrant caravan, definitions of immigration law, and Alabama’s role in the current refugee crisis.
Arias and Portillo first addressed the audience by speaking about the recent events in Mexico City where many Central American caravan refugees were staying in a stadium serving as a makeshift camp. Here, many tenants camped on the field or slept on the bleachers, received medical attention and waited in line for basic resources, such as water, that had limited availability. Not only does Portillo assist migrants in her birthplace of Mexico but heads the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), a grassroots network of six non-profit organizations and various individuals dedicated to protecting and advancing immigrant rights by developing leadership, aligning with other justice causes, encouraging civil participation, and advocating for just policies. Arias’ organization, Alianza Americas, which is a national network serving Latino communities, is currently facilitating donations for Central American caravan refugees through the Refuge for Families Campaign.
If you’re interested in participating in the advancement of immigrant rights, both locally and globally, please mark your calendar for March 4, 2019 for the third installment of this series which will be held at Samford University and focus on a community action plan. Please stay tuned for more details.
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