From Amnesty’s Book Getting Away with Murder: Political Killings & Disappearances in the 1990s
It takes just one key decision to stop political killings and “disappearances” in any particular country. That is the decision by the government to halt them. Once the political will is there, then a series of measures can be implemented which are known to be effective.
In broad terms these are pre-emptive measures to prevent “disappearances” and political killings happening in the first place, coupled with proper investigation and prosecution if they do happen. The latter two measures contribute to prevention by showing public officials in any part of government that their involvement in such crimes is likely to be exposed and punished.
Amnesty International’s recommendations for ending the terror of “disappearances” and political killings are summarized in two 14-point programs, which are attached to this report as Appendices I and II. The following section identifies some of the key points in these two programs.
The first, most obvious, task for governments is to make absolutely clear their total opposition to “disappearances” and political killings. They must demonstrate to all police and security forces that such crimes will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
Condemnation must be accompanied by convincing action, including establishing prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations, and bringing perpetrators to justice (see below). They must disband special units or paramilitary organizations which carry out “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions, and repeal legislation or emergency regulations that prevent victims or their relatives from getting justice and allow the perpetrators immunity from prosecution.
Governments should ensure that both “disappearances” and political killings are criminal offences under national law, with appropriately severe penalties. The law should be broad enough to cover not just the immediate perpetrators, but also those who order, plan, aid or cover-up the crime.
The authorities must make it clear that senior officers who order or tolerate such crimes will be held criminally responsible for human rights crimes committed by those under their command. Government officials should not be allowed to hide behind the excuse that they did not know what was going on or that they could not control the activities of individual officers.
At the same time, members of the security forces must be instructed that they have the right and duty to disobey any order to commit murder or to perpetrate a “disappearance”: the old refrain of “I was only following orders” must not be tolerated and must not be accepted as a defence.
Officers who disobey orders expose themselves to the risk of severe punishment. The authorities must establish that a soldier’s duty to refuse to commit gross human rights violations takes precedence over the duty to obey orders.
Effective prevention therefore requires proper training for all members of the security forces so that no one can be in any doubt that human rights crimes will not be tolerated. The training should also include education on international human rights standards.
When it comes to the police in the ordinary course of law enforcement, governments should ensure that they are trained to use force only when strictly necessary and only to the minimum extent required in the circumstances as required by international standards. Official guidelines on the use of firearms should specify the circumstances under which they can be used. For example, officers should identify themselves and give clear warnings of their intent to fire, allowing enough time for the warning to be heeded. Detailed reports should follow any use of firearms.
Long experience shows that certain detention procedures often go hand in hand with “disappearances” and political killings and may be designed to evade accountability. Specific safeguards should be implemented for people in custody to make these crimes less likely.
Arrests and detentions should be carried out only by officials who are authorized by law to do so. The officials, who should wear name or number tags, must identify themselves and tell those they arrest why they are being detained at the time of arrest. All this information should be recorded and the records made available to the detainee or his or her lawyer. Details of the place of detention and any transfers should also be made available promptly to relatives, lawyers and courts. All prisoners should be informed immediately of their right to notify family members and others of their whereabouts.
All too often, however, such information is denied to families and friends. If this is the case, those acting on a prisoner’s behalf must be able to invoke the power of the courts to locate the prisoner and ensure his or her safety and release if the detention is arbitrary. This internationally recognized principle is based on the widely accepted legal remedy of habeas corpus. An individual can ask a court to issue a writ commanding the authorities to produce the prisoner in person before the court. The court can then determine the legality of the detention.
Illegal and arbitrary arrests can be prevented by ensuring that all prisoners are brought before a judicial authority promptly, whether or not a writ of habeas corpus or similar order has been issued. Prisoners should also have automatic and prompt access to lawyers, friends and relatives – once a prisoner is seen by concerned people outside it is much less likely that he or she will “disappear” or be killed.
All places of detention should be officially recognized (in other words, not secret) and should be open to regular, independent unannounced and unrestricted visits of inspection.
When prisoners are released, they should be handed over to someone who can verify the release. Officials involved in “disappearances” sometimes try to cover up the crime by falsely claiming the victim was released.
Ultimately none of these measures will be effective unless the political will exists to make them work. Governments can dramatically improve their human rights records in a very short space of time if they decide to do so.
How can governments change the atmosphere in which security forces feel free to butcher, maim and kidnap ordinary people? The first step is to make sure that whenever such crimes are committed, the truth is exposed. The second is to show ruthless determination in bringing the assassins, torturers and kidnappers to justice. Only the fierce light of justice will eradicate the shadow of fear.
As we have seen, many governments and their security forces go to enormous lengths to conceal their human rights crimes. But the truth must be revealed however complicated, expensive or difficult the task proves to be. Not only do the victims and their relatives have the right to know what happened. Exposing the truth is an essential step for ending states of terror.
Investigations must be prompt, thorough and impartial. They must be carried out whenever there is a complaint or some other reliable report of a “disappearance” or political killing.
The main objectives of an investigation should be to establish the facts, to remedy the injustice to the extent possible, and to assemble the evidence that will allow those responsible to be brought to justice.
An official investigation should be run by people independent of those accused of the crime, who must themselves be impartial and protected from intimidation and reprisals. It must have the necessary powers to call witnesses, conduct on-site investigations, and obtain evidence such as government records. It must also have the human and financial resources necessary to do the job.
The investigations should be completed as quickly as possible and the findings made public.
When there is a pattern or long history of serious human rights violations which cannot be tackled in isolation on a case by case needed. This must consider the institutional changes required to prevent further “disappearances” and unlawful killings.
Of course, unless investigations are acted on, they have little meaning. At the very minimum, the truth must emerge and those responsible must be brought to justice.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances summed up what is required as follows:
“Perhaps the single most important factor contributing to the phenomenon of disappearances may be that of impunity. The Working Group’s experience over the past 10 years has confirmed the age-old adage that impunity breeds contempt for the law. perpetrators of human rights violations, whether civilian or military, will become all the more brazen when they are not held to account before a court of law.”
GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER
Impunity can be defined as exemption from punishment. In some instances, it arises from laws or decrees that specifically exempt agents of the state from prosecution. In other cases the suspects are not brought to trial, or they are not convicted despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. Even when they are convicted, they are sometimes sentenced to derisory punishments, or their sentences are not enforced.
If the problem lies with the law, the law must be changed. If it lies with the weakness of the judicial system, the judiciary must be strengthened and its independence assured.
An effective judiciary must, above all, be independent. Only then can it counteract the abuse of power by government.
The judicial process must be prompt, impartial, effective and fair. Trials should be held in civilian courts, which must be properly resourced.
Because “disappearances” and political killings are such serious crimes, time limitations on prosecution – which often apply to other crimes – should be removed. In other words, there should be no provision which prevents prosecution for extrajudicial executions or “disappearances” after a certain length of time.
The officials behind the crimes – those who planned them, gave the orders or helped to organize them – must be brought to justice as well as the people who carried them out.
Not only must the individuals responsible for “disappearances” and political killings be brought to justice. The state itself must be held responsible if it ordered or acquiesced in the crimes.
What does this mean? It should mean that an international court that examines the case can find the state responsible for a violation under international human rights law and can then order the state to compensate the victims or their families.
This was exactly what happened (albeit a rare example) in the case of Velasquez Rodrigues, a Honduran student who “disappeared” in 1981. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 1988 that the Honduran government was responsible for the involuntary disappearance of Velasquez Rodrigues and had thus violated several articles of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Court ordered the government to pay compensation to the victim’s next of kin.
In every single country where there is an established pattern of “disappearances” or political killings, impunity is the norm. A determined and consistent government policy of bringing the perpetrators to justice would have an immediate and devastating effect on the minds of past and potential violators. That is why ending impunity is so crucial.
Government officials that proclaim their respect for human rights while allowing impunity to continue must be exposed for the hypocrites they are. Words are not enough. Action is needed.
International laws, standards and institutions
“No state shall practice, permit or tolerate enforced disappearances.”
UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Article 2
“Government shall prohibit by law all extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions…”
UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, Article 1.
Every single extrajudicial execution and “disappearance” cited in this report violated international standards on human rights which all governments have promised to respect.
Such standards mostly began to be set in the wake of the Second World War. Universal revulsion at the horrors perpetrated during that war inspired the formation of the UN in 1945. It was hoped that through this organization governments could resolve their differences peacefully and work together to ensure that human rights atrocities were never again repeated.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the UN, proclaimed that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and that no one shall be subjected to torture, arbitrary arrest or detention. These rights apply everywhere, not just in those countries whose governments choose to grant them. This means that all governments are obliged to protect the rights of people under their jurisdiction, and that anyone whose human rights are violated has a claim against the government which violates them. Furthermore, the fact that the world’s governments collectively adopted the Universal Declaration means that violations are of concern to all governments, not just those in countries where violations occur.
Since 1948, international human rights standards have been strengthened by the adoption of more than 50 other instruments by the UN. In 1966 it adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which even more explicitly prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of life – a characteristic of the killings described in this report.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the UN began tackling the issues of “disappearances” and political killings by governments in greater detail, in response to the enormous scale of these human rights crimes in countries such as Argentina, Cambodia (then Kampuchea), Chile and Uganda.
The discussions eventually led to the adoption of two key instruments: The declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance; and The Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (see Appendices III and IV). They came into force in 1992 and 1989 respectively.
Both clearly prohibit “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions under international law and specify detailed measures for their prevention and investigation.
To complement UN functions and standards, governments in different regions have created organizations which cover, among other matters, human rights issues. Three of these regional inter-governmental organizations have adopted human rights treaties which are legally binding on the states in those regions which have become parties to them. They are the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, adopted in 1981; the American Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1969; and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, signed in 1950.
All three treaties recognize the right to life and, in particular, the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life. They also provide for the right to liberty and security of the person, and clearly prohibit “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions. In addition, each provides for the establishment of institutions to supervise its implementation.
Even if international and regional human rights standards did not exit, “disappearances” and political killings would still be unlawful. All national laws proscribe murder as well as kidnapping and abduction.
Those who violate national law are supposed to be accountable before the law. If governments or their officials order, carry out, acquiesce in or cover up “disappearances” or extrajudicial executions, they are violating the very laws which they are supposed to uphold. Similarly, those who violate international law should be accountable before the international community. If governments collectively fail to take action to stop serious human rights violations, they are also violating the very laws which they are supposed to uphold.
Of course, the greatest problem in trying to eradicate “disappearances” and political killings is how to turn accountability into reality.
The UN Secretary-General reflected the dilemma facing his organization as human rights crises escalated in 1992:
“…the UN has not been able to act effectively to bring to an end massive human rights violations. Faced with barbaric conduct which fills the news media today, the UN cannot stand idle or indifferent. The long-term credibility of our organization as a whole will depend upon the success of our response to this challenge.”
In fact, from its inception the UN recognized the need for action. For example, the preamble to the Universal Declaration refers to “teaching and education to promote respect for these rights” and “progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.
The first substantial resolutions on “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions adopted some 30 years later referred to specific actions which should be taken. One dealing with “disappearances” called on governments to “devote appropriate resources” to searching for the “disappeared”, “to undertake speedy and impartial investigations”, and to ensure that law enforcement extrajudicial executions, called on all governments “to take effective measures to prevent such acts”.
The human rights standards must be implemented. These include calling on authorities to conduct impartial investigations into complaints and reports of “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions, to bring the alleged perpetrators to trial and to establish specific safeguards for the prevention of these abuses. Amnesty International believes that these measures are the basic minimum requirements needed to combat these practices and should be undertaken by every government.
There is a need for the human rights instruments and their provisions to be incorporated into national legislation, publicized and incorporated in training programs for relevant officials. It has established institutions and procedures to monitor compliance with the standards, make recommendations and take action. It has, moreover, made funds available to governments through UN public information offices and technical assistance programs.
Other action has been taken to combat human rights crimes. The UN has adopted resolutions expressing concern about violations in particular countries and requesting the government in question to take remedial action. It has set up subsidiary procedures – the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on Summary and Arbitrary Executions – to deal with particular human rights violations and has entrusted special investigation and monitoring assignments to individual experts (also often called Special Rapporteurs) on particular countries.
More recently it has incorporated specific measures to address human rights in the context of peace-keeping operations, such as those in Cambodia, EI Salvador and former Yugoslavia. The concept of on-site monitoring of human rights is also beginning to be developed, as, for example, in Haiti, although this concept is still in the early stages.
None of these UN operations has been free from controversy, however. In former Yugoslavia, the UN has been attacked by various groups both for doing too much and too little. In Somalia, following widespread calls for increased UN intervention, UN forces have been accused of taking sides in an internal conflict and of direct responsibility for human rights abuses.
The UN has also been widely criticized for its inconsistency and selectivity when responding to human rights crises. Four years after the terrible events in Beijing in 1989 and in the face of continuing widespread violations by the Chinese government, the UN has still to take any serious action on China. The Iraqi government was allowed for years to murder thousands of its citizens without censure from the UN – which then suddenly sprang into action after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Other governments responsible for gross human rights violations have also been able to get away without so much as a word of condemnation.
The truth is, however, that the UN’s actions are determined by its member states. When member states are guided by narrow political and economic interests, these will be reflected in the decisions taken by the UN. The best human rights standards are meaningless if governments ignore them; the best human rights machinery is powerless if governments refuse to cooperate with it.
Some of these problems were addressed by the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993. The objectives of the Conference included a review of the UN’s mechanisms and procedures in the field of human rights and the formulation of concrete recommendations to improve their effectiveness.
At the Conference, Amnesty International challenged governments to support its call for the establishment of a UN Special Commissioner for Human Rights, with a wide-ranging mandate and the authority to take urgent and decisive action in human rights emergencies. But governments attending the Conference excluded Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations from the drafting process, where the final document of the Conference was completed in closed sessions by the official government delegations. The resulting Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action failed to give a strong and unified endorsement to the proposal for a High Commissioner for Human Rights or to come up with an agreed framework for the structure and mandate of such a post. Instead, the Conference recommended only that the 1993 session of the General Assembly should begin consideration of the establishment of a High Commissioner as a matter of priority.
Amnesty International and others also called for significant further resources for the UN human rights program, including for the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the UN Special rapporteur on summary or arbitrary executions. Amnesty International pointed out that the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances had reported in 1992 a backlog of around 8,000 cases owing to lack of funds. Its report concluded that “…the members of the staff have reached a point where they can no longer cope with the workload,” and that “unless additional personnel is assigned to the Working Group, an ever-increasing proportion of the cases received by the Group will not be analyzed, processed and transmitted”.
The Conference failed to make any significant contribution to building a world free of human rights violations. Amnesty International’s Secretary General summarized the two week of discussions as “a summit of missed opportunities”. He said: “There has been no reprieve for the victims, as governments fine-tuned their official declarations and reaffirmed the 50-year-old core values of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.” There was no specific reference at all in the Vienna Programme of Action to stronger measures to combat extrajudicial executions and the reference to “disappearances” most disappointingly adds nothing new and makes no new commitment to ways of eradicating these practices.
As in the past, the development of activities on human rights by the UN and regional organizations will depend on the role played by non-governmental organizations such as voluntary organizations, human rights groups, professional associations and other non-official organizations. They have eloquently made known their concerns and called for action.
The proliferation of international human rights standards and other measures developed by the UN is a step forward, not least because it aids those engaged in campaigns to stop serious human rights violations.
However, the strength of these measures is entirely dependent on the degree to which the governments of the world abide by them. They are not a substitute for government action – the basic responsibility for protecting human rights still lies with individual governments. The continuing nightmare of political killings and “disappearances” can only be ended if governments, both individually and collectively, have the political will to act. Our job is to make sure they do just that.
Campaigning for action
Victims of human rights violations are often presented as nameless, faceless statistics, massacres are rounded up to the nearest hundred or thousand. The individual pain and devastation is lost in the deadening effect of abstract reporting from a distance.
This report aims to show some of the lives behind the lies. It hopes to convey the suffering felt by ordinary people as well as whole communities when governments use terror to achieve their goals. The purpose of the report and the worldwide campaign being mounted by Amnesty International is simple – to stimulate action. Action to stop “disappearances” and political killings.
The people who are behind the crimes are state officials. They take the decisions. They must be forced to change their ways. Our job is to pile on the pressure until they conform to decent and humane standards of behaviour.
What are we asking governments to do?
. We demand that they outlaw “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions.
. We demand that they make it clear that such crimes will not be tolerated at any level, under any circumstances.
. We insist that governments account for victims and promptly conduct full and impartial investigations into all “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions.
. We call for the perpetrators and those who ordered the crimes to be brought to justice.
. We call for compensation to be offered to victims, their orphans, their widowed partners and their families.
We are also asking armed political groups to uphold their obligation to respect basic human rights standards. We call on them to observe international humanitarian standards, specifically to:
. Stop torture and deliberate and arbitrary killings, including killings of civilians and prisoners.
. Release immediately and unconditionally those they hold as hostages and to desist from further hostage-taking.
. Ensure that all those belonging to their organization know that hostage-taking and deliberate and arbitrary killings will not be tolerated, and that those who commit them will be held to account.
Governments have further duties: collectively, through the international community, and individually where they have opportunities to do so, they must take seriously their responsibilities to prevent “disappearances” and political killings wherever they occur in the world. Individual nations must use and support the machinery of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations to stop the bloodshed. They must create international means for bringing perpetrators to justice where national avenues have been closed.
Moreover, no government should ever forcibly return anyone to a country where he or she risks becoming a victim of “disappearance” or extrajudicial execution.
In addition, governments should recognize their responsibilities when exporting arms, training, knowledge and equipment that can be used to commit “disappearances” and political killings. Their legislation or arms and other related exports should prohibit such exports from taking place unless it can be reasonably demonstrated that they will not facilitate human rights violations. Such exports should be publicly disclosed in advance, reports should be issued on the human rights situation in the receiving country, and parliamentary bodies should exercise proper control over the implementation of such laws.
Sadly, however, history has shown that we cannot rely solely on the actions of governments or international institutions to stop abuses.
When ordinary criminals offend, governments deal with them through the process of law. When governments commit crimes or fail to stop human rights violations, who is to discipline them? Amnesty International was set up over 30 years ago to speak out when governments refuse to abide by basic human rights standards. This report shows the terrifying scale of political killings and “disappearances” which is still going on – perhaps the greatest threat to human rights in today’s world.
With so many governments trampling on the fundamental rights of their citizens and ignoring abuses abroad, it is up to ordinary people to act. Concerted public pressure can make a difference, even to the most apparently intransigent regimes.
As the Director of the Human Rights Division of the UN Observer Mission in EI Salvador said in 1991:
“…over the past decade non-governmental human rights organizations have played a vital role in protecting and promoting the human rights of the most vulnerable sectors of society, in difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances…. Human rights organizations have been violations and to protect their victims.”
In EI Salvador, as in many other countries around the world, the savagery of government repression would never have come to public knowledge without the brave actions of individuals and groups on the ground. They are the wives, husbands, parents and grandparents of the “disappeared” who visit police stations, army barracks and government offices trying to find out what has happened to their missing relatives. They are the community activists, journalists and human rights workers who badger the authorities for information. They are the lawyers who demand their clients’ rights. All know the risks they run and some have paid the ultimate price. Without them, the information in this report could never have been compiled and countless human rights violations would remain in the dark.
UN Secretary-General paid tribute to these people in these words:
“In our efforts to build a culture of human rights, we must not forget the importance of human rights workers and non-governmental organizations, nor the courage shown by many who risk their lives and security for the rights of others.”
So how can we build a culture of human rights? It means raising and deepening consciousness among officials and the general public about human rights and governments that violate them. It means developing and supporting international and regional institutions which are designed to tackle these violations at source. It means an uncompromising effort to force individual governments to take human rights seriously in their foreign and economic policies. It means insisting that all governments show the political will necessary for decisive action against “disappearances” and political killings at home and abroad.
To achieve this, all those engaged in defending human rights must develop closer links. Often the most horrific violations are allowed to continue because cosy clubs of governments see it could damage their relations with other countries if they took action. WE must unite our forces with similar determination – they may have the heavy artillery, but we have the numbers.
This campaign aims to equip that massive human force with one of our few weapons – the facts. It also provides a framework for people, wherever they are, to take up the issues and direct their demands for change at those in power who make the decisions.
Human rights violations are neither natural nor inevitable. We can move forward to a world where governments can no longer get away with murder, where political killings and “disappearances” are exceptional aberrations, quickly stamped out by popular outrage and pressure from the international community. We can create a “new world order” in which basic human rights are a reality for everyone, not a privilege for the few. These goals will not be achieved by wishful thinking. We must take action. Join our campaign today!
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