After years of deliberations, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled on July 13 that the country’s 1993 amnesty law is unconstitutional and must be stricken. The 4-1 decision, although long expected, has caused uproar in El Salvador, where neither side in the civil war has been supportive of prosecutions for past crimes and where rampant criminality and insecurity are present-day scourges. The four-person majority of judges Sidney Blanco, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González and Eliseo Ortiz, grounded the decision in the rights of the victims to access to justice, to judicial protection of fundamental rights, and to full reparations. It makes extensive use of international law, especially the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It will provide new hope for the long-suffering victims of the country’s twelve-year civil war, but will also complicate the country’s politics and challenge a weak and compromised prosecutors’ office.
The complaint was brought by a number of NGO representatives and victims of rights violations, alleging that the amnesty law was illegally passed and violated El Salvador’s international commitments and constitution. The 1993 amnesty was passed to deal with the crimes of both sides in a civil war that cost some 75,000 lives. The amnesty was passed just three days after a U.N. sponsored Truth Commission issued its report. The Commission found that most of the massacres, assassinations, forced disappearances and torture committed had been carried out by the armed forces or by death squads connected to them.
The text of the decision
The Court first dismissed the procedural illegality argument, but used the occasion to note that the amnesty was not, as the Prosecutors’ office argued, a part of the peace accords that ended the civil war. On the contrary, those accords had stressed the need to end impunity for human rights violations. The Court thus confronted head-on one of the central myths of the country’s political classes, that amnesty was required by the peace accords. Rather, the Court held that the legislature had to balance the need for reconciliation with the need for justice for the victims. It cited with approval in this regard the 1992 Law of National Reconciliation, which provided amnesty for political crimes, but expressly excluded “grave violent events from January 1, 1980 on, which have left their mark on society, and demand the most urgent public knowledge of the truth” that were mentioned by the U.N.-backed Truth Commission.
In its July 13 judgment, the Court held that the amnesty is unconstitutional as applied to all crimes against humanity and those war crimes that violate the fundamental guarantees of Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, committed by either side in the conflict. The amnesty violates the country’s international obligations to investigate and prosecute under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, Protocol II, and the constitutional right of the victim of a crime to civil damages and to judicial protection of fundamental rights. Regarding war crimes, although Protocol II calls for the “widest possible amnesty,” that provision must be read in light of all the country’s international obligations, and the amnesty cannot be absolute. With respect to crimes against humanity, those crimes are by definition not subject to amnesty or statutes of limitations and are subject to universal jurisdiction.