The Struggle for Transitional Justice

Mirna Perla, lawyer, former Supreme Court judge and mother of five, was 32 years of age when a death-squad murdered her husband, Herbert Anaya, President of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. Her eldest, Rosa, witnessed the crime as she and her siblings were going to school. “On October 26, 1987, at 6:45 am, Herbert was leaving the house with our five children. The men were waiting for him outside and they killed him”. This testimony is part of an interview that Mirna gave to Kino Glaz, one of PADF’s local partners in its Regional Human Rights and Democracy Project, an initiative that supports transitional justice, a set of judicial and non-judicial actions that address massive human rights violations such as those that occurred during the 12-year period of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992).

Mirna Perla with Family

33 years have passed since the assassination of Mirna’s husband and El Salvador is still in the throes of coming to terms with its past. The Peace Accords of 1992 put an end to the civil war and gave way to a Reconciliation Law (1992) and then to an Amnesty Law (1993) that effectively pardoned all those responsible for political crimes. However, in 2016, El Salvador’s Supreme Court overturned the Amnesty Law, ruling that it was unconstitutional, since it effectively pardoned gross human rights violations committed against civilians, contravening international, humanitarian law and treaties.

The Court’s ruling ordered the Salvadoran legislature to work with victims’ organizations to establish a new law that complied with the four tenets of transitional justice: truth, justice, reparation, and the prevention of reoccurrence. Throughout 2017 and 2018, and as the deadline approached for the approval of the new law in 2019, pressure from civil society and international human rights organizations mounted.

In this context, PADF’s Regional Human Rights Project played a key role in convening and assembling a diverse coalition of unlikely allies to draw attention to these issues of justice. PADF strengthened the capacities of the Salvadoran judicial branch, sponsoring training sessions on transitional justice imparted by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). PADF also supported independent media such as Kino Glaz (Memoria del Futuro), Focos TV (Los Olvidados por la Historia) and Factum (A la Luz de la Memoria), to produce content on massacres of civilians committed during the civil war and on the approval process of the new law.

Mirna Perla

This innovative approach to mobilizing public opinion contributed to defeating a bill that had been prepared by a Congressional commission that would have perpetuated impunity, since the proposed reconciliation law effectively pardoned, once again, those responsible for gross human rights violations.

In spite of these efforts, the new reconciliation law has yet to be approved by the legislature. For Mirna Perla and countless other victims, justice has not been served. As she says, “it’s one thing to forgive, but another to forget”. Historical memory and transitional justice for victims of gross human rights violations are long-term commitments in El Salvador, and PADF will be there to support them.

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