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Honoring International Human Rights Day
December 10, 2007

Today, Dec. 10, is International Human Rights Day. The day commemorates the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To commemorate this day, I've decided to republish an article written by Juan José Dalton over eight years ago concerning human rights and the question of amnesty for human rights abusers in El Salvador specifically and Latin America more generally.

Dalton speaks from a unique perspective: His father, Roque Dalton, one of the more fascinating figures in the Salvadoran resistance, was a revolutionary poet whose guerrilla comrades murdered him due to suspicions he was a CIA mole, and on charges he was purposely trying to divide the People's Guerrilla Army. This first charge was subsequently disproved. The grounds for the second—he proposed that armed groups link up with the mass organizations promoted by the church and trade unions that were then forming and gaining strength—became orthodoxy after his death.

Roque's son Juan calls for inquiries into the crimes of both the left and the right, and yet he also calls for pardons for the killers—but not without sincere admissions of culpability on their part. This of course has never happened, and is very unlikely. However, I have always found his plea to be an honest one, and I offer it to you today on this, the 59th Anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(For a fascinating and uniquely personal biography of Roque Dalton written by fellow Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría, click here. And for a previous discussion on this site of the question of amnesty for human rights abusers and the continuing political cost of not revoking it, go to my Weekly commentary for April 16, 2007.)

A New Generation of Salvadorans Asks:
Who Should Pay for Crimes of the Past And How?
By Juan José Dalton

Date: 11-11-99
Ten years after the assassination of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador—a turning point in El Salvador's bloody civil war—the son of assassinated poet Roque Dalton ponders what justice means. Far more than an academic question, the indictment of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by a Spanish judge has opened the door to the possibility of similar legal actions against Salvadorans on both sides of the civil war. PNS commentator Juan José Dalton is a journalist based in San Salvador who contributes to New California Media at www.ncmonline.com.

SAN SALVADOR—This is the way history is. In March, 1980, ultrarightists led by an ex-major in military intelligence, Roberto D'Aubuisson, assassinated Bishop Oscar Romero without regard for his office or the consequences of the deed. After this crime, so pathetic, shameful and contemptible, all of us Salvadorans felt we were living on borrowed time. Yet this crime has never been examined or self-criticized by the right.

The other side of the coin. On May 10, 1975, the guerrilla Revolutionary People's Army (ERP), led by Alejandro Rivas Mira and Joaquin Villalobos, assassinated the renowned Salvadoran writer Roque Dalton, my father, over political differences. The leadership of the guerrillas as such has never made an official, deep and conscious self-criticism of this act.

In 1993, the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission in El Salvador said the army committed 80 percent of the crimes in the war, and the guerrillas, more or less, the rest. Yet for me, the cases of Romero and Dalton are symbolic. How is it possible that today D'Aubuisson is venerated as the founder of the ruling party? How is it possible Villalobos is receiving international contracts to mediate peace processes elsewhere?

Today, we in El Salvador are alarmed by the actions taken by Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish judge who began the judicial process against Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity. After this, anyone—absolutely anyone—may find him or herself subject to Spanish, and international, justice. Garzon has also called for legal action against nearly 100 Argentinian ex-officers. Spanish lives too were lost in the 1970s and 80s in South American counterinsurgency campaigns.

For me, human rights are a universal value that transcend frontiers, so Garzon's action is correct. It would be good if a court in Chile, which experienced the bloody overthrow of one of its democratically elected governments in the 1970s at the hands of the CIA, might demand the extradition of Henry Kissinger and the CIA chiefs.

Meanwhile, there is not a person with a brain in his head who does not realize that judge Garzon has taken the first step in what will become an international trend in human rights and justice. Already, efforts are under way in the United States to bring indictments against the Salvadoran army killers of four U.S. churchwomen and against the Salvadoran guerrilla killers of two wounded U.S. pilots. A French court has requested the arrest of Salvadoran officers for killing civilians at a guerrilla hospital, including a French nurse.

It would not surprise me that one of these days an arrest order might be issued against dozens of high Salvadoran ex-officers identified by the Truth Commission as responsible for the deaths of thousands. The victims include, for example, the six Jesuit priests killed on Nov. 16, 1989. Among them were five Spaniards.

For the sake of our nation's communal health, we should not close ourselves off from this international movement for justice, no matter which side—right or left—stands accused. What we need is a government-led process of reflection about the past, compensation to the families of the victims, pardon for the killers, and a sincere request for pardon by the military and political leaders who led the war on all sides.

And this will help us deal with history: That those identified as responsible for the killings must have enough moral backbone to recognize they committed crimes, and not "errors of youth," for instance, as Villalobos said when he attempted to justify the assassination of Roque Dalton.

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