Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice

Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice

Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice

Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice

Synopsis

As dictatorships topple around the world and transitional regimes emerge from the political rubble, the new governments inherit a legacy of widespread repression against the civilian population. This repression ranges from torture, forced disappearances, and imprisonment to the killings of both real and perceived political opponents. Nonetheless, the official status of the perpetrators shields them from sanction, creating a culture of impunity in which the most inhumane acts can be carried out without fear of repercussions. The new governments wrestle with whether or not to investigate prior wrongdoings by state officials. They must determine who, if any, of those responsible for the worst crimes should be brought to justice, even if this means annulling a previous amnesty law or risking a violent backlash by military or security forces. Finally, they have to decide how to compensate the victims of this repression, if at all. Beginning with a general consideration of theories of punishment and redress for victims, Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice explores how international law provides guidance on these issues of investigation, prosecution, and compensation. It reviews some of the more well-known historical examples of societies grappling with impunity, including those arising from the Second World War and from the fall of the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese dictatorships in the 1970s. Country studies from around the world look at how the problem of impunity has been dealt with in practice in the last two decades. The work then distills these experiences into a general discussion of what has and hasn't worked. It concludes by considering the role of international law and institutions in the future, especially given renewed interest in international mechanisms to punish wrong-doers. As individuals, governments, and international organizations come to grips with histories of repression and impunity in countries around the world, the need to define legal procedures and criteria for dealing with past abuses of human rights takes on a special importance. Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice aims to share their experiences in the hope that lawyers, scholars, and activists in those countries where dealing with the past is only now becoming an imperative may learn from those who have recently confronted similar challenges. This work will be essential reading for lawyers, political and social scientists, historians and journalists, as well as human rights experts concerned with this important issue.

Excerpt

Naomi Roht-Arriaza

This book grew from an article I wrote in 1989. At that time, the difficult process of moving from military dictatorship to democracy was under way in a few countries of the Latin American Southern Cone. As a human rights lawyer with a longstanding interest in Latin America, I tried to do two things in the article: show how changes in the types of human rights violations committed in that region during the 1970s and 1980s required a new response from the international community, and establish how international law was beginning to provide that response. I posited that it did so by placing an affirmative obligation on states to investigate and prosecute those who, under state aegis, violated at least a subset of fundamental human rights.

It is now 1994, and the number of countries slowly and painfully coming to terms with their governments' past treatment of its citizens has grown. In Chile, the elected regime has moved to investigate violations and compensate victims but not in most cases to prosecute. In the former USSR and in several Eastern European countries the accountability of the prior regimes and methods of redress for their victims are urgent matters of public discussion. In South Africa, Cambodia, Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala, questions of investigation, accountability, and redress have been a major factor in negotiations toward domestic or internationally sponsored transitions, even as human rights abuses often continue. And in those countries that have confronted questions of impunity in the recent past -- Argentina and Uruguay, for example -- it is now possible to attempt an evaluation.

As the transitional regimes emerge, they inherit a legacy of widespread repression against the civilian population. In some cases, this repression has taken the form of massive killings of real or perceived political opponents; in others, opponents were forcibly kidnapped and disappeared; in still others, citizens were tortured and imprisoned; and elsewhere, selective killings combined with imprisonment were the norm. In each case, the official or quasi-official status of the perpetrators shielded them from sanction, creating a culture of impunity in which the most inhumane acts could be carried out without fear of repercussions.

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