Going beyond national borders to combat impunity

Combating impunity has been a long and difficult process, full of obstacles and problems. At the national level it has not been easy, so much of our work is carried out using the supranational tools that we helped develop. They began taking shape through international intergovernmental declarations, in conclusions reached by international legislative and judicial conferences and, especially, in opinions and decisions of the Inter-American Human Rights Court and Commission.

Those opinions and decisions of the inter-American system are a result of our submission, over the past 12 years, of the cases of 24 murdered journalists to the Inter-American Commission. Not all have moved forward at the same pace, and patience is called for. However, in some cases where family members–powerless before bureaucracy, the apathy of governments or simply out of fear–preferred to honor their dead privately, we have managed to rescue them from anonymity.

One example is the 1980 disappearance of journalist Irma Flaquer in Guatemala. In 2000, the Guatemalan government acknowledged its failure to meet its institutional responsibilities and its obligation to guarantee Flaquer and her son’s ability to enjoy their fundamental rights. Both were murdered during an abduction. More than 20 years later the government paid reparations to several family members, held public ceremonies to honor her memory, and delivered a letter of regret to her relatives, among other commitments. Even so, we are not satisfied yet; we want more. We want to know just what happened, where her remains can be found, and we ask–we demand–that the judicial investigations be reopened.

In Brazil we are making progress in the case of Manoel Leal, who was murdered in 1998; the government has proposed paying reparations to the family and offered to hold a public ceremony in Bahia on May 3. Here we will continue to demand full justice so that the masterminds, not just the executors of the murder, are jailed. We also–based on what we’ve learned from the experience of more than a decade in dealing with these issues–added to the negotiations the requirement that the government adopt global policies for the protection of the press and combating impunity. We intend to make a difference.

The case of Colombian Nelson Carvajal, murdered in 1998, is being handled within the terms of an amicable agreement and, in conjunction with the Inter-American Commission, with the government of the country. We recently endorsed the Colombian attorney General’s request that the Supreme Court review the case file due to numerous irregularities that were brought to light by our organization. This is a major legal step that gives us confidence that the murder will be solved once and for all.

The path we have chosen, working through the Inter-American Commission, has been no shortcut. In contrast to the previously mentioned cases, ever since 1997 we have been exchanging information with successive Mexican governments regarding the 1988 murder of Héctor Félix Miranda and the 1991 murder of Víctor Manuel Oropeza. Occasionally we see signs of willingness to reach an amicable solution, but in general terms there has been no compliance with the Inter-American Commission’s 1999 recommendations that the government investigate the crimes in depth, identify those responsible, and bring to justice the officials who committed an offense by not investigating in due time.

The entire process–from the investigation through putting together the official documentation, the submission to and acceptance by the Inter-American Commission, the dialogues with the governments concerned–takes time, perhaps as long as three years to reach major agreements, as in the Flaquer case, or 12 years, as in the Félx and Oropeza cases, which we are still negotiating.

It is a constant battle with governments, appealing for their compliance with international treaties and agreements, insisting that justice be done, that an end be put to impunity. As this organization has said: Through these actions we do not bring the journalists back to life, but we do set an important precedent. They are not forgotten and, above all, a strong message is sent to those who resort to violence to impose their points of view or destroy whatever inconveniences them.

Ricardo Trotti is the director of press freedom and the press institute at the Inter American Press Association.