Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Latin America: ICJ Commissioners urge continued and expanded engagement by the ICJ

by | Jun 28, 2018 | News

On 24-25 June, ICJ Commissioners from the Latin America region came together in Bogotá, Colombia, to consider and enhance ICJ strategies to combat past and resurging trends in extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in the region.

The meeting was the first of its kind to bring together ICJ Commissioners on a regional basis: Carlos Ayala (Venezuela); Miguel Carbonell (Mexico); Gustavo Gallón (Colombia); Roberto Garretón (Chile); Juan Mendez (Argentina); Victor Rodriguez Rescia (Costa Rica); Alejandro Salinas Rivera (Chile); Mónica Pinto (Argentina); Belisário dos Santos Júnior (Brazil); and Wilder Tayler (Uruguay).

The meeting was followed by a preparatory mission (involving two Commissioners and the ICJ’s legal representative in Colombia) on the transitional justice mechanisms envisaged under the Havana Agreement, with a particular emphasis on the jurisdiction and operation of the ‘Special Jurisdiction for Peace’. A full high-level mission will follow in September, at which time the ICJ intends to identify minimum benchmarks for the effective operation and sustainable impact of those mechanisms.

In all regions of the world, recourse to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings continues; victims and their families (the overwhelming majority of whom are women, children and indigenous peoples from rural areas dominated by poverty and social and political exclusion, as well as trade unionists and human rights defenders) struggle to obtain prompt and effective remedies and reparation; and perpetrators enjoy impunity through inadequate or improper laws, ineffective institutional frameworks, selective recourse to accountability mechanisms and/or political interference in the functioning of those mechanisms.

The meeting confirmed that these challenges are particularly evident in Latin America, where there has been a resurgence in recourse to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in countries throughout the region and where violations of the past have in very many cases been inadequately addressed. By way of example:

  • In Brazil, official statistics from 2016 attest to the occurrence of 62,000 violent deaths and potentially up to 22,000 enforced disappearances each year.
  • 45 years after the coup d’état in Chile, about 800 people have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, but those figures belie the extensive occurrence and levels of responsibility for gross violations of human rights that occurred.
  • In Colombia, more than 70,000 cases of enforced disappearance were documented by the Attorney General for the period 1970-2015 and there is general consensus that the number of missing persons likely exceeds 100,000. The wide and persistent extent of extrajudicial killings has been noted by UN and Inter-American experts and bodies as well as the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
  • In Guatemala, only 34 convictions for conduct involving conflict-era violations have been secured, despite the fact that the internal armed conflict of 1960-1996 involved massive and systematic human rights violations. Impunity has undermined redress and accountability and severely weakened the prevention of violations, with the National Civil Police having recorded more than 25,000 people ‘disappeared’ in 2003-2014, more than half of which were women.
  • Peru’s internal armed conflict of 1980-2000 resulted in more than 69,000 people killed and ‘disappeared’, but less than 100 convictions have been secured under the judicial subsystem established in 2004 that specializes in accountability for gross human rights violations.
  • In Venezuela, civil society reports at least 12,000 real or perceived political opponents having been arbitrarily detained between January 2014 and April 2018; and almost 6,000 alleged extrajudicial killings between 2012 and 2016.

In all the countries from which the Commissioners originate, several common factors were identified:

  • The intrinsic risks to continuation of and lack of redress and accountability for gross human rights violations posed by executive action that undermines the rule of law;
  • Also inherent to the rule of law, the critical need for independent and impartial judicial mechanisms and individual judges and lawyers to allow for transitional justice, in particular for victims and their families to access effective remedies and reparation and for the holding to account of perpetrators;
  • A high level of correspondence between impunity for gross human rights violations and the corruption of public officials;
  • The increased, and in some cases extensive, recourse to arbitrary and detention, which in many cases precede and allow for the occurrence of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances;
  • A similar inter-relationship between enforced disappearances and the occurrence of torture and other forms of ill-treatment;
  • The detrimental impact to ensuring accountability for violations of the past when omitting non-State and paramilitary actors from transitional justice processes; and
  • The increase in highly conservative (political and popular) sentiments and movements within the region and the corresponding need to tailor responses depending on the democratic versus autocratic nature of government and its institutions.

Noting that the ICJ has long sought to combat extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, including through the development of UN and regional instruments and standards and through its action in Latin America and the globe, the ICJ’s Commissioners urged the ICJ to continue and expand its engagement. Noting also the increasing call by local civil society actors for support and intervention by the ICJ, the meeting considered the organization’s role in seeking redress and accountability for, and prevention of, gross violations of human rights.

Commissioners reinforced, and commented on the effective parameters of, the ICJ’s strategic and victim-centred approach to address and prevent gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. Having regard to the ICJ’s mandate and worldwide network of judges and lawyers, Commissioners emphasized the unique role that the organization has by grounding its work on the transformative role of the law, justice institutions and justice actors.

The particular means by which this role can be achieved by the ICJ were discussed against the background of recent and planned activities in the region and beyond. Commissioners overwhelmingly supported these plans and the Secretariat is now poised to continue implementation of its strategies in its current programmes of work and in the development of future projects.

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