Press Release

IACHR Presents Report on the Right to Truth in the Americas

November 27, 2014

Washington, D.C. - With many States in the region facing enormous challenges in safeguarding the rights of thousands of victims after periods of dictatorship, internal armed conflict, and situations involving widespread violence, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presents the report on the Right to Truth in the Americas.

The Commission compiled information, through its various mechanisms, on the multiple, grave human rights violations that took place during those times. The phenomenon of forced disappearance was a constant, as was the use of the military criminal justice system and amnesty laws to exempt those responsible for human rights violations from being held accountable. A lack of access to information about what had happened was also a common pattern, which in many cases continues to be perpetuated. In some countries, concealing information was a deliberate policy of the State and even a “tactic of war.”

In this context, the report examines States’ obligations with regard to the goal of guaranteeing the right to the truth in the face of grave human rights violations. The report refers specifically to the progress made on this front and the challenges that remain in different countries in the region. In the case of forced disappearances, the report stresses that States have an obligation to take all measures necessary to clarify what happened, determine the victims’ whereabouts, identify the exhumed bodies, and return the remains to the next of kin. The report also holds that States may not continue to use the military criminal justice system for cases involving human rights violations, regardless of the civilian or military status of the victim or the accused.

The report also stresses that amnesty laws that obstruct the investigation of grave human rights violations are absolutely incompatible with human rights principles, no matter what the nature of such laws or when they were adopted. All State institutions have a duty to provide any documentation of any type, including military archives or documents classified as “secret” or otherwise restricted, so as to contribute to investigations into these types of grave violations.

“Today’s democracies have an enormous responsibility: to ensure that victims of human rights violations perpetrated in times of dictatorships, authoritarian governments, and armed conflicts of the past have access to truth, justice, and reparation. But it is not only the victims and their family members who have the right to truth, but also society as a whole,” said the Chair of the Commission, Tracy Robinson. “When the State guarantees the right to truth, which includes the right to clarification of the facts and also to justice and to reparation, this helps ensure that such acts are not repeated. Impunity leads to the repetition of human rights violations, while exercising the right to truth prevents it,” she added.

For his part, IACHR Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza stated: “This report makes a contribution by compiling the jurisprudence of the inter-American system on States’ obligations concerning truth, justice, and reparation for victims of the past. But it is not a report only about the past, but a contribution to the present, to help ensure from where we stand and based on our mandate that the democracies of today can move forward in settling the debt that remains. And it is also a contribution to the future, because guaranteeing the right to truth makes it possible to build a future free of these types of abuses.”

With this report the IACHR seeks to create a platform for discussion, with the aim of improving and consolidating State laws, policies, and practices concerning the right to truth. In addition to State obligations with regard to justice, the report examines the strengths and challenges related to the Truth Commissions that have been created in 16 countries of the Americas. It explains the general principles that should underlie Truth Commissions so that they can become effective mechanisms that complement judicial proceedings and enable progress in collectively reconstructing the truth about human rights violations.

The report also identifies positive steps undertaken in close to a dozen countries by victims, family members, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations to document, verify, and spread the truth about human rights violations. These efforts include unofficial truth commissions, investigations, and the preparation of studies and reports, as well as initiatives designed to bring pressure to bear for recognition of these violations by society and the public.

Sadly, some of these grave human rights violations continue to occur in countries with democratic governments. States have an obligation to guarantee the right to the truth for all human rights violations, regardless of whether they are committed under dictatorships or democracies.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 143/14