Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the end of his mission to El Salvador
San Salvador, 17 November, 2017 I have just concluded my visit to El Salvador, the first by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I would like to thank President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and his Government for their invitation to visit the country - and for their openness to discuss many issues with me. Likewise, I am grateful to senior members of the Legislative Assembly and the Coordination Commission of the Justice Sector for the opportunity to talk to them. My thanks also go to the victims, civil society representatives and indigenous peoples who took the time to detail their efforts to confront human rights challenges.
Twenty-five years after the end of the civil war, El Salvador has proven itself to be a functioning democracy that honours freedom of expression and where the political discourse is vibrant. Moreover, by presiding over the UN Human Rights Council, the country has demonstrated its willingness to take a leadership role internationally, along with the responsibilities of being on the Council – which is much appreciated.
In my meetings with President Sánchez Cerén and his ministers, I was told how the fight against violence, in particular gang violence, is a priority for the State.
Let me say at the outset that I thoroughly condemn the violence perpetrated by gangs and organised crime that blights the lives of so many Salvadorans.
The Government has introduced a plan, known as the Safe El Salvador Plan, that aims to curb and prevent violence, have coordinated and effective criminal investigations and a criminal justice system people trust, stop the influence of criminal groups in prisons, ensure prison sentences are served in adequate spaces and conditions for rehabilitation, and that victims are supported and can obtain justice and reparation.
The Safe El Salvador Plan is a positive model but it needs to be implemented in a comprehensive way, in accordance with international human rights standards. In practice, this means increasing the focus on the plan’s important preventive aspects and recognising that dealing with violence primarily through a security lens is ultimately less effective.
The level of violence in El Salvador remains shockingly high. According to civil society groups, from January 2015 to February 2017, more than a thousand civilians and 45 police officers were killed in armed confrontations between the police and alleged gang members. There are also alarming reports of extrajudicial killings and the return of death squads. No matter how serious the human rights violations committed by violent gangs, all perpetrators of violence need to be held fully accountable for their actions through judicial mechanisms. Victims on all sides deserve justice.
We are informed of the State’s efforts to fully control the country’s jails, through the Extraordinary Security Measures, which since April 2016 have placed thousands of people in prolonged and isolated detention under truly inhumane conditions, and with prolonged suspension of family visits. The vulnerability of these inmates is highlighted by an outbreak of tuberculosis, affecting more than a thousand inmates, with several hundred also said to be suffering from malnutrition. I called on the President to end the extraordinary measures and grant international independent organisations, including my Office, access to these detention centres.
In my discussions, I heard how the high levels of violence have seriously affected people’s lives, and I noted how such violence is increasing forced displacement within El Salvador and migration. To fully address this growing problem, the Government needs to recognise that it is happening.
El Salvador has the awful distinction of having the highest rate of gender-based killings of women and girls in Central America – a region where femicide is already regrettably high, as is impunity for these crimes.
There have been positive steps towards tackling deep-rooted violence and discrimination against women, such as the Special Comprehensive Law for a Violence-free Life for Women and the establishment in March 2016 of specialised courts to try gender-based killings of women. Investigation, prosecution and punishment of such crimes can help to counter the perception that violence against women is tolerated.
I am appalled that as a result of El Salvador’s absolute prohibition on abortion, women are being punished for apparent miscarriages and other obstetric emergencies, accused and convicted of having induced termination of pregnancy.
On Thursday morning, I visited the Ilopango detention centre for women on the outskirts of San Salvador and had the privilege to speak to women who were convicted of “aggravated homicide” in connection with obstetric emergencies and as a result are serving 30 years in prison. I have rarely been as moved as I was by their stories and the cruelty they have endured. It only seems to be women from poor and humble backgrounds who are jailed, a telling feature of the injustice suffered.
I call upon El Salvador to launch a moratorium on the application of article 133 of the Penal Code, and review all cases where women have been detained for abortion-related offences, with the aim of ensuring compliance with due process and fair trial standards. Should it be found their cases were not compliant, I appeal for the immediate release of these women. To establish compliance, my Office has proposed that such a review could be established by presidential decree and be carried out by an expert executive committee composed of national and international members. I asked the Government to act on this proposal and indicated the readiness of my Office to assist. This is in line with the recommendations by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
More broadly, I took the opportunity in my meeting with President Sánchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly to recall that El Salvador should comply with its international human rights obligations and lift the absolute prohibition on abortion. In my discussions with the country’s Ombudsperson, I also highlighted that El Salvador’s constitution affirms the priority of international human rights law, which the Government is obliged to apply.
During my visit, I commemorated the 28th anniversary on 16 November of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University Jose Simeon Cañas in San Salvador – a heinous act that became one of the defining episodes of El Salvador’s civil war. It was a very moving experience for me.
In July 2016, El Salvador took a bold step towards addressing the legacy of the armed conflict, when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the 1993 Amnesty Law was unconstitutional. I welcomed the Attorney General’s appointment of prosecutors to investigate some of the most tragic massacres – such as in El Mozote in 1981 when soldiers killed close to a thousand civilians, mostly women and children.
But despite the valiant efforts of civil society and victims’ groups, only three out of more than 100 criminal complaints brought over the years have so far been reopened. Left uninvestigated and unpunished, the crimes of the past fuel patterns of violence that poison the present and can undermine the future of a society. The past and the present are a continuum, I was told in my meeting with NGOs. The victims of the past are suffering still. I reiterated our commitment to work with both the Government and civil society to pursue these cases.
Next June, the Legislative Assembly will elect new magistrates to the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ). I welcome the Government’s request for my Office to accompany this process to ensure it is transparent, public and participatory, in accordance with international human rights standards.
I commend El Salvador’s openness and readiness to engage with the UN human rights system, having ratified eight of the nine main international human rights treaties. To further strengthen the country’s engagement with the international human rights system, I called on the Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture as an additional measure to prevent torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in all places of detention.
I was struck by the dedication and courage of human rights defenders and journalists in El Salvador, who face threats, intimidation and smear campaigns. I urge the authorities to investigate these attacks and to establish effective means of ensuring their protection.
Similar action is needed to tackle the high rate of impunity for hate crimes against LGBTI persons, especially transgender women. As one civil society representative said: “There is no public policy for us, just institutional violence.”
Likewise, indigenous peoples demanded that the State make stronger efforts to recognise and address their particular needs and situation.
During my visit, I was impressed by the Government’s stated commitment to human rights and the steps taken to date to meet its international human rights obligations. I was also moved by the very real suffering of those who are experiencing human rights violations. Taken together, I leave the country hopeful that the resilience and compassion of Salvadorans will usher in a brighter decade for human rights across the country.