El Salvador’s Supreme Court Orders Protection, Policies for Victims of Forced Displacement

SAN SALVADOR–In a monumental ruling on July 13, El Salvador’s Supreme Court formally charged the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the Attorney General’s Office, and the National Civil Police with violating citizens’ Constitutional rights by failing to protect and assist victims of forced internal displacement caused by violence. The Court gave the Salvadoran government six months to officially recognize forced displacement by violence in the country, design special legislation and policies for the protection and assistance of victims, and make victims of displacement a priority in the national budget.

“This makes visible the hundreds of thousands of victims of violence in El Salvador and focuses national attention on creating programs and policies to bring them justice,” says Julio Magaña, Strategic Litigation Coordinator at the human rights organization Cristosal.

In the context of harsh U.S. “zero-tolerance” deterrent methods aimed largely at Central Americans on the southern border of the United States, this ruling is also a model for a comprehensive approach to forced migration throughout the region.

“The ruling affirms that protection and access to justice is a constitutional right of all Salvadorans, specifically the internally displaced,” says Cristosal Executive Director Noah Bullock. “The court is forcing the state to change the purely repressive approach of the justice and security system and make victims a priority.”

“Security measures alone are insufficient; this ruling compels the [Salvadoran] state to bring assistance and protection to victims,” affirms Celia Medrano, Cristosal Chief Program Officer.

The Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador, El Salvador. / Photos from Cristosal

The ruling comes in response to one of the six amparo (protection) cases Cristosal has filed on behalf of victims of forced displacement by violence over the last year. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 5.1% of El Salvador’s population was forcibly displaced from their homes in 2017, up from 2.1% in 2012. Cristosal’s recent report on forced displacement in El Salvador in 2017 characterizes the state’s response up to this point as “inconsistent,” asserting that “most institutions and public entities have refused to accept internal displacement as a phenomenon.” As a result of the state’s inaction, many victims of violence in El Salvador don’t trust public institutions– the Salvadoran state itself estimates that 70% of victims don’t report crimes to authorities.

“It is significant for victims, many of whom don’t trust state institutions, to be heard by the magistrates,” says Magaña.

Civil society organizations like Cristosal have much to offer the government as it seeks to comply with the court’s order over the next six months. Since 2014, Cristosal has been building models to provide specialized humanitarian, psychosocial, and legal assistance to victims of violence and forced displacement. Cristosal and other civil society organizations have also gathered data on the phenomenon which will be invaluable as the state begins to officially diagnose the situation.

In a July 16 press conference hosted by Cristosal, Simón Trichot of Doctors of the World said, “We are committed to accompanying the state in this process of construction.”

Medrano added that civil society organizations are eager to “collaborate in, but not assume, this responsibility.”

While preliminary Supreme Court rulings on the amparo cases ordered emergency protections for the plaintiffs, this final ruling orders structural change that would impact not just the family who filed the amparo, but all of the estimated 296,000 victims of violence and forced displacement in El Salvador.

"In an environment adverse to the rights of internally displaced persons and refugees worldwide, the court ruling reaffirms the international standard regarding their human rights,” says Bullock. “We must support compliance with this ruling as an important way to address underlying causes of irregular migration in the region.”

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Hannah Rose Nelson