Chapter 5: Conclusion: Making Human Rights Arguments Stick

Building a proper information management can be an immensely powerful human rights tool.

In an earlier time, before the Salvadoran peace process, if the CDHES had published the tables alleging that hundreds of human rights abuses had been committed under the command of specifically named military leaders, death squads would certainly have destroyed the CDHES office in a matter of hours. After the CDHES presented the first version of these tables to the Comision Ad Hoc, the right-wing newspaper Diario de Hoy printed a headline in September, 1992 "Army rejects CDHES accusations." There were death threats against the CDHES in late 1992 and early 1993.

But in the political situation current at the time, the officers chose to react differently. On the basis of the publication of these tables, Generals Rene Emilio Ponce and Juan Orlando Zepeda, Minister and Vice-Minister of Defense respectively, sued the CDHES for defamation on 3 December, 1992. By mid-March, 1993, twelve other officers had joined the suit. The suit was serious business. It personally named three officials of the CDHES, and another six leaders of the trade union federation (UNTS). If convicted, these people faced jail time. On 18 December, 1992, the plaintiffs demanded that the courts order the arrest of the defendants. The courts declined.

The CDHES came to court with briefs explaining how they had calculated the statistics. On December 8, 1992, they also brought the approximately 164 affidavits taken during the war which supported allegations of some 500 human rights violations of different kinds against Ponce and Zepeda, the first two plaintiffs. The CDHES claimed not that these affadavits constituted proof that the Generals had committed these crimes, but rather, that if the court were to investigate, that it would find that these crimes had indeed been committed. Under the Salvadoran Constitution, it is the court's responsibility to investigate cases. The court refused to investigate, and refused again when asked on 11 February, 1993.

Then the tide began to turn. Amid a storm of right-wing denouncement, the U.N. Truth Commission's report was published March 15, 1993, and much of the substance of the CDHES allegations was supported in the Commission's report and statistical annex. By mid-April, 1993, the court found that no law had been broken by the defendants, and the CDHES had won the suit. The officers knew all along that what the CDHES alleged was true -- they had, of course, given the orders to commit the violations -- but they hoped that the CDHES methodology would be inadequate to withstand their legal challenge.

Of course, human rights work is about much more than methodology. It is about right and wrong framed in the legal and moral dimensions of international human rights instruments. But by doing the technical work right, we can greatly strengthen our ability to make claims about human rights, and ultimately, to advocate for a more respectful world.

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