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Spring Books

Evading punishment with immunity laws


Edited by Charles Harper
World Council of Churches, $11.90


The Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II, it was long assumed, had clearly established that violators of human rights could not escape punishment on the plea that they had simply carried out the commands of their lawful superiors. Unfortunately, experience has invalidated that assumption.

Perpetrators of such crimes as murder, "disappearances" and torture under military dictatorships in many countries in the last quarter century successfully evade punishment, frequently aided by immunity legislation. Such legislation has even been supported on occasion by various multinational corporations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It is more important, it has been argued, to ensure a country's economic stability than to pursue justice on behalf of the victims.

Impunity: An Ethical Perspective deals with such situations in six Latin American countries: Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and El Salvador. The 16 contributors, starting from biblical and theological positions, argue convincingly that the health of society as well as justice exclude impunity understood as protecting the wrongdoer on the ground that the action was guiltless.

A particularly convincing argument is offered by Paz Rojas Baeza, a Chilean neuropsychiatric physician, who analyzes the effect of impunity on persons affected by the violence. Her conclusions are based on more than 20 years of medical, psychological and social help to a thousand survivors of torture and to relatives of victims who had not survived.

A study of persons who had been tortured more than 10 years earlier revealed a continuing emotional presence of the torturer. "What recurred and persisted in their recollections was the ever-impending arrival of the interrogators." Distrust had been built up to a point that it blocked all normal interpersonal relationships, leaving "a sinister memory that damages subsequent relations with other people."

During the therapy process, Rojas writes, it was discovered that the parameters of reality are altered, for both victims and their families, by concealment and deceit. This situation, she concludes, cannot be righted as long as impunity protects the perpetrators of the injustice.

It does not follow, however, that the perpetrator must always be punished. For the well-being of both the victim and society, writes Uruguayan Jesuit Luis Perez Aguirre, what is essential is the healing process institutionalized in the Christian rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. This involves examination of conscience, repentance for evil done, a firm resolve not to repeat the offense, confession of guilt before the community and God, and a penitential act that makes amends for the injury done.

Jesuit Jon Sobrino applies these conditions to El Salvador, where a UN-sponsored Truth Commission has identified violators of human rights during the 20-year civil war, as well as those who abetted the violators by denying the facts. These latter included three presidents and four defense ministers of El Salvador, four U.S. ambassadors and two U.S. presidents. "All of them knew the truth but remained silent and/or covered up crimes. As we now see in published form, they all lied brazenly."

The Salvadoran rebel organization -- FMLN -- has acknowledged and asked pardon for the five percent of atrocities attributed to it in the Truth Report. But there has been no similar response from those responsible for the 95 percent -- the armed forces, the oligarchy and the United States.

"The countries of the North," Sobrino writes, "cannot simply rejoice now that the truth is being told and leave the blame to the Salvadorans alone, as if geopolitical considerations and their own economic and military policies had nothing to do with it, not to mention the lucrative business of arms sales. Only thus can the First World come to see itself as it truly is. ... This is particularly important to the U.S.A."

The pertinence of Sobrino's comments is intensified by the signing of the Guatemalan peace agreement Dec. 29, 1996, ending a war that started in 1954 with the U.S.-instigated and supported overthrow of the democratically elected government.

Gary MacEoin, an author and expert on Latin America, lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997