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Brian Dooley

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Impunity Not Guaranteed

Posted: 11/23/2013 7:14 pm

Although the path to justice can be long and difficult, there is a growing sense that those who commit human rights abuses are less likely to get away with it than they have been in the past.

Unlikely but not impossible; You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a senior government official, a military commander, or even a junior soldier when they knowingly commit human rights violations. In the current age how certain can they be that they will never face justice for what they're doing today? The International Criminal Court and the other various ad hoc tribunals have had limited success in securing convictions, but the element of doubt that perpetrators might one day be held accountable is valuable. Efforts to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in Guatemala have achieved stuttering success, with the overturned conviction of former military ruler General Efrain Rios Montt who awaits his trial to resume in January 2015. In Cambodia, lack of funding and dwindling political support are impeding the genocide trials, while survivors and the relatives of those killed in mass shootings in Indonesia who have been pushing since 1965 for justice still face a long road ahead. When the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights urged earlier this year the Attorney General's Office to investigate what it called evidence of gross human rights violations, the authorities declined, saying the testimonies of 349 eyewitnesses weren't enough to warrant legal action.

It can often take a lifetime before any action is taken towards human rights abusers. It took nearly 30 years for the families of the dead and the survivors of Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 to receive an apology from the British government for shooting dead unarmed civil rights protestors, and still no one has been convicted of the killings. Upon his death in 2006, General Pinochet was only beginning to face action for the crimes he committed in Chile during the 1970s and 80s , and clearly many repressive regime officials continue to kill and torture innocents, presumably safe in the knowledge that it's unlikely they will ever be brought to justice.

Waiting for justice is no doubt difficult, knowing there is not guarantee it will ever come. Frustrated at the lack of accountability for human rights violations in the last few years, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has been running a campaign in recent weeks publicly naming dozens of security officers and government officials it says are responsible for human rights violations, listing allegations against each individual and asking that they be given a fair trial. The Bahrain government has done little to counter the "culture of impunity" identified a couple of years ago by a human rights inquiry the government itself had commissioned. It's possible that Bahrain will wait as many years as other countries to see its perpetrators brought to justice, and possible that some will evade justice completely. But it's only a maybe, and the guilty now at least know that with advances in forensics and better documentation of abuses, it their day in court could just be a matter of time.

The hope for the future lies with political leaders who are choosing to stand on the side of justice. This week, when the Attorney General of Northern Ireland proposed an end to all prosecutions, public inquiries and inquests into Troubles-related killings from the late 1960s up to the Belfast Agreement of 1998, he was widely criticized. This criticism came not only from victims, survivors and civil society groups, but there was a tepid response from both British Prime Minister David Cameron - who noted it would be "rather dangerous' to interfere with the rule of law processes - and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who said "I think it would be difficult for families on either side of the dark time in Northern Ireland if you were to follow ... what the Attorney General recommended and if you were to find subsequently incontrovertible DNA evidence of the involvement of person or persons in the killing on either side."

Impunity will continue long after today's International Day to End Impunity, but knowing there are fewer places to hide, and an increased chance that one day they will be brought to justice, should make some people sleep uneasily tonight.

 

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