The United States History of Systemic Racism: A Primer for Latin Americans, and Some Parallels

Naomi Roht-Arriaza*

Versión en español aquí.

Juneteenth, June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 that the last US slaves were freed. The holiday was celebrated across the United States this year with marches calling for defunding the police and tackling continuing systemic racism, continuing weeks of protests after the police killing of George Floyd and others. These demands for radical change might at first seem unnecessary and extreme – after all, the US recently had a Black president, and slavery ended long ago – but they reflect the way government action throughout the 20th century until today created and supported institutionalized racism.  With the disproportionate effects of both COVID-19 and unemployment on the Black community, these patterns have become obvious.  In particular, the protests respond to the failure of decades of reform efforts to stop the police killing of unarmed black people across the country, a failure rooted in the isolation and control of Black and Latinx communities and the defunding of services to these communities.  The US experience provides an illuminating window into the persistence of racism and racist policing elsewhere in the Americas, as well as some intriguing pathways forward.

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Historia del racismo sistémico en Estados Unidos: Reseña para los latinoamericanos y algunos paralelismos

Naomi Roht-Arriaza*

English version here.

La celebración de Juneteenth el 19 de junio conmemora la fecha en que, en 1865, se notificó de su liberación a los últimos esclavos que había en Estados Unidos. La fecha se recordó este año en todo EE. UU. con marchas en reclamo de que se reduzca el financiamiento de la policía y se aborde el racismo sistémico que sigue existiendo en el país. Estas marchas dieron continuidad a las semanas de protestas que se iniciaron con el asesinato de George Floyd y otras personas a manos de la policía. A primera vista, estos reclamos de un cambio radical pueden parecer innecesarios y extremos; en definitiva, EE. UU. tuvo hace poco un presidente negro y la esclavitud terminó hace ya mucho tiempo. Sin embargo, son producto de que, a lo largo del siglo XX y hasta hoy, las acciones gubernamentales crearon y posibilitaron el racismo institucionalizado. Estos patrones se han vuelto imposibles de ignorar con el impacto desproporcionado que el COVID-19 y el desempleo han tenido en la comunidad negra. En particular, las protestas se dan en respuesta a las iniciativas de reforma infructuosas que se han impulsado durante décadas para terminar con la muerte de personas negras no armadas por la policía en todo el país, un fracaso que tiene relación directa con el aislamiento y el control de las comunidades negras y latinas y el desfinanciamiento de los servicios destinadas a estas  comunidades. La experiencia estadounidense ofrece una perspectiva bastante clara de la persistencia del racismo y las prácticas policiales racistas en el resto de América.

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Tras la invalidación de la Ley de Amnistía por la Corte Suprema de Justicia de El Salvador: ¿vienen investigaciones penales?

Naomi Roht-Arriaza

Presidenta del Consejo Directivo de DPLF

Profesora del Hastings College of Law, Universidad de California

English version

El Salvador mural

Después de años de deliberaciones, la Sala de lo Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia de El Salvador resolvió el 13 de julio de 2016 que la Ley de Amnistía de 1993 era inconstitucional y por tanto inválida. La decisión, que se adoptó con 4 votos a favor y 1 en contra, causó gran revuelo en el país, pese a que en días previos se había anunciado su inminente publicación. En este país centroamericano, donde la criminalidad y la inseguridad tienen hoy niveles altísimos, ninguno de los bandos que participaron en la guerra civil ha estado de acuerdo con el juzgamiento de delitos del pasado. Los cuatro magistrados que firmaron la sentencia —Sidney Blanco, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Eliseo Ortiz— fundamentaron su decisión en el derecho de las victimas al acceso a la justicia, a la tutela judicial y a obtener reparaciones integrales. También utilizaron ampliamente al derecho internacional, en especial, la jurisprudencia de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Esta decisión renueva las esperanzas de quienes todavía sufren las consecuencias de la guerra civil que asoló al país durante doce años, pero también complica la situación política de El Salvador y pone en dificultades a una Fiscalía débil y con poca voluntad política.

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El Salvador’s Constitutional Court Invalidates Amnesty Law

 Naomi Roht-Arriaza

President of the Board of Directors of DPLF

Professor at Hastings College of Law, University of California

Versión en español

El Salvador mural

After years of deliberations, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled on July 13 that the country’s 1993 amnesty law is unconstitutional and must be stricken. The 4-1 decision, although long expected, has caused uproar in El Salvador, where neither side in the civil war has been supportive of prosecutions for past crimes and where rampant criminality and insecurity are present-day scourges. The four-person majority of judges Sidney Blanco, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González and Eliseo Ortiz, grounded the decision in the rights of the victims to access to justice, to judicial protection of fundamental rights, and to full reparations. It makes extensive use of international law, especially the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It will provide new hope for the long-suffering victims of the country’s twelve-year civil war, but will also complicate the country’s politics and challenge a weak and compromised prosecutors’ office.

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Upcoming Cases in Guatemala Could Expose Links between Past and Present Criminality

 By Naomi Roht-Arriaza

President of the Board of Directors of DPLF,

Professor at Hastings College of Law University of California

Versión en español

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Photo: AFP

On Wednesday, January 6, police in Guatemala arrested 17 former high-ranking military officers in relation to crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict. The officers, charged with enforced disappearance, torture and crimes against humanity, are a “who’s-who” of those with greatest responsibility for designing the military strategy that led to over 200,000 deaths and 40,000 disappearances, according to a U.N.-sponsored report. Even more importantly, several of those charged played key roles in the transformation of sectors of the military into “hidden powers” who now form part of organized crime and large-scale corruption. Several of those charged are close to new President Jimmy Morales. By detaining and charging this group, the Prosecutors’ Office has taken the tiger of continuing impunity by the tail. Whether it can manage to tame it is another question.

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Próximos juicios sobre hechos del conflicto armado en Guatemala podrían resaltar vínculos entre delitos del pasado y del presente

Por Naomi Roht-Arriaza

Presidenta del Consejo Directivo de DPLF,

Profesora de Hastings College of Law Universidad de California

English version

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Foto: AFP

El miércoles 6 de enero, la Policía de Guatemala detuvo a 17 exmilitares de alto rango en relación con delitos cometidos durante los 36 años de conflicto armado en ese país. Estos militares, acusados de desaparición forzada, tortura y delitos contra la humanidad, integran la lista de los máximos responsables de haber ideado la estrategia militar que dejó un saldo de más de 200.000 muertes y 40.000 desapariciones, según se indica en el informe de la Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, patrocinado por la ONU. Un factor aún más importante es que varios de los acusados tuvieron un rol clave en la transformación de sectores militares en “poderes ocultos”, que actualmente integran la delincuencia organizada y participan en la corrupción a gran escala. Algunos de los acusados son personas cercanas al nuevo presidente Jimmy Morales. Al detener y acusar a este grupo, el Ministerio Público (Fiscalia General) ha decidido actuar ante fuerzas que encarnan la relación entre la impunidad por delitos del conflicto armado y la impunidad prevalente actualmente. Si logrará o no salir airoso del esfuerzo, es otra cuestión.

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World Bank Safeguards on Human Rights: Will Standards be Weakened?

Author: Naomi Roht-Arriaza

NaomiRohtArriazaThis week, the World Bank holds its annual meeting in Washington, DC.  Despite the fact that many Latin American countries are now classified as middle-income, the Bank still has a sizeable presence in the region, especially through its private sector arm, the IFC. The IFC invested over $50 billion in the region in 2012. Thus, its policies and practices, especially those related to infrastructure, extractive industries and agriculture, have a substantial effect on the region. The Bank has come under particular scrutiny this year: civil society groups complain that changes in Bank policies amount to backsliding on its commitment to environmental, social and human rights safeguards in Bank-financed projects. If the changes go through, it will become more difficult for communities affected by Bank-financed mining, palm oil or other large-scale extractive schemes to obtain redress.

Ever since the 1970s, affected communities and activists have complained that some development projects, despite the promise of raising living standards or incomes, have done more harm than good. Starting with the Narmada Dam in the late 1980s, communities began targeting financing of these projects by international financial institutions (IFIs). Pressure to avoid or minimize these harmful collateral effects has over the last quarter century led to an expanding set of guidelines, operational procedures (OPs), and impact assessment requirements for IFIs. These were joined over time by monitoring and redress mechanisms of various sorts, all aimed at improving the quality and outcomes of projects and programs as well as avoiding controversy, bad publicity and legal challenges from dissatisfied local communities or workers. For example, in 1993 the World Bank created the Inspection Panel; the regional development banks, like the Inter-American Development Bank, soon after created their own accountability mechanisms. The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, created a Compliance Advisor Ombudsman; the US Overseas Private Investment Center has an Office of Accountability.

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One more time: Guatemala’s Constitutional Court requires lower court to justify inapplicability of amnesty

Author:a

NaomiRohtArriaza

In a decision widely misreported in the press, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court last week asked a lower court judge to explain why Guatemala’s 1986 blanket amnesty law should not shield former dictator Efrain Rios Montt from judicial action.  The lower courts have already held, and the Constitutional Court has agreed, that the later 1996 Law of National Reconciliation, does not impede prosecution.  That law has an explicit exception for genocide and other international crimes.  However, the Court’s concern now was with the earlier version, which Rios Montt claimed had to be applied since it applied at the time, and ignoring it now would violate principles of legal certainty and legality by retroactively applying a later law.

The 1986 law was passed by the Mejia Victores government shortly before the handover of power to a civilian regime.  It provided amnesty to all those accused of political crimes or related common crimes from March 23, 1982 until January 14, 1986.  (Originally a co-defendant with Rios Montt in the genocide case, Mejia was excused from trial for health reasons).  As such it is a classic “self-amnesty,” widely condemned by the Inter-American system and the UN as contrary to a state’s international commitments.  It was overturned by the Guatemalan Congress when the 1996 law was passed, and so had no ongoing legal validity.  It also violated Guatemala’s adherence to the Genocide Convention, which dates back to 1950 and which requires punishment of the crime of genocide.  The obligation to prevent and punish genocide was incorporated into the penal code in 1973, well before the events at issue, and before the amnesty.  Thus, any argument about ex post facto law is particularly inapposite here.

The amparo was filed by Rios Montt back in 2012, when a pre-trial court denied his assertion that the earlier amnesty applied.  The Constitutional Court held now that the lower court that rejected his appeal of that ruling had inadequately explained its decision, and thus had to go back and do so now.  It did not, contrary to press reports, take a position itself on the validity of the 1986 law.

Two judges, Mauro Roderico Chacon Corado and Gloria Patricia Porras Escobar dissented.  These were the same two judges who dissented from the Court’s May 21 decision to order the annulment of the verdict against Rios Montt.   Chacon argued that there’s no reason for the CC to be re-opening the issue, while Porras explained that the 1986 amnesty was never valid because it would contradict Guatemala’s obligations under the Genocide Convention.  International commitments have a higher status in Guatemalan law than decree laws like the 8-86 amnesty law.  Thus, since the 1986 amnesty was void from the start, it could not have created legitimate expectations that were overturned by the later 1996 amnesty and the explicit repeal of all earlier amnesties.  Porras cited the reiterated doctrine of the Inter-American Court that this type of blanket self-amnesty is clearly prohibited under the American Convention on Human Rights and other treaties to which Guatemala is a party.

The country’s Human Rights Ombudsman has pointed out that genocide and war crimes cannot be considered either political crimes or closely connected common crimes.  Genocide, in particular, requires a specific intent that is inconsistent with the nature of a political crime.

It is, of course, quite possible that the lower courts will adequately apply the law and simply explain why the amnesty does not apply.  However, the pre-trial judge in the case, Patricia Flores, during the trial was hostile to the prosecution, and is something of a loose cannon.  Whatever she decides will no doubt be appealed, yet again, up to the Constitutional Court.  And so the endless legal maneuvering continues.