Commissioners: Rosa María Ortiz, Tracy Robinson, Rose-Marie Belle Antoine
Petitioners: Foundation Cristosal, Grupo de Monitoreo Independiente de El Salvador (GMIES), Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD), Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA)
State: El Salvador
Petitioners, at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on October 20, 2015, advocated for increased government action to assist citizens who have been forcibly displaced in El Salvador. The high-rate of violence in the country compounded with a poverty rate of over forty percent, has led to a large number of individuals and families from low-income communities being displaced throughout the country.
Pedro Martínez, a representative of IDHUCA, spoke of the increase in the number of internally displaced persons in El Salvador and need for further action in the country. He credited the increased displacement to structural problems based on lingering issues from the civil war and said that these problems of poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity, and corruption at an institutional level continue to erode the social fabric of the country. According to recent reports, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world with 4,246 homicides occurring between January and August this year, with an average of 17.5 murders a day.
Once families are displaced, Martínez said, there is not an adequate amount of programs to help families or individuals resettle and many seek opportunities beyond the border. Additionally, there are no official investigations being conducted by the state of how many internally displaced persons exist in the country. Martínez advocated for an expansion in governmental resources dedicated to this problem and said the ambitious Safe El Salvador Plan does not set aside enough funds for victims or specially mention the needs of internally displaced persons.
Deputy Director of the National Civilian Police, Howard Coppo, began his presentation on behalf of the state by recognizing the unprecedented levels of violence in El Salvador and noting that it is a systemic problem. He cited a number of government programs that are being developed to assist victims of crime and stated that the government was working with the UNHCR to reintegrate migrants into society. He emphasized the importance of the new security initiative which offers a more inclusive approach. The new initiative contrasts with the previous administration’s secret gang negotiations by now labeling all gang members as terrorists.
The Commissioners’ main concern was the State’s lack of information regarding displaced persons within their border and lack of a specialized strategy to deal specifically with this rising problem. Commissioner Robinson asked what records the State had of the geographical movements of displaced persons and if there was an appropriate methodology to track them. Commissioner Antoine inquired about the State’s knowledge of people seeking asylum outside of their borders and if it had sought to create a bilateral agreement with its neighbors, abiding by the clear international standards.
Commissioner Ortiz expressed concern regarding children affected by the increasing violence and was apprehensive of the State’s new policy of declaring gang members as terrorists. She was particularly concerned as she is the Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child and gang membership is overwhelmingly made up of children and individuals from marginalized groups in society. She requested that the State give more information about how the law will be shaped to still protect the human rights interests of these groups.
Noah Bullock, the executive director of an organization helping displaced persons in El Salvador called Foundation Cristosal, responded to the Commissioners’ concerns by acknowledging that the State has made some progress towards reform and helping victims of violence, but that there has still been no recognition of programs for those displaced by the permeation of violence. The State, in response, clarified that the ultimate declaration of gang members as terrorists was a judicial decision, and judges were not mandated to do so. The State also indicated that it would be willing to attempt to expand its programs, but expressed its concern of the limitations imposed by international legislation in some cases.
Author’s Legal Analysis
The El Salvador government continued to avoid formally admitting that gangs are forcibly displacing Salvadorans. Similar to past State actions, representatives continued to deflect other possibilities and accredit these high rates of families fleeing due to economic reasons or a desire to be reunited with other family members. While such reasons may be true for some Salvadorans, many individuals do not choose to leave their homes but are forced out by violence. In 2013, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) concluded that sixty-six percent of unaccompanied Salvadoran children had fled to escape criminal violence. The government has an obligation to ensure that its citizens’ rights are being protected on terms consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Refugee Convention. The IACHR should continue to monitor the State’s response to internal and external displacement and ensure that the State publically acknowledges that gangs and political actions are causing this phenomenon to rise.