By Justin Shore, December 2, 2009

On November 6, 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard the cases of Santos Ernesto Salinas; José Rochac Hernández; Emelinda Hernández; and Manuel Antonio, Bonilla Osorio and Ricardo Ayala Abarca. Each case involved charges of forced disappearance by the government of El Salvador during the first three years of El Salvador’s twelve year civil war. None of the four cases involved a child over the age of thirteen at the time of their disappearance.

The Association for the Search for Missing Children (Pro-Búsqueda) brought each of these cases to the Commission as part of their broader mission to secure justice for the families of those who were disappeared during the El Salvadoran conflict. Pro-Búsqueda has investigated 818 cases of children who were disappeared between 1980 and 1992, with over 180 cases filed either in local El Salvadoran courts or before the Commission. The representative from Pro-Búsqueda addressed the Commissioners, requesting that the El Salvadoran government acknowledge and apologize for the past forced disappearances of children, provide reparations to the families, and agree to robustly investigate the cases currently before the Commission. This same demand has been made countless times over the past fifteen years by Pro-Búsqueda because the El Salvadoran government has continuously refused to admit that any child disappearances occurred during the conflict.

In an unexpected development, however, the government representative broke with traditional rhetoric. David Morales, El Salvador’s new Director of Human Rights, stated that “[the government is] not disputing what is being expressed by the petitioners in terms of what happened to the children in the context of the horrors that occurred in El Salvador.” He went on to state that the government delegation did not wish to dispute that the rights of the children and families had been abridged and acknowledged the superb work of Pro-Búsqueda over the past fifteen years in investigating forced disappearance cases.

Morales acknowledged El Salvador’s binding legal obligations to the Commission to protect human rights and stated that the government was officially requesting that Pro-Búsqueda “bring the families [our] apologies.” Furthermore, he stated that “in the past, the government did not consider [the children] to be victims of humans rights and we apologize.” Finally, he mentioned that El Salvador was taking productive steps to ensure fair and just reparations to all families by formally announcing the establishment of an independent national commission for disappeared children, which would have the ability to investigate and represent the victims of forced disappearances.

The Commissioners asked Morales if his statements were an offer to try to reach a friendly agreement with the petitioners. Morales acknowledged that the government was willing to enter into a good faith dialogue, with the goal of a “comprehensive settlements in terms of all of the rights that have been violated.” The Commissioners welcomed this notable change on the part of El Salvador, citing that in previous hearings the tone had been decidedly different. Pro-Búsqueda also welcomed the change in tone, noting that this would mark the first time El Salvador had acknowledged the rights of petitioners in cases of disappearance and asked the Commissioners for permission to leave to speak to their clients about a possible friendly settlement.

The Commissioners agreed that the petitioners were completely free to pursue a friendly settlement process and that Pro-Búsqueda should forward to the Commission and El Salvador, within 15 days of the hearing, a formal response regarding their agreement to seek a friendly settlement or their desire to move to the report on the merits stage of the case. The hearing then officially adjourned.