On this day 35 years ago, a brave archbishop in El Salvador lost his life after speaking out on behalf of the poor when he witnessed human rights abuses at the hands of a repressive government.
Today also marks the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. It’s a time to recognize the commitment and sacrifices of those who fight injustice around the world in the face of great danger, like Archbishop Oscar Romero, who came to be known as the “Voice of the Voiceless.”
Protecting human rights is a core development objective that goes hand in hand with USAID’s mission of ending extreme poverty and promoting resilient, democratic societies. After a period of authoritarian rule or conflict, prosecuting those who commit human rights abuses can help restore the public’s trust in government institutions. For survivors and victims’ families, it can be cathartic to see justice served by domestic courts and international tribunals.
However, the grievances of survivors go beyond their right to justice. For many, it is about asserting their right to truth. This can include learning the identities of their abusers and those who planned and helped commit violence. Others want to know how the violence was allowed to happen in the first place and the fate and whereabouts of other victims
USAID’s Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance makes clear that efforts to promote national dialogue on human rights violations, encourage truth-seeking, follow through with criminal prosecution, and make reparations to victims can enable development and bring about more peaceful, prosperous, and just societies.
We support truth-seeking in a variety of ways, including documenting rights violations in an attempt to heal the wounds of the past. Here are some of our many efforts in countries around the world:
- Cambodia: The Documentation Center of Cambodia has gathered and analyzed evidence of genocide and other human rights violations of the Khmer Rouge. Besides helping bring closure to the survivors and families of the disappeared, the results of this USAID-supported effort were provided to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for purposes of prosecution.
- Colombia: USAID has supported the National Center for Historical Memory to document the tragedies of the past and conduct outreach to strengthen society’s commitment to ensuring Colombia does not return to a state of systematic violence and rights violations. With the slogan “Technology Serving the Victims,” USAID is also helping the Ministry of Justice and Rights in developing the Inter-Institutional Justice and Peace Information System, a database that serves as the clearinghouse of information for eight government agencies working on the justice and peace process.
- Cote d’Ivoire: USAID’s support for transitional justice included sponsoring a photo exhibition by the Union of Photojournalists of Cote d’Ivoire with images capturing the rights violations that occurred during the 2011 post-election electoral violence. More than 15,000 visitors, including representatives of the Commission for Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation, viewed photos with slogans like “Never again in Cote d’Ivoire” and “The past should teach us to share our future.”
- Guatemala: Exhuming mass graves to recover the remains of conflict victims and the disappeared is one step in a program funded by USAID to bring closure to scarred communities. This effort is contributing to the historical record and the memorialization of past violence. With our support, organizations such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation are also providing counseling to survivors and victims’ families.
Archbishop Romero’s voice was silenced at the hand of assassins, but his story has inspired countless human rights defenders whom USAID supports. Through documentation programs and by providing technical leadership tools, we are helping strengthen people’s right to truth around the world.