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One Year since Landmark Ruling: A Call to Action

December 16, 2011

panel discussion

Yesterday, the National Security Archive marked the one year anniversary* of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights issued its landmark ruling in the case “Gomes Lund and Others (Guerrilha do Araguaia) v. Brazil” with a public event co-sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The event featured a panel discussion with experts on Brazil, access to information and archives, as well as the emerging right to information and justice movement in Latin America. At the conclusion of the presentations, Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive called on human rights organizations to join the regional movement and launch a campaign for release of Latin America human rights information. (See videos of full event below.)

The panel discussion, moderated by WOLA’s Program Director, Geoff Thale, included the following speakers:

Michael Camilleri provided a brief history of Inter-American Court jurisprudence on the right to information that led up to the Araguaia ruling, including the case of Myrna Mack of Guatemala and Rosendo Radilla of Mexico. The Araguaia case, as Camilleri explained, brings together citizens’ right to justice and the right to access to information. The ruling states that that information on human rights cannot be denied to prosecutors, and that victims should also have a right to this information. Camilleri suggested future opportunities the commission could take to further the right to information, specifically mentioning the “Diario Militar” case of Guatemala, coming before the Inter-American court in 2012.

Paulo Sotero spoke about the current situation in Brazil, one year after the Araguaia ruling, and one month after President Dilma Rousseff signed into law the Truth Commission Law and the Law of Access to Public Information. While Sotero praised the achievement of the Araguaia ruling in setting a precedent for the region regarding the right to information, he worries that the implementation and enforcement of the ruling does not look promising. Currently, Brazil is mired in corruption scandals involving government officials, and its judicial system is struggling to address these issues. Additionally, Sotero explained that there is a lack of political will and public engagement on past human rights violations. On a hopeful note, Sotero anticipates that at the conclusions of the mandate of the Truth Commission and the release of the report in two years, Brazilians may be at a point where want to revisit the pains of the past.

Jo-Marie Burt used the case study of Peru as a comparison to Brazil to explore a truth commission process, obtaining government documents for evidence in human rights trials and the country’s struggle in effectively using its freedom of information law. Burt explained the various processes of obtaining documents for trials, including leaks from whistleblowers, military officer testimony, court seizure of documents, and declassified documents from the U.S. She also explored issues of political will to release documents and evidence in the trials. According to Burt, Peru’s legal system is inefficient. It continues to provide inadequate legal services for victims, has moved from focusing on human rights trials to terrorism trials, and is lacking victim protection services. Additionally, Burt described many of the problems Peru faces in using its own FOI law. However, she ended hopefully with a list of suggestions to improve the state of affairs in Peru, suggesting that Brazil may look to learn from Peru’s challenges.

Kate Doyle

Finally, National Security Archive’s Kate Doyle closed the discussion by describing the emerging right to information and human rights justice movement throughout the hemisphere. She touched on various country’s experiences and struggles through the lens of the Encuentro Evidencia, a September meeting the Archive convened in Lima, Peru. The meeting brought together 30 experts from ten countries to discuss access to archives, the right to truth, and use of documents as evidence in human rights trials. In realizing the importance of government documents in evidence in a few paradigmatic cases, this movement in Latin America is urging access to information activists, prosecutors, human rights organizations, judges, and others to demand information and transparency from their governments. Additionally, this movement continues to push for the implementation of freedom of information laws, some of them including a clause that strictly prohibits the withholding of information that relates to human rights violations.

Doyle called upon human rights organizations in the region to join the movement in a variety of ways. She suggested the following actions:

  1. Promoting dialogue on human rights and national security as it applies to/and infringes upon access to information;
  2. Recognize that lack of access to information is a form of torture;
  3. Work on generating a Washington campaign for the right to know and obtaining human rights information with the intention to pass a law requiring expedited declassification of documents with direct ties to human rights for use in Latin American  human rights trials; and
  4. International human rights organizations (Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, WOLA, etc.) should incorporate demands that states honor their commitments to open archives into their regular human rights work.

It is apparent that we have reached a moment of action to fight for the right to information. The meeting in Lima was a clear sign that while challenges remain, the right to information movement is gaining momentum and is stronger than ever before.

*The Araguaia ruling was formally presented on December 14, 2010, and the event to mark the anniversary was held on December 15, 2011, one day after the actual anniversary.

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For more, see videos of the panel discussion here:

Introduction by Geoff Thale and presentation by Michael Camilleri

Presentation by Paolo Sotero

Presentation by Jo-Marie Burt

Presentation by Kate Doyle

Questions and Answers

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Related post: “The Right to Information” Gaining Ground in Latin America?

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