Nora Franco has developed an international strategy that uses personal testimonies for combating the impunity of human rights violators prevalent in post-dictatorship and war-torn Latin American countries.
The New Idea
Exiled from Argentina and now living in El Salvador, Nora has experienced first-hand the consequences of government-sanctioned impunity. She believes that amnesty laws that perpetuate impunity of human rights violators contribute to a culture characterized by a disregard for human rights, a distrust of government institutions and justice systems, and fear. Rather than allowing societies to “forget” and overcome their violent pasts, these laws and similar measures to erase the past impede any transition to truly participatory and open democracy.
To fight against impunity in El Salvador and throughout Latin America, Nora has created an international strategy to confront and demand change in amnesty policies through the use of personal testimonies. Nora is pulling together the testimonies of women effected by the systematic violation of human rights which has plagued Latin America in recent history. Through an extensive network of women’s and human rights organizations across the continent, Nora is assembling testimonies to construct an anthology of historic memory that represents the experiences of women from various nations, classes, and races whose voices have been excluded from public policy.
Nora is not merely publishing a book. Her plan is to use the process of building the anthology as the starting and focal point for a larger strategy to mobilize women and men to demand changes to impunity policies in their countries. The testimonies serve as a link between an international network of women’s and human rights organizations. With this network, Nora will coordinate national demonstrations and promote the construction of monuments to preserve national memories and which resonate with the theme “forgive but not forget”. The anthology is also an educational tool that Nora will introduce into academic circles, student curriculum, law schools and international bodies to create awareness about the dangers of impunity. Finally, the testimonies will become a lobbying tool for national organizations to present to governments with their demands to overhaul the laws and policies that perpetuate impunity. Through this process, Nora is cultivating a culture of human rights based on memory and driven by citizens who themselves will prevent a repetition of the past.
After 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, in which human rights were systematically violated, political actors and mediators negotiated an end to the conflict without creating mechanisms for ending impunity or setting precedents for applying the law in cases of human rights violations. Instead, Truth Commissions were set up bring light to hidden crimes but their results and investigations were never opened up to public scrutiny nor were public recommendations incorporated in the process. Amnesty Laws applied in a general and indiscriminate manner protected human rights violators without taking into account the effects of such laws on the citizens of the country, ignoring millions of Salvadorans who campaigned to “forgive but not forget”.
The result has been the perpetuation of pain and uncertainty for many families of murdered and disappeared people who are forced to accept that those responsible for their loss remain unpunished. In addition, the outcome of these weak peace measures is a lack of social credibility for the judicial system and government institutions. The growth of a human rights culture remains stunted with an increasing amount of general crime and violence whose effects are being felt most deeply among youth and the poor. Finally, the most pronounced result of the Amnesty Laws and the perpetuation of impunity is the existence of clandestine military structures which were never completely dismantled after the war. These structures have given birth to a system of organized crime on a broad scale including extortion and a widespread kidnappings.
El Salvador is only one example illustrating the negative effects of amnesty laws, peace negotiations which did not involve citizen voices and the perpetuation of impunity. Tens of thousands of people throughout Latin America have been effected directly or indirectly by the systematic violation of human rights from the civil wars in Central America to the dictatorships in the Southern Cone. Throughout the region, many of these individuals mobilized to create spaces for the discussion on human rights and policies to protect their rights and end impunity. However, in official circles, both government and private actors in power tended to promote “forgetting the past” and erasing the historical memory of what happened in order to move forward. Amnesty laws were passed in many cases to encourage military leaders and government officials to come forward and tell the truth about human rights violations without fear of prosecution. In each of these processes, inability or unwillingness of governments’ and negotiators to bring human rights violators to justice has impeded society’s ability to move forward within a culture that respects and protects human rights.
Women, especially, have been excluded from the public and political process of negotiating peace due to gender stereotypes and lack of power throughout Latin American societies. These women have often suffered both the pain of losing loved ones and suffering violations of their own rights including torture, kidnapping and gender-based violations such as rape. The forced silence of women throughout Latin America contributes to a culture of discrimination, violence and subjugation which will continue to impede a rights-based and egalitarian development in the region.
Nora’s strategy for breaking the cycle of impunity and promoting the respect for human rights in El Salvador and throughout Latin America begins with the collection of testimonies from women across the continent. The idea for this endeavor came from her own experience of writing her testimony, the relief it provided her, and the need it stirred in her to use this and other testimonies to ensure that others would not have to suffer the same experience. To accomplish this, she began to formulate her strategy and tap expand the pool of extensive contacts with women’s and human rights organization she built-up over years as a journalist and human rights promoter in Latin America. Two years later, in June 1999, Nora launched a convocation in 19 Latin American countries and other countries where Latin American women were exiled to invite women of all backgrounds and social groups to submit their testimonies documenting their experiences. Since the call for testimonies, Nora has continued to strengthen the network of organizations and coordinate public events in El Salvador with international events to promote participation in this movement to create a historic memory of human rights violations.
The compilation and publication of the anthology of testimonies is just the first step to Nora’s strategy to create an international movement to fight impunity. The first component is using the anthology to educate actors from various sectors of society about the need to demand justice for human rights violations. Plans are already underway to translate the anthology into English and Italian with future translations slated for each of the nationalities of murdered and disappeared persons in Latin America including Portuguese, French, German and Japanese. The anthology will be released in the coming year. Nora is already working on mobilizing the international and national networks of women’s and human rights organizations to create a coordinated launch of the anthology under the title “Year 2000: Historic Memory of Latin American Women" in the coming year. The launch will be followed by a process of disseminating the work through the membership, media and distribution channels of each organization in the network. During a second distribution, organizations will lobby for the inclusion of the anthology in the curriculum in schools, university courses, law institutions and national women’s institutions.
The next component is to raise visibility for the movement and create public pressure through coordinated demonstrations and actions aimed at gaining support from different sectors of society and to create a historic memory in the country. Led by actions in El Salvador, Nora will provide leadership and guidance for helping the formation of national coordinators of women’s and human rights groups in each country that is part of the network. Smaller local events and actions will culminate in an international mobilization of people to conduct marches in their countries. This march, scheduled for 2001, will generate international attention beyond the region and local country support in preparation for presenting recommendations and demands to national governments. As part of these marches, each national group will be encouraged to create national monuments for remembering the murdered and disappeared. During this process, groups will create multi-media documents of participant’s experiences that illustrate the recommendations to be brought before congress.
Beginning in El Salvador, each national network will prepare a document containing legal information and recommendations for reforms to be presented to national congresses and legislative assemblies. Using the help of legal professionals who form part of network-member’s judicial contacts, the documents will contain information on national and international jurisprudence necessary to prevent impunity for human rights cases including gender-based violence. It will also include names of countries signed on to international covenants adhering to these principles. Groups would also conduct an analysis of the country’s amnesty laws, or variants, and a proposal for the overhaul or reform of these laws. Finally, the report will document pending human rights cases in the country.
During the experience of these national groups, Nora will act as instigator of Salvadoran actions but also coordinate internationally in order to share information and best practices among participants in the movement. She will also use the information from the multi-media documents and national proposals to create an international summary of experiences to present international women’s and human rights bodies to gain support for national actions.
The culmination of this process is for each national network to present their legislative assemblies and congresses with the anthology, the multimedia piece, and the document with proposals and recommendations for overturning or reforming amnesty laws in their country. In addition to reforming legislation and government policies sanctioning impunity, the lasting impact of this process is empowering citizens, especially women, to become protagonists in constructing a culture that respects their rights and break the cycle of impunity in their society.
Nora Franco was born in Argentina to a family of Belgian-Italian and Spanish immigrants. Though Nora’s family members were never militant members of political parties, they raised her with a clear understanding of principles of justice and solidarity. In March 1976, Nora’s brother was detained and tortured during the coup de etat in Argentina. His torturers were never brought to justice and the event provided her with her first exposure to injustice and impunity that she would encounter again and again throughout her life.
Subsequently, after Nora’s companion was black-listed in Argentina due to his political affiliations, Nora was compelled to accompany him in his flight to Spain. Though they later separated, she was unable to return to her country until the end of military rule for fear of being tortured or disappeared due to her connection to him and self-exile. In Europe, Nora studied journalism and spent many years working with solidarity groups for victims of violence in Latin America. She became a correspondent for covering the political situation in Latin America and when the democratic openings in Argentina and Chile during the 1980s, she was one of the first to conduct interviews with political prisoners in those countries. Through these interviews, she decided to return to Latin America and devote herself to promoting human rights and seeking justice for people whose rights had been denied and violated. This brought her to El Salvador where for 12 years, the country was torn up by war.
One night in El Salvador, Nora awoke terrified by a dream that resonated with her experience and exile from Argentina. She decided to record her memory and create a testimony for her experience. The result was a personal sense of relief at using this testimony to document yet also come to terms with her past. It instilled in her the need to bring this experience to others. After 15 years working as a journalist and promoter of human rights all over Latin America and the Caribbean, Nora finally realized the power of the written word and began developing her strategy for using a collective historic memory to end the culture of impunity in Latin America.