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What is impunity?

September 23, 2004

The view from Latin America

Impunity, in the human rights context, refers to the lack of accountability for human rights violations committed, or condoned, by agents of the state. In the vast majority of countries, when agents of the state - members of the military, police and other armed forces, or even of death squads tolerated by the government - commit human rights abuses, they are not punished for their actions. This lack of punishment sends a very clear message to the perpetrators of such crimes that those activities are condoned by the state, and that governments agents can kill, torture or disappear without fear of being brought to justice.

Impunity can be either de jure or de facto, legitimized by amnesty laws or enshrined by corrupted or incompetent judicial systems. Amnesty laws, which stop all prosecutions - and often times investigations - of human rights violators, have been the preferred method in Latin America.... Even in the absence of such laws, prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute, and national courts are reluctant to punish, human rights violators.... In addition, many countries use military tribunals to try members of the military accused of human rights violations against civilians - which traditionally fail to convict, or to adequately punish, those who are responsible.

Impunity is a violation of human rights, as well as a direct threat to the rule of law which is the necessary basis of a democratic society. States have the obligation to both respect and promote human rights; impunity encourages human rights violations and thus it is a violation of these state obligations. In addition, impunity violates the rights of victims to justice that is established in many human rights covenants and also violates their right to truth. International bodies, for example, have found that when a mother is kept in the dark as to fate of her disappeared child, this can be considered torture. Truth is essential for democratic life; if people do not know what happened, and who did what, they cannot make educated choices when they exercise their voting rights.

The struggle against impunity is an essential part of the struggle for human rights - only when all human rights violators are held accountable for their actions can we hope that human rights violations will cease and justice will prevail.

From the June 1998 edition of an on-line newsletter, Without Impunity, published by Derechos

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