Right To The Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations

Monday, June 2, 2014
“200 years of struggle for the emancipation of El Salvador” by Salvadoran artist Antonio Bonilla. National Anthropology Museum, El Salvador.

Monsignor Romero was murdered for refusing to be silent in the face of violence, abuse and injustice. He started his career as a conservative Catholic priest during the 1960s and 1970s in El Salvador, an extremely conservative society where the privileged few enjoyed great wealth at the expense of the impoverished majority. His appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 was seen by the politically active priests as the Vatican’s attempt to restrain them from speaking out against the Salvadoran government. However, after witnessing numerous human rights violations and atrocities, Monsignor Romero quickly became a vocal defender of the poor and the oppressed in his country. As a result, he saw himself involved in several conflicts with the Salvadoran government and with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, he continued to speak out against U.S. military support for the Salvadoran government and he also attempted to stop increasing human rights violations by asking soldiers to disobey orders and to stop firing on innocent civilians. 

Monsignor’s courage and determination for speaking truth to power and for demanding justice and peace for his fellow citizens led to his assassination. On March 24th 1980, he was fatally shot while celebrating mass in a small chapel in San Salvador. After his assassination, many people have argued that this event was the catalyst to a 12 year civil war that ravaged El Salvador with widespread violence and gross human rights violations. At the end of the conflict, the United Nations reported that more than 75,000 were killed during the war and that an unknown number of people were disappeared. 

Silver rosary beads on display atop a glass case.
Rosary beads that belonged to Monsignor Romero. Gallery on Religion, National Museum of Anthropology, El Salvador. The gallery on Religion presents an exhibit on Liberation Theology and the role of the Catholic church fighting against oppression during th

On March 24th, 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Monsignor Romero’s death, the Salvadoran government offered an official state apology for his assassination and it recognized that those involved acted “with the protection, collaboration or participation of state agents.” The same year, the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 65/196 proclaimed March 24th as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. 

During this day, the UN asks us to:

“Honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice;
Pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all;
Recognize, in particular, the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, of El Salvador, who was assassinated on 24 March 1980, after denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations and defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.”
In resolution 9/11, the United Nations Human Rights Council confirmed that people had the right to know the truth about gross human rights violations and serious violations of human rights law. The right to know the truth is linked to governments’ duty and obligation to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct effective investigations and to guarantee effective remedy and reparations. On March 24th, UN member states recognize that victims of atrocity have the right to know the truth about the abuses they suffered. Thus, any person victim of an atrocity has the right to know who is responsible; any family has the right to know the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared members and every society where atrocities have occurred has the right to know its history without lies or denial.

In many countries archival records and eyewitness accounts have informed truth commissions, courts of law, memorials and searches for the disappeared—all of which can serve to uncover the truth about what happened. As a human rights museum, we will help to promote human rights by preserving and sharing personal stories which have been recorded by our Oral History Program.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will raise awareness and inspire action by educating visitors about the human rights violations committed during the Central American crisis of the 1980s, and about the work and life of people like Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who continue to inspire human rights action today.  

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