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11 MAY 1998

It is Amnesty International USA's distinct pleasure to testify about the Human Rights Information Act, H.R. 2635, a bill before Congress which we strongly support as we believe it is a crime-fighting bill that will strengthen democracy and human rights in the Central American nations of Guatemala and Honduras, and bring comfort and closure to families affected by brutal and inhumane violence. Because of the strengths of this bill, thousands of Americans have voiced their support for H.R. 2635 and have urged Congress to pass this measure.

Americans throughout the land support the Human Rights Information Act.

Amnesty International USA alone has registered the support of tens of thousands of Americans from Maine to Hawaii, and Florida to Alaska, in the form of letters and petitions addressed to individual Members of Congress. Indeed we have delivered such petitions to every member of this Subcommittee and most members of the Committee. This past Thursday, Amnesty International USA staff and volunteers delivered some 30,000 letters to Congressional offices, a process that will continue as we have approximately more than 150,000 letters to deliver.

We also know that Americans across the land are pleased with the fact that this hearing is taking place and for that we have Chairman Steve Horn to thank for his leadership. From the outset the Chairman and his staff, in particular John Hynes, have shown interest in this issue and compassion for the families whose pain the bill aims to end.

We are acutely conscious of the fact that this is a very short legislative year and that most bills do not die by being voted down, but rather, by not being discussed at all and thus we are especially grateful for the Chairman's leadership in considering this important bill. We hope the Chairman and members of the Subcommittee join their other colleagues on this Subcommittee such as the Ranking Member and Congressman Danny Davis in becoming co-sponsors of this bill. We also hope that the Subcommittee will promptly take action on this bill and favorably refer it to the Full Committee. Your continuing leadership after referral will be appreciated not just by us but also by the thousands of Americans who have taken the time to write or call in support of this Act.

Background on the Human Rights Information Act

The Human Rights Information Act (H.R. 2635, S. 1220) orders the declassification or release of U.S. government information about human rights violations in Honduras and Guatemala. It orders U.S. government foreign policy and intelligence agencies to release within 150 days "all human rights records regarding activities occurring in Guatemala and Honduras after 1944." The bill also allows records to be withheld if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that declassification would be harmful. In such cases, the bill clearly outlines the criteria for withholding information, and emphasizes balancing national security needs with the public interest. Decisions by agencies to withhold documents would be examined by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, a review panel established under Executive Order No. 12958. The bill also creates two additional positions for the Panel, whose members would be filled by the President from individuals recommended by four non-governmental organizations, which include Amnesty International USA.

Reasons to support the Human Rights Information Act

We are proud to support the Human Rights Information Act because we believe it will make a crucial contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights in Guatemala and Honduras. We support the Act for three compelling reasons:

Reason # 1. The Human Rights Information Act is pro-family.
The term "pro-family" is not usually used to describe initiatives such as this bill yet the Human Rights Information Act is pro- family in a very profound way. The Human Rights Information Act is pro-family because it will help families heal and achieve closure in cases of horrific violence, where parts of the family have been violently torn or made to "disappear."

The past few decades in particular have witnessed immense suffering in Guatemala and Honduras. The current suffering in Guatemala can be traced back to the 1954 overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in a coup d'etat that was engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency. This heralded a period of military governments that were first challenged in the 1960's by armed opposition groups. The government reacted with a fierce counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands dead. This counterinsurgency became particularly harsh in the late 1970s and early 1980s during which time the military governments resorted to a scorched earth strategy. More than 500 villages were wiped off the face of the earth. Thousands of civilians were killed often after brutal torture or in wholesale massacres. Thousands of others were "disappeared," taken away never to be seen again. Millions of others, the "lucky ones," were forced to flee their homes, either into internal exile or abroad, to Mexico and to the United States.

Honduras also witnessed politically-driven violence, brutal murders and "disappearances" resulting from a deliberate governmental and military strategy that treated non-combatant civilians as legitimate military targets. During the early to late 1980s, a dirty war in Honduras targeted student activists, teachers, journalists, human rights lawyers and activists, trade unionists, leftist politicians and activists, and tortured, assassinated, and/or "disappeared" them.

The pain of the killings and other atrocities has still not healed, in part because the whole truth about these horrible violations has not been revealed. Survivors still do not know who ordered the killings nor do they know why their loved ones were brutally tortured and killed. Family members -- like the parents of Jose Eduardo Becerra Lanza "disappeared" in Honduras in 1982, or the family of Roger Gonzalez Zelaya, also "disappeared" in Honduras in April 1988 -- still do not know the whereabouts of their "disappeared" loved ones, or even whether they're alive or dead. We know for instance of mothers who still iron their son's shirts, decades after they were "disappeared," because they hope that all this time their son has been held in some secret prison and will unexpectedly return. Family members have not been able to properly grieve for relatives nor to give them decent burials. This uncertainty prolongs their agony. In addition, in villages and towns where every surviving family has lost parents, siblings, or children, this uncertainty affects all aspects of community life and growth.

By releasing this information, we can help surviving families and rebuilding communities come to terms with the traumas of the past and recover the remains of the "disappeared" for forensic examination and burial. Indeed, if we can help grieving families heal by releasing this information to them, why shouldn't we do this?

Reason # 2. The Human Rights Information Act will fight crime.
As you know human rights violations are some of the world's most heinous crimes. The perpetrators are responsible not for dozens or even hundreds of brutalities but for tens of thousands. The crimes of which they are guilty are not everyday acts of violence, but crimes against humanity: the wholesale slaughter of entire communities, the mutilation of babies, the forced participation of family members in the torture of their own loved ones. Worse yet, the assassins and torturers are never punished: they are amnestied or are never prosecuted. Those responsible for tens of thousands of killings, "disappearances" torture and other brutalities walk the streets freely. Those that ordered these brutalities, or helped cover them up never had to pay for their criminal complicity.

Releasing specific information about these human rights violations, these crimes, will support judicial investigations and strengthen the judicial process by filling in some blanks and gaps in the official record. The fact is that those who know such details in Guatemala and Honduras are not talking. Nor are they adhering to court orders. Indeed, lawyers and judges involved in such cases find themselves subjected to death threats and under attack. Successful prosecutions will not only remove from circulation those human rights criminals who are still involved in similar or other criminal activity like organized crime, drug or armament trafficking or other smuggling. Successful prosecutions will also send the unequivocal message that human rights violations and other violent crimes are no longer tolerated, especially such heinous crimes as the wholesale murder of noncombatant civilians, including children and elders, by state agents as a matter of official policy.

Reason # 3. The Human Rights Information Act will strengthen democracy.
Insofar as the Human Rights Information Act aids the criminal prosecution of torturers, kidnappers, and murderers, this Act strengthens the rule of law. The Act sends the clear message that no one is above the law, a message which will re-instill citizens' confidence in the legal institutions of their countries. Guatemalan and Honduran legal institutions are severely compromised today by a lack of credibility, not undeserved from the courts having witnessed, countenanced, or colluded in the covering up human rights crimes. Nevertheless, the current civilian authorities have made repeated commitments to prosecuting offenders. Their commitment, together with our support and assistance, means that the time is now for successful prosecutions of human rights criminals. Successful prosecutions will deter other violators and will strengthen the rule of law. The rule of law, ensuring equality under the law, is a key ingredient for any successful democracy, and Guatemala and Honduras are not exceptions.

The Process to Find the Truth

Civilian rule returned to Guatemala in 1986 with the inauguration of President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo. The internal armed conflict continued unabated, while Cerezo took no significant action to end the impunity enjoyed by the army and the police. After an initial drop in human rights crimes, incidents of torture, murders, and "disappearances" soon surpassed their previous levels during his administration. After ten more years and one more coup, Guatemala reached the formal end of the internal armed conflict but not the end of human rights crimes.

Guatemala's civil war formally ended with the signing of a peace accord on 29 December 1996 between the Government and the armed opposition, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, URNG, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca. The signing of the final peace accord immediately enacted the 23 June 1994 Agreement on the Establishment of the Commission for the Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence which have Caused Suffering to the Guatemalan People. This Clarification Commission was given only a year to compile, review, analyze, and present findings on violations and abuses committed by both sides during 36 years of armed conflict, clearly an impossible task. The Commission began operations on 1 August 1997. On 16 September 1997, the Commission submitted a declassification request to the U.S. government which was amended on 20 November 1997.

The Catholic Church which had closely monitored human rights developments, especially since the establishment of the Guatemalan Archbishop's Human Rights Office in 1989, also initiated a truth commission process in 1996. This truth commission, the Interdiocesan Project to Recover Historical Memory, REMHI, Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Historica, sent 600 trained interviewers throughout Guatemala to conduct interviews in more than 15 Mayan languages. The Church's truth commission issued its findings on Friday, 24 April 1998, and found the security forces and its allies responsible for 90% of the 50,000 murders and 50,000 "disappearances" committed against civilians or captured prisoners.

In addition, there have been Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Americans directly or indirectly affected by this criminal violence such as Meredith Larson, who was subjected to a brutal stabbing in 1989; Sister Dianna Ortiz, subjected to a violent abduction and subsequent brutal and horrific torture; and of course, Jennifer Harbury, whose husband, armed opposition commander Everardo, was "disappeared" following a firefight with the Guatemalan Army in 1992. In most of these cases, the results have been largely disappointing because so little substantive information was released. High-level Administration officials, including the former Special Assistant to the President on National Security Affairs, Anthony Lake, have acknowledged that the FOIA process is not very useful to obtain this type of information.

Honduras also experienced human rights violations committed in the context of a counterinsurgency war. As mentioned above, the security forces targeted people from all walks of life who were real or perceived supporters of the short-lived armed opposition.

The Honduran government's National Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza, began his courageous and invaluable work in 1992 to uncover the truth about human rights violations during the 1980s. In 1993 he published his first report, The Facts Speak for Themselves, which documented 179 "disappearances" in Honduras from 1980-1989. He has had an information request on a few specific cases outstanding with the U.S. government since 1993. One of these cases is the 1983 "disappearance" of the American priest, Father James Francis Carney.

We have been privileged to work with some of the relatives of Father Carney in trying to obtain the truth about his "disappearance," in particular with Joe and Eileen Connolly. Both Joe and Eileen joined Jennifer Harbury and others in a meeting we held in December 1995 with the then-Director for InterAmerican Affairs at the National Security Council, Richard Feinberg, and the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, John Shattuck. At this meeting, both officials committed themselves to getting to us a declassification proposal in "a month or so." Two and a half years later, this proposal is still not forthcoming. The Connolly's have been waiting over 18 years to give a decent burial to Father Carney. How much longer must they wait for a funeral?

Current declassification

The Human Rights Information Act is needed because declassification so far, while better than in the past, has been inadequate, despite much Congressional attention. Members from both House and Senate have repeatedly written the Administration requesting declassification of human rights records pertaining to Guatemala and Honduras.

The State Department has released the largest volume of information but Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have noted that much of the information released in the past was not very helpful, consisting of cables back and forth between the Embassy and the State Department, or documents already in the public domain. The recent release to the Clarification Commission appears to reflect a decision not to release anything with a designation above confidential. Yet as limited as these releases are, the State Department's effort stands in stark contrast to Defense Department agencies which have released very few documents.

On 23 May 1997, the National Archives made available to the public Central Intelligence Agency documents related to the coup d'etat in 1954. The CIA stated that they had released approximately one percent of the total volume of information and that more would be forthcoming, however we are not aware of any more releases. Even though minimal, this release was nonetheless useful in filling in at least some of the historical record of this pivotal period of Guatemala's history.

Recently, the Central Intelligence Agency released to the Guatemalan Clarification Commission close to sixty documents which at first glance seem to contain useful human rights information. While this is certainly welcome and appreciated, it does not cover the totality of violations: the Guatemalan Clarification Commission asked for information on 14 specific cases and "any records concerning violence during [the period 1978-1983]." Insofar as this most recent release may help clarify these 14 incidents and the 1978-1983 period, the documents are useful, but we must point out that they do not cover all of the human rights violations. The Human Rights Information Act covers all violations committed since 1944.

Our understanding is that Defense Department agencies have not released any significant information despite specific requests by the Guatemalan Clarification Commission. The "gisted" records, vague summaries sometimes even without date are not helpful at all and I append one such record by way of example from the recent declassification made available to the Commission. The Human Rights Information Act would of course apply to the Defense Department as well.

The Honduras documents have suffered a worse fate. The Honduran situation has not benefited from as much Congressional and public attention and so there have been far fewer documents released, for instance from the State Department, for Honduras than for Guatemala. The National Commissioner for Human Rights did initially request information on a large number of cases but on 1 August 1995, narrowed the request down to six specific human rights cases, including the "disappearance" of Father Carney, and information on two perpetrators of such crimes. Again, even if the Commissioner's request were fulfilled, it would not address all of the other cases of human rights crimes in Honduras, thus pointing to the importance of passing the Human Rights Information Act.

Classification and National Security

The Human Rights Information Act will not harm national security nor will it unnecessarily reveal "sources and methods." Section five of the bill draws directly from the Congressionally approved and Presidentially ratified Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which sets out standards under which a classified record may be postponed. Amnesty International USA is not completely supportive of this section as we believe that there should be no withholding of information about human rights criminal activity. We note however that there is bipartisan recognition that the current classification regime is not working and that the Executive branch agencies tend to overclassify information.

On 3 March 1997, Senator Moynihan and Representative Combest, then Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued the report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. This report was unanimously approved by the Commission which also included the then-Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms.

The Commission's report states that "...more information continues to be classified than national security needs require... Serious questions remain about the process by which classification decisions are made, and about the oversight, training, and accountability of those who make classification decisions. Particularly disturbing is the continued perception among many inside the Government that the current classification system simultaneously fails to protect the nation's core secrets while still classifying too much. Justice Potter Stewart's observation that 'when everything is classified, then nothing is classified' remains very relevant today." (pg. 19) In other words, the Commission found that excessive classification is a real problem.

The Commission also stated that "the use of sources and methods as a basis for continuing classification of intelligence information be clarified..." It noted that the National Security Act of 1947's mandate for the protection of sources and methods had, over the years, "come to serve as a broad rationale for declining to declassify a vast range of information about the activities of intelligence agencies" and that "the sources and methods rationale has become a vehicle for agencies to automatically keep information secret.... The statutory requirement that sources and methods be protected thus appears at times to have been applied not in a thoughtful way but almost by rote." (pg. 70)

The Human Rights Information Act carefully balances the public need with national security interests. Agencies can withhold documents if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that the national security threat is "of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest" or there is "substantial risk of harm" to an informant or that an "invasion of privacy is so substantial that it outweighs the public interest" or that the disclosure would compromise a confidentiality arrangement and revelation is "so harmful that it outweighs the public interest."

President Clinton has supported the principle of openness and of providing information to victims and survivors. His Administration oversaw a significant release of U.S. government documents on El Salvador and certainly his Administration has carried out significant declassification with regards to Guatemala. However much information still needs to come to light.

The Time is Now

Both Honduras and Guatemala are still to this day struggling to overcome their violent legacies. Exhumations and investigations patiently continue in both countries despite death threats and attacks. Human rights defenders continue to be threatened and killed. This year alone, Honduras lost human rights defender Ernesto Sandoval to an assassin while Guatemala lost Auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi Conedera to another cowardly murderer three Sundays ago. In both cases, the circumstances of their death remain murky and no assailant has been conclusively or even credibly identified.

. In both cases, the armed forces and intelligence services contemptuously refuse to cooperate with investigations or even to admit any previous wrongdoing. There is no indication that the perpetrators and their supporters have learned anything from their bloody past. In the meantime, survivors grieve in silence and maintain a dim hope that someday they too will know the truth.

A survivor of torture once remarked to me "why should others know exactly what happened to me and not me?" She was referring to the circumstances of her torture, including the identity of the perpetrators, the location of the torture center, the sinister logic that led to and prolonged her torment. We agree with her -- it is profoundly unjust and certainly prolongs the pain and suffering when information that such survivors knows exist is deliberately withheld. We believe she is entitled to the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the circumstances of her ordeal. We believe this is a right of all who have been brutalized by such crimes against humanity. Indeed, it is our collective right to know what has happened in our world, under our noses, in our name.

Passing the Human Rights Information Act will be one of the single most important contributions to peace and justice the United States of America can make as we close the 20th century. It is wholly consistent with the age-old American love of truth and will continue the legacy of human rights heroes such as Ernesto Sandoval and Monsignor Gerardi who dedicated and may have ultimately sacrificed their lives for the sake of the truth. Theirs is clearly the side of the struggle where you and the rest of the U.S. Congress belong.

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