WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Oct 2011 | News

Uruguay: Amnesty, Impunity, and Changing Political Conditions

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As part of the broad negotiation to end El Salvador’s long civil war, the Salvadoran government and the rebel FMLN agreed to establish a Truth Commission and to approve an amnesty law covering crimes related to the armed conflict. Similar agreements, more or less formal, ensured political transitions, but protected human rights abusers from prosecution, in many countries in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s.

That human rights abusers could be free from prosecution – whether because of de jure amnesty laws or because of de facto acceptance of impunity – has troubled human rights activists and victims’ advocates across the hemisphere for many years. While political figures on both the left and the right often perceived these agreements as politically necessary in offering protection from prosecution to the warring parties, and assuring that they would feel safe to participate in peace negotiations, human rights activists have asserted the claims of justice and the need for justice as a prelude to genuine reconciliation.

Questions about amnesty, impunity, and justice continue to be debated throughout the hemisphere – in Argentina and Chile, in Peru, and elsewhere. In some places, agreements that were once seen as necessary for political stability have been reconsidered as political conditions have changed over time. Countries such as Brazil and El Salvador still have and apply their amnesty laws; in others, such as Peru and Argentina, amnesty laws have been nullified or are ignored, as in Chile.

In that context, we offer this interview in Spanish with Juan Raul Ferreira, a well-known Uruguayan journalist, writer, and political activist. Juan Raul’s father, Wilson Ferreira, played the leading role in opposition to the Uruguayan military dictatorship that took power in 1973. He and his family were forced into exile, and Wilson barely escaped with his life when two other leading opposition figures were assassinated in Buenos Aires in 1976. Juan Raul, then in his early twenties, played an active role in mobilizing international opposition to the dictatorship (working for several years at the WOLA office in Washington).

Juan Raul returned to Uruguay as the dictatorship was coming to an end in 1984. After an initial period of imprisonment, he was released and elected to the Uruguayan Senate. He participated in the process that led to the restoration of civilian rule in Uruguay. As part of that process, Juan Raul voted – reluctantly – for the 1986 Expiry Law, which declared an end to the Uruguayan state's ability to prosecute military and police officials accused of human rights violations, a law he believed was necessary to ensure that the military returned to their barracks.

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued a ruling in which it required the Uruguay to annul the Expiry Law. The IACHR ruling was a useful tool for those seeking to overturn the law, and Juan Raul became an advocate for overturning the Expiry Law that he helped to approve two decades ago.

On October 27, the law was officially overturned after both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies passed legislation annulling the Expiry Law, paving the way for human rights crimes committed during the dictatorship to be tried in court.

In this interview conducted at the WOLA office in September 2011, Juan Raul Ferreira talks about his changing position on the amnesty issue. His story has lessons for the debates about amnesty, political stability, accountability, and justice throughout Latin America today.


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