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Justice After the Schizoid War

A new documentary film, "Justice and the Generals," looks at the future of international human rights law through the prism of El Salvador's bloody civil war.
 
 
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Ever since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, the world has grown familiar with the idea of an international court putting to bed a brutal period in history. Nuremberg put a stark coda on the Holocaust, as may the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal on the genocide that took place in Yugoslavia.

But what of the countless wartime human rights violations that have gone untried? In Gail Pellett's latest documentary, "Justice and the Generals," that question is applied to El Salvador. By extension, it also is applied to the United States, which between 1980 and 1992 provided billions of dollars in aid to the Salvadoran military, abetting a 12-year civil war that by 1992 had claimed 75,000 (mostly civilian) lives.

"Justice and the Generals" is an international human rights drama with a strong message about the need for international law. Pellett, who produced, directed and narrates the film, focuses her story on two landmark human rights cases -- one involving the 1980 murder of four American churchwomen, the other brought by Salvadoran torture survivors; both against two high-ranking Salvadoran generals, Guillermo Garcia and Vides Cassanova, who were trained by the U.S. military. The film sheds harsh light on the U.S.'s conduct in Central American during the Cold War.

But will Americans care? Watching "Justice and the Generals," one can't help but wonder how it will be received by an audience that is a decade away from the Salvador debacle and in the midst of the most patriotic (and pro-military) period in recent U.S. history. Pellett seems to know this, though. Her film casts a net beyond the two human rights cases addressed, to larger questions of conduct for military powers as different as El Salvador and the United States. And her story is not pretty.

The film is organized in two parts. The first follows Bill Ford, the brother of one of the murdered nuns, in his quest to discover the truth behind the killings. Ford is a hard-nosed, indefatigable sort, who rolls up his sleeves to sort through reams of State Department documents, the many censored sections of which he likens to "small black windows shades."

Sister Madeline Dorsey examines a victim.

"The State Department was interested in protecting its client state in El Salvador," says Ford. "They wanted this matter just swept aside as soon as possible." But Ford doesn't let them sweep it away. Even after the Salvadoran authorities arrested five National Guardsmen, he is shown plunging ahead, arguing to Congress that these low-level soldiers were trigger-men for higher-ups in the Salvadoran military. (Indeed, in the mid-1990s, declassified U.S government records revealed that the State Department withheld information pointing to higher-level involvement by the Salvadoran military in the murders.)

Next, Ford travels to El Salvador to talk to those who worked with his sister, Ita Ford, and her dead colleagues, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan. Ford concludes that the women were killed for allegedly aiding the poor, who were identified with Communist insurgents. Pellett spares no images here, cutting between Ford's commentary and video of the dead nuns being dragged from a common grave with their undergarments around their ankles. Also shown are images of the Salvadoran military shooting students in peaceful protest, bloody bodies left to rot on the side of the road and terrorized children.

Eventually, "Justice and Generals" follows Ford to Miami, where the two high-ranking Salvadoran generals accused of Ita Ford's murder have retired. By the time the film gets there, it is hard to not feel that the generals, Guillermo Garcia and Vides Cassanova, deserve harsh punishment. But history and circumstances get in the way. Ford's case is arbitrated not in El Salvador but in Miami, and it is decided not by a war tribunal, which would be more effective, but by a U.S. jury, composed of people largely unfamiliar with the history of El Salvador or human rights law. In the end, the trial clears the generals in the murder of the churchwomen, because "effective command" -- a stipulation of the Torture and Victim Protection Act under which the case was tried -- could not be proved.

Said one juror: "I know they [the generals] were responsible [for the murders of the churchwomen]. But I was faced with this point of law [effective command] I could not get past." Said another: "The plaintiff's evidence convinced us that they [the generals] didn't have control. The situation down there was total chaos."

The case will be retried later this year, but it is unclear how the outcome will be different. What is clear is that human rights law remains murky, and its application in U.S. courts murkier. Even if we have the Geneva Conventions and rules of war, governments do not abide by them. Pellett's point is that courts must, national or international. It is the only way human rights violations can be redressed.

Part two of the film is even more distressing than part one. It focuses on the Romagoza case, brought by four Salvadoran survivors of torture by the Salvadoran military. The case is also against Generals Garcia and Cassanova, and will be tried in Florida later this year.

Generals Casanova (left) and Garcia (right)

The testimonies by Juan Romagoza Arce, Neris Gonzales, Carlos Mauricio, and Jorge Montes show that the Salvadoran military went to diabolical lengths to terrorize those allegedly associated with anti-government militias. One plaintiff describes being raped with a metal device, which was then left in his anus for three days. Another testifies she was made to watch a man being hanged to death and was given electric shocks to her breast while pregnant, which caused her to miscarry.

Again the case will be tried under the Torture and Victim Protection Act, under which effective command by Generals Guillermo and Cassanova will have to be proved. Will this happen? And will the cases, as Pellett argues, set a precedent for the prosecution of other human rights atrocities?

According to Patty Blum, a University of California at Berkeley law professor, the future of human rights trials is being tested with these cases. "Some critics say these are foreign policy show trials," says Blum in the film. "Just an attempt to rehash old grievances about what the U.S. was and wasn't doing in Central America in the 1980s. I don't see them that way. The question of impunity -- of who will bear responsibility for human rights atrocities -- is part of a global legal movement."

"Justice and the Generals" is an extremely ambitious film. It looks at the spiral of the Salvadoran civil war, the U.S.'s engagement in it, two complicated human rights trials and the larger question of international human rights law. In the end, too much is packed into 90 minutes. But for those who want to learn something about all these issues, it is an excellent introduction.

More so, for those interested in cold war history, the film captures that era's insanity. "Justice and the Generals" illustrates how the cold war turned places like El Salvador into a bloody battlefield, with the "right" being armed by the U.S. and the "left" by the U.S.S.R. And it shows that the time has come to recast those 50 years of tension not so much as a cold war but as a schizoid war: cold in the nuclear north and blazing hot in much of the undeveloped south.

"Justice and the Generals" will premier on PBS on Feb. 21. Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.