A military rebel group takes power through a bloody civil war and imposes a dictatorship. Over 100,000 people are "disappeared," the great majority in unmarked mass graves which still litter the country today. In the country's transition to democracy, an Amnesty Law is passed covering crimes "of a political nature."
Decades later, the children of the disappeared break their silence and come forward to find out what happened to their parents and to demand justice. A judge takes up their complaints and begins to investigate. The investigation is stopped by higher courts and the judge himself is prosecuted on the criminal charge of failing to apply the Amnesty Law.
The country, Madam Chairperson, is Spain, and the judge is Baltasar Garzón. Although Garzón was not convicted on this charge, the Spanish Supreme Court upheld the Amnesty Law as applied to the crimes committed under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and the country's civil war which preceded it. The Court's ruling effectively cuts off any judicial avenue for redress for the crimes of Spain's past.
Under international law, governments have an obligation to provide victims of human rights abuses with an effective remedy - including justice, truth, and adequate reparations - after they suffer a violation. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that governments have an obligation "to ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms are violated shall have an effective remedy."
In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee called on Spain to repeal the 1977 Amnesty Law and to ensure that domestic courts do not apply limitation periods to crimes against humanity. The European Court of Human Rights held in 2009, as a general principle, that an amnesty law is generally incompatible with states' duty to investigate acts of torture or barbarity.
The world owes a debt to the Spanish judiciary and to judge Garzón in particular. Thanks to his work in cases concerning Chile and Argentina, a justice cascade brought down walls of impunity around the world. Amnesty laws in country after country were struck down and victims found paths to justice. What an irony that Spain could not apply the same principles at home.
Spain should repeal its Amnesty Law and assist the families of Franco's victims in their long quest for truth and justice.