Salas v. United States – International Human Rights and Solidarity – CCR Docket Fall 1997

Despite expectations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) did not rule in October 1996 on the longstanding claims brought by CCR for 272 Panamanian civilian victims of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

In the fall, CCR attorneys received oral information from the Commission that it had had “no time” to decide on the merits of the case. CCR wrote to the commission expressing consternation that the delay was causing continuing violations of human rights and reminding them that José Salas and other plaintiffs had died while awaiting a decision. (Salas was the father of a young woman killed in the invasion.) The Commission’s failure to rule sparked a demonstration in Panama, and Latin American organizations demanded that it issue a decision promptly.

A decision had been anticipated in February 1996 but was delayed at the request of the U.S., which claimed insufficient time to prepare a defense. Two months later, some of the Panamanian plaintiffs held a seven-day vigil in front of the OAS General Assembly meeting place.

Two evidentiary hearings were held in 1995: at the first, in February 1995, attorneys, international human rights  experts and witnesses presented evidence outlining the illegality and disproportionate force of the U, S. invasion, and devastation visited upon the civilian population of Panama  by U.S. firepower and bombs. At the second, in September 1995, Panamanian witnesses gave evidence about how U.S. authorities disposed  of bodies killed in the invasion.

Both of these evidentiary hearings are highly unusual in the typical OAS process, which normally takes place over a very short time span and rarely included the presentation of expert testimony.

The original complaint, filed in 1990, a year after the U.S. invasion, sought an OAS ruling that the invasion was illegal under international law, compensation for the illegal intervention and human rights violations, and a thorough, independent investigation of all damages to Panama and its people.

For more than two years the U.S. government tried to deny the commission’s jurisdiction and admissibility of the case, but the OAS Commission issued a landmark ruling in October 1993, declaring that it would hear the merits  of the claims of civilian victims of U.S. force. This ruling required the U.S., for the first time in history, to respond to allegations by ordinary citizens of gross human rights violations committed during the U.S. armed intervention in Latin America.

During the course of this case; the Argentine Forensics Team made efforts to unearth bodies in Panama. Known for their identification of the “disappeared” in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” the Argentineans hoped to identify long-suspected mass graves, in itself a serious violation of human rights, and begin the process of identifying individual victims. But when the government of Panama finally issued a limited permit for one site only, heavy rains prevented the team for opening the gravesite at the Pacora cemetery, outside Panama City. Since then the further search for graves has been delayed due to the lack of funds to cover the expenses of the team. However, Panamanians still continue to provide clues as to the whereabouts of the mass graves.

Independent Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than 2,000 civilians were killed in the invasion–many buried in common graves containing hundreds of corpses–and many thousands wounded during the invasion, which violated the integrity, sovereignty, and self-determination of Panama. The U.S. military destruction of residential areas displaced  at least 18,000 Panamanians.

Plaintiffs include relatives of Dionisia Salas who was killed  by U.S. rocket fire in her home as she prepared a meal for her family., and relatives of Elizabeth Ramos Rudas, a 23-year-old civil engineering student killed the night of the invasion, whose corpse was discovered weeks later in a mass grave at the Jardin de Paz Cemetery in Panama City.

Gilma Camargo, José Luis Morin, Sara E. Rios, Mary Boresz Pike, Peter Weiss, Beth Stephens, Michael Ratner