Salas v. United States – International Human Rights and Solidarity – CCR Docket 1994-1995

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a land­ mark ruling in October 1993, declaring that it would hear the merits of the claims of 285 Panamanian civilians who were victims of the 1989 U.S. invasion. The ruling requires the U.S., for the first time in history, to respond to allega­tions by ordinary citizens of gross human rights violations committed during U.S. armed intervention in Latin America.

The complaint, filed originally in 1990, sought an OAS ruling on the illegality of the invasion 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. Independent Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than 2000 civilians were killed-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 dis­ placed at least 18,000 Panamanians. Although some of the homeless were resettled, the 1991 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS, published in February 1992, stated, “…according to available information, there has been no redress at all to the families whose mem­bers were killed or wounded during the armed struggle.”

As the 1992 Human Rights Watch World Report commented, “The United States continues to refuse to pay repara­tions to the families of civilians killed during the fighting – even those killed because of the U.S. failure to give effec­tive advance warning to the civilian pop­ulation in a heavily populated zone, as required by the laws of war.”

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.

For more than two years CCR argued against the U.S. government’s attempts to deny the Commission’s jurisdiction and the admissibility of the case. The government also claimed that CCR had not exhausted domestic remedies to set­ tle the issue. In response, CCR pointed out that U.S. courts have consistently rejected any civilian claims.for combat­ related injuries or deaths. CCR also sub­mitted additional documents, including videotapes of exhumations of mass graves and an amicus brief by the International Law Clinic of the University of Iowa Law School which was signed by ten international law experts, including Burns Weston, Richard Falk, and Richard Lillich.

Jose Luis Morin, Sara E. Rios, Beth Stephens and Michael Ratner, with Gilma Camargo