Justice and the Generals

2002, 86 minutes
Director/Producer: Gail Pellett, 13/WNET New York
Distributed by First Run / Icarus Films

General Eugenio Vides Casanova, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, and their lawyer Kurt Klaus entering court in 2000. Photo: La Prensa Graffica.

Justice and the Generals: International Tribunals for Crimes Against Humanity

by Andrea Holley, Manager of Outreach and Public Education, Human Rights Watch

In December 1980, the bodies of four American missionary women working in El Salvador were discovered in a crude grave. The women – Catholic nuns Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan – were working in this particularly volatile country at a time of enormous upheaval. Justice and the Generals chronicles the fight of family members to bring those responsible for the murders to justice.

Justice and the Generals explores an extreme form of human rights abuse – arbitrary killings by the state. The execution of innocent civilians by state police or the military epitomizes why human rights organizations exist. The fundamental idea underpinning civil society is that when a state harms its own citizens, it is not a legitimate government.

The film presents a case study containing several twists on this phenomenon. It recounts a situation where the government of El Salvador executed Americans. The evidence suggests that those responsible for the killings were trained by the United States. Because this type of violence implies cooperation among states and across borders, human rights activists and lawyers invoke concepts of international justice. The specific law used to try former military officers from El Salvador in the U.S. is predicated on the principle that there are acts so grave as to be considered crimes against humanity, making them subject to prosecution anywhere in the world.

Presently, many people are working tirelessly towards establishing a functioning system of international justice in which finding, prosecuting and punishing human rights violators can take place. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague for this purpose. While cases taking place in individual countries such as the U.S. are very important, many human rights activists are devoted to promoting the existence of a standing international tribunal that can hear cases from all over the world.


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