Archbishop Romero, Northern Ireland and the Right to the Truth

The United Nations has declared today (24th March) as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning gross human rights violations and for the dignity of victims.

One of the purposes of the Day is to honour the memory of victims of human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice. It was declared, in part, to recognise the work and values of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was shot dead while celebrating Mass on this day in 1980, after denouncing violations of human rights in his home country.

One month before his assassination, he addressed an open letter to President Jimmy Carter in which he called upon the United States to discontinue military aid to the Salvadorean regime. “We are fed up with weapons and bullets,” he pleaded.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said:

The right to the truth is both an individual and a collective right. Each victim has the right to know the truth about violations against them, but the truth also has to be told more widely as a safeguard to prevent violations from happening again.

The messages of both Romero and Ban Ki-Moon could have been tailor-made for Northern Ireland.

Our conflict claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people and injured a further 40,000. In most cases, no one has ever been held responsible and future generations are being bequeathed an argument about what really went on.
Over the last decade a patchwork of measures has failed to establish the full truth about the violations and abuses of the past and left many victims waiting for justice (read Amnesty’s full report from September 2013).

The row over the “on the runs” scheme shows precisely why a new comprehensive approach to the past – rather than the fragmented, piecemeal approach adopted to date – is needed in order for victims of human rights abuses and violations to secure truth and justice.

The persistent failure to put in place proper truth and justice mechanisms is, above all, a failure of political will. 
International Day for the Right to the Truth is a good occasion on which to call on all our political leaders to get back around the talks table, for the sake of all victims and wider society in Northern Ireland. It may require courage. It may be painful. But it is absolutely necessary.

As Archbishop Romero himself wrote:

No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.