“Impunity” is one of those words increasingly heard throughout the Americas and the world generally. Governments, Organized Crime, Corporations, The Church have increasingly become the beneficiaries of impunity–commission of violence, intimidation, stealing, and other acts normally considered “crimes” are made free from punishment, unpunished. The word is derived from the Latin impunitatem meaning “freedom from punishment, or from impunis “unpunished, without punishment.” (Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/impunity (accessed: August 14, 2007))
In virtually all countries where impunity thrives, there is a low tolerance for the rule of law –a principle on which the very definition of a modern state is based. Impunity is common as well in those states where the government’s judicial system is weak and where security forces are protected by their unique jurisdiction or authorized immunities. The Republic of Chile was ruled by General Augusto Pinochet from 1974 to 1990 exercising impunity against thousands of Chilean citizens who had been associated with President Salvador Allende and social justice causes. People were secretly taken from their homes and disappeared, tortured and killed without punishment for government officials committing such crimes. Argentina engaged in a similar reign of terror against its citizens. Peru’s government and the government of Columbia along with Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico all have periods–some of which continue today–when the powers of the state are used against individuals or groups of people in violation of human rights or in commission of murder and theft of property.
Mr. George Bush, President of the United States engaged in an act of impunity when in July 2007 he used his power as president to commute the 30 month prison sentence of former Assistant to the President Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Mr. Libby committed major federal crimes, and yet he avoids punishment in prison.
Corporations engage in similar practices when high ranking officials commit crimes against employees or against whole communities (i.e., financial scandals, environmental damage to health and property). Consider the impunity of Union Carbide’s extensive damage to the people of Bhopal, India after the terrible fire disaster of December 1984 and the results that plague the people there to this day.
The Catholic Church has also engaged in impunity when priests guilty of sexual violence against youthful parishioners have been simply hidden away or moved to another parish when their acts are uncovered. Though acts of priest pedophiles are covered up or vast amounts of parishioner funds are doled out to avoid jury trials.
Impunity is practiced most often in situations where the powerful mistreat the powerless. In Mexico the government arrested human rights activists in San Salvador Atenco–just outside Mexico City–where the local police tortured Pedro Alvarado and others for their involvement in protests. In Oaxaca, in May 2006 indigenous peoples were arrested a tortured. Again, government authorities were not punished for their violation of human rights laws. Similar acts against indigenous peoples are being carried out in the state of Guerrero where Indian people are attempting to prevent the decimation of the jungles. In Chiapas, Mexico as well, Indian people have been violently attacked by government forces, and no one is punished for crimes.
Lawlessness in states’ governments protects authoritarian rulers. Impunity is the means by which the powerful sustain their control over the powerless.
(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies
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