Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, the Northern Triangle countries of Central America –El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala– face many similar challenges. Poverty, gangs, violence, corruption, organized crime. One of these challenges is weak judicial systems.
For as long as anyone can remember, judges in these countries, no matter how unqualified, have been selected through opaque processes which have benefited those with personal or political connections or the ability to curry favor. Attorneys General have often turned out to be corrupt and in cahoots with organized crime, or they have been harassed and threatened to the point that they have declined to pursue cases against powerful elites or have left the country out of fear for their own safety or that of their families.
But there are some signs that things are changing for the better. Today, each of these countries has an Attorney General who is working to end the history of impunity that has enabled almost anyone, including members of the police and armed forces, to get away with the most heinous crimes.
In Guatemala, Attorney General Thelma Aldana Hernandez; in El Salvador, Attorney General Douglas Melendez Ruiz; and in Honduras, Attorney General Oscar Fernando Chinchilla Banegas have each shown that they take seriously their responsibility to act with professionalism and impartiality in pursuit of justice. For doing so they have each faced attempts to thwart their efforts through intimidation and threats.
In the United States Congress we recognize the challenges and dangers they face and we strongly support them. No democracy can survive without a justice system that has the confidence and respect of the people. There is nothing more fundamental to a credible justice system than an independent judiciary and professionally trained prosecutors who are trustworthy. Equal access to justice is a necessity for all people, regardless of economic status, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or political affiliation.
It is in the interest of each of these Attorneys General to share best practices; to collectively reinforce the importance of investing in stronger judicial institutions; to develop a joint strategy for using their offices to help promote economic and social development and the rule of law; and to establish a regional mechanism for collecting and sharing information to support crime prevention, investigations, and prosecutions.
It is also critically important that they continue to work cooperatively with regional independent judicial institutions, like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Mr. President, before I was a Senator I was a prosecutor. I know the challenges of the job and that there is nothing more important for a prosecutor than having the respect, the trust, and the support of the people.
As a Senator I have long served as either the chairman or ranking member of our Judiciary Committee. I have strongly defended the principle of independence of the judiciary as a cornerstone of a democratic system of government. Judges should be selected transparently on the basis of professional qualifications, temperament, and integrity.
And as the chairman or ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds our foreign assistance programs I will continue to support Attorneys General who, like the three I have mentioned, have courageously demonstrated a commitment to upholding the rule of law.