“The ones, who have a voice, must speak for those who are voiceless,” Oscar Romero
It is at a time when impunity, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, poverty alleviation and reconciliation are being repeatedly highlighted on the campaign trail that we turn the spotlight today on the life and legacy of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and what led to his brutal murder on March 24, 1980 at the age of 62 by an ‘unknown assassin’ in his cathedral at El Salvador. The first anniversary of his canonisation as a saint by Pope Francis was marked on October 14, 2019.
Archbishop Romero was a relentless fighter for the human rights of an oppressed people. He refused to bow down or wilt in the presence of State power, fearlessly sided with his flock and pointed out that their enforced poverty and their landlessness was not the will of God and that it should be resisted. At the ceremony of canonisation, Pope Francis praised the El Salvador Archbishop as an advocate for peace during El Salvador’s civil war -- for sacrificing his own safety to be “close to the poor and his people”.
In recognition of the role played by Archbishop Oscar Romero in the defence of human rights of the most vulnerable segment of society in El Salvador, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on December 10, 2010 proclaimed March 24 as the “International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims”. Romero actively denounced the violation of human rights and defended the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposing all forms of violence.
The UNGA said the right to the truth is often invoked in the context of gross violations of human rights and grave breaches of humanitarian law. The relatives of victims of summary executions, enforced disappearance, missing persons, abducted children, torture; need to know what happened to them. The right to the truth implies knowing the full and complete truth as to the events that transpired, their specific circumstances, and who participated in them, including knowing the circumstances in which the violations took place, as well as the reasons for them.
The day is also set aside to honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and underscores the importance of the right to truth and justice and pays tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect the human rights of all, the UNGA says.
Oscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917 to a family of six boys and two girls. He was ordained a priest at the age 25, a bishop in 1970 and later appointed Archbishop of San Salvador with the responsibility of shepherding the Catholic Church in all of El Salvador. As bishop and then as archbishop he exercised his option for the poor landless peasants and the marginalised in the vastly poverty-stricken El Salvador where the government’s economic policies made the poor, poorer and the rich ruling elite richer.
In one of his homilies he said, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to the cross. We preach only the violence we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and overcome inequalities among us; this is the violence of love and fraternity, the violence that chooses to beat weapons into plowshares.”
Two weeks before his assassination, Archbishop Romero, in a plea to US President Jimmy Carter, urged him to defend human rights and guarantee that his government would not apply direct or indirect pressure through military, economic or diplomatic channels to undermine the fate of the Salvadorians.
In another homily, speaking to the army, he said, “Brothers, you are a part of our own people. You are killing your brother and sister campesinos, and against any order a man may give to kill, God’s law, “You shall not kill” must prevail. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the Law of God. No one has to observe an immoral law. It is time for you to reclaim your conscience and obey it rather than the command to sin. In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise up each day more tumultuously towards heaven, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression”.
He was shot dead the next day, but his spirit and legacy lives on encouraging those who fight for justice and the rights of the poor and powerless so that they could live with dignity, freed from all forms of oppression.