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A Deafening Silence

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By Tom Gatehouse

Human rights should be a hot topic in Argentina. On the 20th April of this year, the country’s self-professed ‘last dictator,’ Reynaldo Bignone (pictured), was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, torture and murder. These atrocities were carried out under his orders whilst he was the head of the Campo de Mayo military base northwest of Buenos Aires. Bignone is now 82 years old, so unless for some reason his sentence is repealed or shortened, he is almost certain to die in prison.

In 2005 the Argentinean Supreme Court scrapped two laws that effectively granted a blanket amnesty to members of the armed forces involved in the repression of the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Since then, there has been a steady succession of human rights trials which are only now really starting to proceed with much urgency. Yet, curiously, this legal action does not seem to be met with any great enthusiasm by society. Many seem unaware it is even happening, and it does not receive much press coverage. Bignone’s sentence was widely reported, but then he had served as de facto president of Argentina from July 1982 until December 1983.

Even the trials of high-profile officers like those of the ESMA Navy Mechanics School, currently on trial in Buenos Aires for kidnapping, torture and forced disappearance, seem to be met with silence by large sections of the population, and the trial has not been widely reported in the mainstream press. ESMA, the most notorious clandestine detention centre, operated during the dictatorship, served as a makeshift prison, a torture centre, and the last port of call for those who were selected for the ‘death flights’, which consisted in the unfortunate passengers being chemically sedated and then thrown out of an aeroplane, either into the Rio de la Plata or into the South Atlantic. Today ESMA is a museum run collaboratively by the government and human rights groups.

Amongst the ex-officers involved in the ESMA trial is Alfredo Astiz (pictured), the infamous Ángel Rubio de la Muerte (‘The Blonde Angel of Death’). Astiz, according to the testimonies of his victims, approached them as a charming and handsome young man, posing as the son of one of the disappeared, in order to infiltrate groups such as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. He would win the trust of his victims, and identify those who were next to be abducted with kisses. Astiz is also wanted by France, Italy and Sweden on charges of the forced disappearance of their citizens in Argentina. In March 1990 a French court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for his role in the torture and disappearance of two French nuns.

There are human rights groups, such as Las Madres, and HIJOS, a group for the children of those imprisoned and disappeared by the military, who campaign tirelessly in favour of the human rights trials, and against the culture of silence and impunity that has prevailed in Argentina until fairly recently. These groups are unshakeable in their demand that those members of the military and state infrastructure that participated in the repression be held accountable for their crimes. They argue that the only way this issue can be concluded is with the incarceration of all those responsible. However, this conviction does not seem to be reflected in society as a whole. Why is this?

I put the question to Patrick Rice, an Irishman who returned to live in Buenos Aires in 1987 after several years out of the country, and has lived here ever since. Rice was a priest, is now an experienced human rights activist, and has first-hand experience of the repression inflicted on Argentina by the military. He was himself abducted in October 1976 and detained for several months, following his religious and social work in Villa Soldati, one of the poorest barrios in Buenos Aires. ‘There does seem to be more interest in the human rights trials from outside Argentina than within the country,’ he admits. ‘People are ashamed. There’s still a reluctance in Argentina to admit what really happened.’

The concept of shame is an important one here; for it is rarely, if ever, the case that a repressive government is the tyranny of the few inflicted upon a resistant and unwilling population. Governments, even those that seize power through undemocratic means, necessarily depend for their survival upon some element of popular support, a degree of complicity, and the still wider acquiescence of those who welcome the end and choose to ignore the means. And in Argentina, after a period of sustained financial chaos and increasing political violence in the early 1970s, the ‘steadying hand’ of the military was welcomed by many when it seized power in the coup d’etat of March 1976. This is not to say that the entirety of Argentinean society unreservedly submitted to almost eight years of military dictatorship. However, the relief felt by many helped to create the conditions in which it was possible for some of the worst excesses of the regime to occur.

Questions

After such a period of brutal and sustained state repression, how does a society proceed, after having inflicted so much violence upon itself? Since the return of democracy in 1983, Argentina has struggled to answer this question; a struggle which has been reflected in the contradictory actions and attitudes of successive presidents; Raúl Alfonsin (1983-89), who first prosecuted leading members of the Junta for crimes against humanity, and then later passed amnesty laws which effectively halted further prosecutions; Carlos Menem (1989-99), who pardoned the leading military figures jailed by Alfonsin in the interests of ‘national reconciliation’; and then, since 2003, the Kirchners, who have taken a much stronger and more aggressive approach on human rights, overturning the amnesty laws and pursuing those responsible for past atrocities.

This pursuit is met with indifference by some, with cynicism by others. The Kirchners are not popular in Argentina at the moment; many express the opinion that their emphasis on the human rights issue is nothing more than a political smokescreen, designed to divert attention from more pressing issues, such as the economy, corruption in state institutions, and, most of all, the crime rate. Many people I have spoken to, of both the younger and the older generation, lament the present security situation in Argentina and insist that it used not to be like this, ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Florencia, 22, a student, insists that the failure of the Kirchners to deal with the problem of violent crime is as serious a violation of human rights as the extreme, widespread and systematic abuses of the last dictatorship.

Then there are those who openly oppose the human rights trials. Eduardo Duhalde, interim president of Argentina from 2002-03, who will probably run for the presidency again in 2011, has called the trials a ‘witch-hunt.’ In October 2006 there was a large rally in Buenos Aires in protest at the overturning of the amnesty laws. Meanwhile, during the trials, the military figures in the dock have expressed astonishment at their predicament, asserting that really they should be lauded as national heroes. ‘When listening to the ex-military officials defending themselves, such as Astiz, Acosta and Pernía,’ writes Rice, ‘one realizes that they are totally convinced of what they did. They remain unrepentant and they are pleased that a significant part of society is in agreement with them.’

More worryingly, there are still some very dark forces at work in Argentina. An elderly witness in a high-profile human rights trial has the dubious honour of becoming the last of the disappeared – in 2006. The testimony of Julio López led to the conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, an ex-police chief responsible for kidnapping and torture in the city of La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires. López never got to witness the conviction of the man responsible for his abduction and torture, having vanished before the end of the trial. He has not been seen since and little hope remains that he will be found alive. Human rights groups accuse police and court officials with links to the dictatorship of stalling the investigation into his disappearance.

And as recently as March 29th this year, another key witness in the human rights trials was stabbed to death in her shop in the town of Rafaela in the province of Santa Fe. Silvia Suppo was just 17 when she was abducted by police in her hometown, detained, raped repeatedly and forced by her kidnappers to undergo an abortion, when they discovered she was pregnant. Her then-boyfriend was also abducted and is among the disappeared. In 2009, her testimony helped secure the conviction of a judge and five police officers, who were sentenced to jail terms of 18-23 years for crimes against humanity. Police in Santa Fe are claiming that Suppo’s murder was a violent robbery and have detained two men; however, relatives, fellow citizens, and human rights groups are urging the police to investigate further. Violent robberies are uncommon in Rafaela, a provincial town of 80,000 citizens, and even the vice-governor of the province has cast doubt on the police’s version of events.

The suspicion that state officials continue today to collude in the intimidation, disappearance, and murder of witnesses, raises another important and extremely difficult question. Many sectors of Argentinean society participated in the culture of repression under the dictatorship – the military, the police, the landowners, business, the government, the church and so on. Inevitably, therefore, the infrastructure of the Argentinean state is still permeated with people who have direct or indirect links to the repression. Upon assuming power in 2003 Néstor Kirchner  (pictured) forced the resignations of a number of the more prominent figures he considered tainted by their involvement, especially in the military. However, in order to purge Argentina completely, it would have been necessary to virtually dismantle large swathes of state infrastructure and build it up again from scratch. While the Kirchners – despite their other failings – should be applauded for the efforts they have made thus far, it is clear that more should have been done, and sooner.

The reason for this omission is the culture of impunity that has prevailed in Argentina for most of the 27 years that have elapsed since the return of democracy. Alfonsin got the new democracy off to a good start, creating the National Commission of the Disappearance of Persons shortly after his inauguration, and supporting the Trial of the Juntas in 1985. However, he must bear a large part of the responsibility for the subsequent frustration of justice, having overseen the passing of the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws in 1986 and 1987 respectively. These laws were criticised by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, who argued that they were used ‘to obstruct the investigation of thousands of cases of forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution committed between 1976 and 1983 when the military governments were in power.’

Rice agrees with this. ‘It’s necessary to recognise that the new democracies have been both conditioned and complicated by the doctrine of impunity,’ he writes. ‘Fortunately the situation is changing. It is a cultural battle that must be engaged with and won.’ This cultural battle is very present in Argentina; the dictatorship is the elephant in the room in everyday cultural and political discourse. It is present in, for example, the Kirchner’s longstanding feud with the Clarín media group, present in the establishment of the new Metropolitan Police of Buenos Aires, and present in Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s recent complaints about British handling of the Malvinas/Falklands issue. The shadow of the dictatorship is everywhere, but many don’t want to see it.

Excuses

When criticising the human rights trials, the supporters of the military claim that they are ‘divisive.’ Digging around in the past, they claim – with unconscious irony, given the ongoing exhumations of mass graves in many parts of Argentina – can only serve to inflame old tensions and resentments, that society must forgive and forget, try to heal old wounds, and most of all, aim for reconciliation. But, as the Nunca Más report (of Alfonsin’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) recognised back in 1984, ‘there can be no true reconciliation until the guilty repent and we have justice based on truth.’ The very idea of reconciliation is both inconceivable and absurd while rapists, kidnappers, torturers and murderers remain both unrepentant and at liberty, whether in Argentina or abroad.

Nora Cortiñas, one of the founders of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, argues likewise:
“We are here because we don’t forget, we don’t forgive, and we don’t reconcile. The struggle will continue for as long as necessary. Until they tell us what happened to each one of the women and men who were disappeared. Until all the children who were snatched from their detained mothers find out their true identity. Until all the killers are put in regular jails with life sentences. Until those murderers responsible for this genocide are truly punished. Until the dreams of the disappeared and everyone who continues to fight today for social justice come true.”

What is going on in Argentina at the moment has important consequences, not just for the future of Argentina itself, but for the future of the very concept of justice. Legal systems, not just in Argentina, but in almost all Western democracies, are simply not equipped to deal with situations such as the one that exists in Argentina today, as the concept of justice on which they are based is inadequate. We like to pretend that it operates according to timeless universal principles, but in reality it is still highly selective. In almost every case, and certainly in Argentina, the justice system was created by the rich and powerful to protect and further their own interests.

So when, such as in Argentina today, we find prominent members of established power structures at the mercy of a system which they once controlled, we finally begin to understand the full consequences of concepts like justice, universal human rights, international law, and universal jurisdiction for crimes so serious that they are deemed crimes against humanity. It is unfortunately the case that not just in Argentina, but around the world, the vast majority of those who repressed with the backing of their respective state during the 20th century escaped justice. It has taken Argentina the best part of 27 years, but now it finds itself, tentatively, anxiously, beginning to set a new precedent for justice in the 21st century.

Any opinions or viewpoints that are published herein are directly from the contributing author and does  not necessarily represent the philosophy or viewpoints of Latin America Bureau