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Memory, truth, justice

Publication Date : 19-08-2014


 ‘Disappeared’ are those who are not dead; not even missing. Some 30 years after the ‘Dirty War’ (1976-82), Argentina is yet to bring to an end the national trauma of an estimated 30,000 ‘disappeared’.

Enforced disappearance is the very denial of a person who, otherwise, is not there. As thousands were plucked away live from homes and workplaces, the State remained in flat denial.

The military regime had enveloped itself with impunity; the ‘disappeared’ and their families had no legal protection. The ‘Dirty War’ was conducted in clandestine; those who searched for the ‘disappeared’, often themselves disappeared. Such were the heights of impunity and the depths of popular apathy.

Known for their English-cut suits and European aristocratic living-style, Argentine generals had staged a coup in 1976 to rid the country of (Communist) ‘subversives’ who, in their estimation, threatened the ‘Western, Christian civilisation’ of their country.

Historians are hard put to explain certain aspects - Juan Domingo Peron had left behind a divisive legacy upon his death in 1974; radicalised urban guerrillas, the Montoneros, and the rival anti-communist squads fought it out in the open; and repression was a legitimate tool for military regimes building internal security states throughout the South Cone countries.

One may even lap up the argument of the Cold War: Jean Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State under President Reagan (1980-88) had declared authoritarian regimes a useful ally in the USA’s global war against ‘totalitarianism’; and ‘Operation Condor’, a trans-border programme of covert operations to kidnap and kill ‘subversives’ had been on with US assistance for years in Cono Sur.

Whatever it might have been, certainly there was no possibility of a political upheaval, much less of a revolution when the military deposed President Isabel Peron had set in motion the ‘process to reorganise the nation’ - a euphemism for the ‘Dirty War’. 

The  Argentine military had planned and plotted for years the scale of human killing; when in power, the preferred mode was ‘disappearance’. To the extent that the word ‘disappeared’ finds mention again, since the Second World War, in the annals of crimes against humanity.

The ‘Dirty War’ did end abruptly but only with the defeat of Argentina in the Malvinas/Falklands war in 1982 and the ignominy of a chaotic military withdrawal from power next year.

‘Transitional justice’ is all about approaches on how to deal with the ‘memory’ of a repressive past. Empirical evidence suggests that societies in transition from a violent past remain by and large disturbed and reconciled, they remain between the overlapping, often conflicting, demands for peace and reconciliation on the one hand and truth and justice on the other. Not that these are mutually exclusive goals.

In reality, the scope and scale of justice and reconciliation weigh differently and vary over time in these societies, determined by the ineluctability of domestic politics and international geopolitics. The trajectory of truth and justice in Argentina however raises hopes for a democratic peace and reconciliation. What use is justice for the ‘disappeared?’ was the question the ‘transition’ democracy faced in 1984; ‘it being so late in the day?’ is added now by many Argentines.

Jorge Luis Borges had clarified the task before the nation when, on the eve of the first trial of the military junta in 1985, he stated that it is not a matter of revenge or of reconciliation; rather to not judge and to not condemn the crime of ‘disappearance’ would be to foster impunity and, worse, become an accomplice.

Bowing to the imperative of justice, the first democratically-elected President, Raul Alfonsin (1983-88), weighed in for truth and justice over peace and reconciliation.

Nunca Mas (‘Never Again’), the 7-volume report by the National Commission about the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep), gave a fairly truthful account of clandestine state terrorism; and, thus, liberated the nation of the military’s version of ‘truth’. Argentines could now tell the future generations of ‘What had happened?’ Nunca Mas had recommended judicial trials for justice.

In a move of limited retribution, all the top nine commanders under the three military regimes were put on trial before a military court. General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera were sentenced to life in jail; others were awarded lesser punishments or plain acquittals.

Truth commissions have become standard tools to deal with the ‘past’. Their emergence in contemporary times marks a normative turn towards ethical goals, such as collective healing, and norms setting, for instance justice for the victims of human rights violations.

The significance of Conadep, the first-ever truth commission since the Nuremburg trials, is that somewhat like the Tribunal set up after the Second World War, Conadep went in for a historical inquiry to establish the ‘truth’ and set out to deliver both preventive and retributive justice, i.e. to foreclose the reversal to the culture of impunity forever through the judicial process of justice.

More significant, Conadep created a judicial precedent on state sanctioned atrocities, again since the Nuremburg trials, and this achievement is its singular contribution to the evolution of international humanitarian law concerning human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

An apology, a memorial, inter-ethnic dialogue, compensation and rehabilitation, etc. are all part of reparative justice; Argentina also has had them all since 2003, albeit with insistence on the judicial process for justice. 

The Argentine  trajectory also highlights the pitfalls in the quest for truth and justice. Alfonsin had faced serial barrack revolts and threats of military reprisals. He retracted from justice so as to save the ‘transition’ democracy with his Punto Final (Full Stop) and ‘due obedience’ laws in 1985 and 1986. The first brought an end to all trial and the latter immunised all lower rank officials of responsibility for any wrongdoings.

For the staunch neoliberal President Carlos Menem (1989-99), truth and justice were commodities tradable in the economic market place. He needed the support of the far right, the Church and the big business for his neoliberal agenda of instantly transforming Argentina into a First World economy and a ‘great’ power within the US-led ‘Western, Christian civilisational’ order. Pursuant, he pardoned all, arguing that fruits of growth and electoral democracy would automatically usher in peace and reconciliation.

It is the civil society, particularly the Maddres de Plaza de Mayo and the juridical fraternity, which kept the issue of justice alive. An important question was raised in the 1990s: Is Right to Truth part of the universal human rights?

Argentine courts determined that human rights violations are crimes - taking the cue from an old Argentine law. Notwithstanding the ban on trials, civilian courts had some 2000 admitted against some 650 security personnel for kidnapping and killing and had ordered investigations to establish the ‘truth’.

These ‘truth trials’ had amassed massive evidence but without any prosecution when President Nestor Kirchner resolved to revisit the ‘Dirty War’ in 2003. Also, many of the ‘disappeared’ had returned ~ some 500 kidnapped ‘babies’, alive and now grown-ups, demanded reunion with their biological parents.

Those on board the ‘death flights’, who were regularly administered confession and drugs before being dropped alive in the icy waters of South Atlantic, returned too - as bodies washed ashore.

Today, Argentina has become a world leader in forensic archaeology as thousands of skeletons and bones, dug out from mass graves in the provinces of Buenos Aires,

Tucuman and Cordoba, are yet to be identified and administered justice. Argentine Congress in 2003 and the federal Supreme Court in 2005 finally annulled all laws on immunity and pardon and ordered judicial trials, now en masse.

Can Argentina deal with a future, with a morbid past?  The trials have made. Argentina the only country in the world to have systematically tried crimes against humanity on such a large scale. The country observes March 24 - the eve of the 1976 military coup - as the National Day, significantly in the order of Memory, Truth and Justice.

(The writer is a professor, Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)


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