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IV.1 Argentina and the heavy weight of the past: the dark years of the dictatorship

It is not possible to assess the role of Argentina in the Human Rights Council without considering its recent past. Since the mid-1970’s until the present, Argentina has, for better or worse, played a significant role in the universal human rights system. Following a period of turbulent violence and deep political and economic instability under the Presidency of Maria Estela Martinez de Peron (1974-1976), during which serious crimes were committed by both violent groups and State officials, a Military Junta took power on 24 March 1976.

This was not an exceptional situation in the country where, since 1930, there had been a succession of military regimes combined with periods of democratic Governments.[1] At the time, the existence of military regimes was not a rare feature in the political scene of Latin America either. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of countries in the region were under military rule or immersed in a civil war, for at least a period of time. There are many examples in South America, including the Paraguayan military dictatorship which began in 1954 and other military regimes established in Ecuador (1963), Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1964), Peru (1968), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973) and Argentina (1976). In Central America, for instance, there were longstanding military regimes in Nicaragua (1937) and Guatemala (1954) and other military experiences in El Salvador (1961) and Honduras (1963). As in the case of Argentina, a number of these countries have experienced a series of military Governments throughout their history.[2]

In any case, the spread of these regimes throughout several Latin American and Caribbean countries during that period was in part the consequence of a worldwide geopolitical division between the West and the East under the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, as well as the impact of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Indeed, these regimes were thought to contribute to security in the continent.

Tragically, the last Argentine dictatorship, which extended until 1983, was the most terrible dictatorship in the history of the country. In the name of the fight against terrorism, the Armed Forces committed gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearances; illegal deprivation of liberty in secret detention centers; torture; sexual offences; illegal executions; and appropriation of children who were born in captivity. Victims of these violations included, inter alia, members of often violent political groups, but also trade unionists, member of student unions, nuns and priests from poor areas, some professionals from certain disciplines considered suspicious, and friends or acquaintances of these people, among others.[3]

In any case, the systematic practice of enforced disappearances was the most characteristic crime of the dictatorship. Soon, families, friends and lawyers started searching for the disappeared using the police, the judicial system and even petitioning to the military authorities. They needed to know the truth about what had happened. It was to be a lengthy search and, later, would transform into a long fight for truth and justice for the disappeared, who, in too many cases, never re-appeared.

IV.1.1 The important role of the Argentine human rights movement. The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo

From the mid-1970s, the Argentine human rights movement developed in the tragic context of a nation characterized by deep political violence. It was led by lawyers and relatives of victims of political detention and enforced disappearances. Prior to the dictatorship, there were some human rights organizations such as the Argentine League for the Rights of Man (Argentine League) established as early as 1937; the Service for Peace and Human Rights (SERPAJ), created in 1974; and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), set up in 1975. Soon, these non-governmental organizations started to denounce human rights violations which were being committed by the regime.

In the case of the victims and their relatives, the first organization was called “Families of detainees and disappeared persons for political reasons”. It began forming in the context of the political turmoil and violence that preceded the months before the beginning of the dictatorship, during the first months of 1976, with members in different provinces of the country.[4] The APDH, the Argentine League, the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, and the Organization of Families of Detainees and Disappeared Persons for Political Reasons started to produce lists of persons who disappeared after 1975 and tried to disseminate the information abroad as much as possible.[5]

In 1977, a group of mothers started their difficult and terribly sad journey to discover the fate of their children. To begin with there were only fourteen members, but the group soon grew in number and importance. After unsuccessful meetings with national authorities from the military regime, they started to gather once a week around Plaza de Mayo, the main square of Buenos Aires, located just across from the Presidential Palace. Soon they were known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and became an icon of the fight against enforced disappearances, not only in the country, but also in the rest of the world. Indeed, their headscarves soon became a worldwide symbol of resistance to oppression.

During 1978 and 1979, the Mothers were put under a lot of pressure and there were threats, arrests and even the disappearance of the President of the Mothers at the time, Azucena Villaflor. These obstacles did not stop them. In August 1979, the Mothers finally registered as an association. Gradually, they coordinated their efforts with other mothers who shared the same struggle in different provinces of the country.[6]

Encouraged by the enormous courage and persistence of the Mothers, by the end of 1977, another non-governmental human rights organization of women searching for the truth about their relatives had been established: the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. According to “Nunca Más”, the famous report prepared by a commission at the return of democracy, approximately 30 percent of the disappeared were women, and three percent of these women were pregnant at the time they were abducted by the military. These grandmothers were looking for their grandchildren, who disappeared with their daughters during the dictatorship.[7]

During the tragic years of the dictatorship, new human rights NGOs were also created, notably the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which was founded in 1979 and undertook significant work against the crimes committed by the dictatorship, which continues even today.[8]

The situation of the disappeared was not only raised internally but also abroad. The Argentines who were able to escape denounced the situation of gross human rights violations in different countries. There are numerous examples, such as the Argentine Commission for Human Rights and the Group of Argentine Lawyers Exiled in France. Some international NGOs also helped to denounce the situation.[9]

In this regard, Amnesty International conducted a mission to the country in 1976 and issued a strong report in 1977.[10] The International Federation of Human Rights also sent a mission in January 1978, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights visited the country in April 1979. For its part, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) issued reports on the situation, and other human rights organizations, such as Pax Christi, made public what was happening in the South American country during that period.[11]

The courageous work of these organizations—particularly the ones that were in Argentina, where the level of repression was terribly high and the threat to their own lives and integrity was a distinct reality—undoubtedly helped in a significant way to make the situation known at the international level, including in the UN.

Once democracy was restored in 1983, the NGOs continued fighting to ensure truth and justice for the victims of the gross human rights violations committed during the period 1976-1983. In 1986, Mothers split in two groups: Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Moreover, new NGOs were created at a later stage, which continued to fight against impunity, such as Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silencing (HIJOS), founded in 1995.

Part of the uniqueness of the Argentine case is that early on NGOs realized the importance of having legal means to challenge the amnesty laws—which were adopted during the democratic era—and to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice. The cohesiveness of national NGOs and the high level of professionalization of human rights activists, lawyers and experts helped to remove significant obstacles, as we will see below.

IV.1.2 The Argentine case in the universal human rights system

While these developments were taking place in Argentina and in the rest of Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Commission on Human Rights, at the center of the universal human rights system, after having focused mostly on international law-making during its first two decades, decided to finally broaden its mandate so as to deal with human rights violations committed in specific countries.

As described above, the development of non-conventional mechanisms dealing with specific human rights violations started towards the end of the 1960s. The first one was established under ECOSOC Resolution 1235 in 1967 to publicly gather and study information on grave human rights situations such as Apartheid. The second one was established in 1970 under ECOSOC Resolution 1503 in order to address, in a confidential process, consistent patterns of gross human rights violations, which could eventually be considered in a public setting.[12]

Non-conventional mechanisms of the Commission were soon put to the test by the military regimes of Latin America, including those from Chile and Argentina. This should come as no surprise: Chile’s Pinochet regime and the Argentine Military Junta are notorious worldwide even today, and their methods were particularly brutal. These dictatorships justified their actions and their own existence,[13] but the treatment of both countries in the universal human rights system was, however, significantly different.

Following the military coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, the Commission reacted rather quickly and established one of the first country mandates in history to deal with the human rights situation in a specific country. The mandate lasted from 1975 to 1979 and had different formats: i.e. a Working Group, later replaced by a Special Rapporteur accompanied by two experts who studied the phenomenon of missing persons in the country.[14]

In the case of Argentina, the Junta had the chance to learn from its neighbor’s experience, and the dictatorship attempted to counteract an international campaign for human rights in the country. It also had a complex and strategic political and economic relationship with the Great Powers that worked in its favor. All these factors have been thoroughly and extensively analyzed and exceed the scope of this study.[15]

Maria Luisa Bartolomei conducted an in-depth study of the Argentine case in the 1503 Procedure. She mentions that after the Argentine Coup in 1976, many communications were received by the UN and sent to the former Sub-Commission under the 1503 Procedure. The Sub-Commission expressed its concern quite early on, in 1976, by adopting a resolution in August of that year.[16] Nevertheless, except for a few statements in plenary, there was a significant delay in the inter-governmental treatment of the Argentine situation in the Commission during the critical years of 1977-1980. The Argentine Junta was also under pressure from specific countries due to paradigmatic cases of disappeared persons of other nationalities, such as the French nuns, Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, as well as the murder of the young Argentine-Swede, Dagmar Hagelin.[17] In this context, a number of Argentines were able to save their lives thanks to the intervention of other countries. The Carter Administration, which governed the US between 1976 and 1980 and emphasized human rights as a key foreign policy, managed to help a few people and also adopted specific measures in relation to Latin American countries, including Argentina, to try to influence changes in human rights.

Nonetheless, at the UN level, the Commission neither established a mandate like the one on Chile nor followed the public procedure established under Resolution 1235. As a consequence, the only available option for NGOs and victims was the 1503 Procedure, and they decided to use it. According to Bartolomei, it was only in 1979 that the Working Group on Communications of this procedure finally agreed to send a number of communications of human rights violations in Argentina for the consideration of the plenary of the Sub-Commission. In the session of that same year, the Sub-Commission decided to transmit these communications to the consideration of the members of the Working Group on Situations at the Commission, which decided to consider the Argentine case in 1980. These communications were processed by the Commission between 1980 and 1984, and during those years the Argentine Government responded to allegations made in this confidential procedure.[18]

Bartolomei also indicated that the Working Group on Situations transmitted the case to the plenary of the Commission the same year it received them, in 1980. The Commission discussed the gravity of the situation in a confidential manner, decided to keep the cases under review and requested further cooperation from Argentina. That same year, although there was opposition from Argentina, the Commission was able to create the first thematic mandate of the Commission, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, described in depth above. This was a mandate that could address any case in the world, but it was clearly established to address the Argentine case. This situation reflected the intense work of Argentina in the Commission during the dictatorship and the political support provided to the regime by powerful countries.[19] Bartolomei also indicates that between 1981 and 1984, several new communications were processed, but after the restoration of democratic institutions in Argentina in late 1983, the Commission welcomed changes in Argentina and decided to discontinue the matter. Later, Raul Alfonsín, the first President elected in the country since the restoration of democracy, requested that the material on the national case under the 1503 Procedure be published.[20]

The 1503 Procedure proved to be a slow, complex and confidential tool for dealing with gross human rights violations in the case of Argentina. By the time it began to consider the communications, the vast majority of enforced disappearances had already been committed. Upon the return of democracy, there was a political decision by the UN to dismiss the case. This decision has been criticized from a human rights perspective because there were no assurances of what the Alfonsín Administration would or could do regarding human rights violations committed during the military regime.[21]

I agree with Bartolomei in the sense that if we compare the 1503 Procedure with the work of the Inter-American Commission, the lack of effectiveness of the UN mechanism is much more evident. The famous 1980 report of the Inter-American Commission as a corollary to its visit to Argentina the previous year benefited from on-site information. What is more, the visit and the report helped bring about a change in the human rights situation on the ground. After the visit and the issuance of the report, the number of disappearances seemed to have significantly decreased.[22]

In sum, for a long period of time, Argentina’s role in the UN Commission on Human Rights was far from being exemplary. On the contrary, although it was not an isolated case in the region, all gross human rights violations committed during the 1970s in this specific South American country left an indelible mark on the universal human rights system. Indeed, the very concept of enforced disappearances, the rights to the truth and justice after gross human rights violations or serious violations of IHL, the work of the Argentine forensic team in identifying victims, the efforts to search for the children of the disappeared who were born in captivity and later illegally abducted and adopted or “appropriated” by families linked to the Armed Forces, and the tireless efforts and courage of families of victims and NGOs are facts that are widely linked to Argentina at the international level.

Measures taken to solve this tragic past are still being taken at the national level, notably through the judicial system. It has been a long path, in which, during the first two decades of a young and at first vulnerable democracy that began in 1983, there were moments of progress and setbacks.

  1. Potash, Robert A., The Army and Politics in Argentina, 1928-1945: Yrigoyen to Perón, Stanford University Press, 1969. See also Potash, Robert A., The Army and Politics in Argentina, 1945-1962: Perón to Frondizi, Stanford University Press, 1980; Potash, Robert A., The Army and Politics in Argentina, 1962–1973: From Frondizi’s Fall to the Peronist Restoration, Stanford University Press, 1996.
  2. Skaar, Elin, “Judicial independence and human rights in Latin America”, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, page 2.
  3. “Nunca Más”, Report of CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), 1984, Part II, “The Victims.” See also, Prologue.
  4. Familiares de desaparecidos y detenidos por razones políticas, “Breve Historia de Familiares”, available at: https://bit.ly/2GVUkqp.
  5. Amnesty International, “The Military Juntas and Human Rights”, 1978, pages 2-5, in Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 94-95.
  6. Fisher, Jo., Mothers of the disappeared, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1989, pages 52-93.
  7. CONADEP, Nunca Más report, Ibid, Chapter II, “The Victims. The disappeared according to the victims”.
  8. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, “ESMA IV. Pedimos condenas para los nueve imputados”, 11 June 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3kxwsHu.
  9. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, page 95.
  10. Amnesty International, Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Argentina. 6-15 November 1976, Amnesty International Publications, Great Britain, March 1977, available at: https://bit.ly/32VvM8T.
  11. See in this regard, Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, page 95.
  12. See in this regard Chapter I.2.1.5 (“The development of non-conventional mechanisms: thematic and country mandates”) of the present work.
  13. See “Acta de Constitución de la Junta de Gobierno. Decreto Ley Número 1”, Santiago de Chile, 11 September 1973, available at: https://bit.ly/3fEYCRQ. See also Junta Militar Argentina, “Documentos básicos y bases políticas de las Fuerzas Armadas para el Proceso de Reorganización Nacional”, Buenos Aires, 1980, available at: https://bit.ly/2R3dwan.
  14. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 97-98.
  15. Wright, Thomas C, State terrorism in Latin America. Chile, Argentina and International Human Rights, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK, 2007. See also Schmidli, William Michael, The fate of freedom elsewhere. Human Rights and US Cold War Policy toward Argentina, Cornell University Press, USA, 2013; Heinz, Wolfgang S. et al., Determinants of gross human rights violations by State and State-sponsored actors in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, 1960-1990, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague, Boston, London, 1999.
  16. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 97-98.
  17. Piñero, Maria Teresa, “Las respuestas de la dictadura argentina a las denuncias en el ámbito internacional. Una mirada desde los archivos desclasificados de la Cancillería”.
  18. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 98-113.
  19. Guest, Iaian, Behind the disappearances, Argentina’s dirty war against human rights and the United Nations, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. See also, Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 114-119.
  20. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 137-185.
  21. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 186-198.
  22. Bartolomei, Maria Luisa, Gross and Massive Violations…, Ibid, pages 276-280.

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