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IV.3 A positive change
in the 21st century

The impact of Argentina on the fight against impunity at the international level

Following the dramatic experience during part of the 1970s and 1980s, more than thirty-five years after the return to democracy in 1983, Argentina adopted an enormous quantity of legislative, judicial and administrative measures to tackle impunity for past human rights violations. It was a difficult process involving progress and setbacks. Through a long and arduous process, Argentina found its own way to successfully deal with its past and fight against impunity, setting historic precedents with many of the decisions taken. It created one of the first truth commissions in the world to publish a report, and it was the first country in the region and the third in the world—after the Nuremberg Trials of and the trials in Greece in the 1970s—to bring perpetrators of gross human rights violations to justice.

The final judicial decision in the Trial of the Juntas was limited to the responsibility of nine members of the Military Junta and to a series of events which could be clearly proved, thus excluding a significant number of perpetrators and crimes against humanity committed during that period. Nevertheless, the trial itself and its outcome—the judicial decision convicting some of the military leaders for terrible crimes—made history and had an important media impact all around the world. [1]

The amnesty laws adopted in 1986 and 1987 and later the pardon decrees represented a significant setback, which allowed impunity for all the heinous crimes committed by the dictatorship. This sad precedent was carefully followed by its Latin American neighbors, which were still governed in many cases by military regimes. Indeed, following the Argentine path, 16 Latin American countries adopted amnesties to prevent the destabilization of their new democracies.[2]

Nonetheless, the Argentine human rights movement contributed both internally and abroad to the fight against impunity. The truth trials and the reparation laws were the result of their tireless efforts, with the essential contribution of the Inter-American system.

Moreover, the Grandmothers, together with the State through CONADI and the Genetic Data Bank, made a special contribution to the human rights field through the use of forensic genetics to search for children who had been appropriated and their identity suppressed. It was also a technique used in human rights trials to identify the remains of some of the victims who had disappeared. The technique was used and developed by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which set a significant worldwide precedent in the context of gross human rights violations. This team later worked in a significant number of countries around the world.[3]

Since the turn of the century, in 2003, the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches all adopted measures that helped to fight against impunity for crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship and, thus, all cases that had been previously closed were re-opened. Argentine courts are still investigating some of them. National jurisprudence made a progressive interpretation of international human rights law so as to finally hold accountable all those responsible for gross human rights violations. This tendency was replicated in other countries of the region, such as Chile and Peru. Indeed, judges abandoned long-standing criminal criteria applicable to ordinary cases—including the principles of legality, statute of limitations and non-retroactivity—and embraced creative interpretations of the National Constitution and international human rights law in order to adjudicate many complex cases of crimes against humanity.[4]

In conclusion, at the turn of the century, the South American country was able to make a very significant, successful change that decisively contributed towards combatting impunity for gross human rights violations. It was only then that Argentina had strong international legitimacy and was ready to take on a leading role, helping to set norms and standards on issues closely related to its past but also to its present and future.

  1. Skaar, Elin, Judicial independence and human rights in Latin America, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, page 3.
  2. González Ocampo, Ezequiel, Shifting legal vision…, Ibid, page 3.
  3. Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team-Equipo / Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF,) available at: https://bit.ly/32Er67c.
  4. González Ocampo, Ezequiel, Shifting legal vision…, Ibid, pages 6-70.

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