Sunday, April 14, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-02-2020 10:03

A Great American

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to hear Tex Harris reflect on his Argentine experience, saying he believed the human rights policy had not been effective. I believe he was wrong.

Allen ‘Tex’ Harris, the US diplomat who helped implement US President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy in Argentina during the worst years of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, died unexpectedly here last week.

Tex was 81 years old. He is survived by his wife Jeannie and his three children, Scott, Julie and Clark, the last of whom was born in Argentina. He will be missed by many who knew him and his diplomatic work in Argentina stands as an exemplar of the many qualities of a great American, a species still not in short supply, despite these difficult times.

Tex was a large man, at least 6 foot 7 (over two metres). He played basketball in his youth, but as he filled out later in life, he looked more like a defensive lineman. I have been told that his size – and his very Texan attire – seemed to offer protection and comfort to the mothers of the disappeared as they made their rounds in their campaign to find their children.


After graduating from Princeton and entering the Foreign Service in 1963, Tex was posted to Buenos Aires in 1977, where he was asked to help implement a controversial US human rights policy exactly where the rubber hits the road: gathering information about abuses, developing contacts with victims and their relatives, and becoming familiar with the small but growing human rights community.

Such a job would not necessarily attract an ambitious young diplomat. Reporting on human rights had become a contentious issue in the US State Department between the advocates of quiet diplomacy and those who wanted a more confrontational and public approach.

The champions of quiet diplomacy believed the Argentine military government could be persuaded to change its ways by rational persuasion, pointing out how detrimental to Argentina’s interests would it be to be seen treating captured suspects as garbage to be tortured and disposed of, secretly thrown from planes into the waters of the River Plate or buried in unmarked graves without an accounting of any kind. The military expected that the kidnapped should be considered by society and even by their families as neither dead or alive, simply disappeared, neither to be searched for, nor mourned.

On the other side were the partisans of a direct approach, confronting the government with evidence of unexplained kidnappings and other victims asking for explanations while threatening condemnation in international fora and economic sanctions, including cuts to military aid, which the Carter administration enforced almost immediately in February 1977.

By taking on this task Tex was placed in an almost impossible situation. His diplomatic superiors in the US Embassy were mostly on the side of quiet diplomacy, uninclined to highlight human rights violations. On the other hand he was in communication with Patricia Derian’s Bureau of Human Rights, where a clear unvarnished account of the violations was expected to be given.

Tex dedicated himself to implementing the policy in the most direct and practical manner possible: he negotiated with his superiors to open up the Embassy’s doors to the relatives of the disappeared who came looking for help in searching for their relatives; he developed lists of the disappeared, proactively obtained information and developed contacts in the human rights community.

Tex did everything. He encouraged the development of grassroots organisations like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and their travels abroad, to disseminate the truth about what was happening in Argentina. He noticed changes in the characteristics of the people who disappeared, inferring that the repressive apparatus had run out of guerrilla suspects and was now targeting human rights activists, teachers and intellectuals suspected of ideological subversion. He brought Leonard Meeker, from the US NGO Center for Law and Social Policy to meet Emilio Mignone, where he explained the structure of that organisation and how a similar one like it could be set up in Argentina, initially with American financial support. It was a structure at first gingerly accepted by the human rights community, but the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) soon took root and became an increasingly powerful, independent human rights tool.

Tex was not an advocate but he encouraged advocacy, which was precisely what the policy demanded. How can a human rights policy be implemented in a country where society is cowed by a government that could order instant final retribution for any action it considered subversive? Only from a position of relative immunity, linked in truth or fantasy to a religious community, an Embassy, a foreign newspaper or an international NGO or university – and even that was no guarantee.

After leaders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and two French nuns were kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1978, a crisis erupted in Washington. On the one hand, the Embassy received orders from deputy US secretary of State Warren Christopher, expressing concern about the kidnapping at the highest level of government; on the other, in New York, Terence Todman gave a bitter speech critical of the implementation of the human rights policy in Latin America to the business community.

We know what happened: the policy was reviewed at the highest level and a compromise was developed between quiet diplomacy and the confrontational public approach, as could be seen when bodies of the French nuns and other kidnapped victims surfaced along the Argentine coastline. The Argentine government was confronted at the highest level by US outrage – privately, it was also told that to improve relations it had to invite the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights to make an in situ visit to Argentina and allow a public report of its findings.


Meanwhile, Tex was leaving Buenos Aires. Pat Derian wrote a letter to the ambassador asking him to take his enormous contribution to human rights into account in his evaluation of Harris’ work.

Tex never made ambassador. He was sent to South Africa at the end of the apartheid regime, served as general counsel in Australia, president of the Foreign Policy Association and received awards and honours for his work in Argentina.

I once asked him flat out whether he was removed from Buenos Aires for insubordination. He looked at me, quizzically, surprised I would ask such a question. He answered: “Yes, you might say that.”

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to hear him reflect on his Argentine experience, saying he believed the human rights policy had not been effective. I believe he was wrong. True, it took four years to stop the killings, but this was in part due to vacillations and infighting. The policy had an impact in an area that is very important and often overlooked: it stopped the method of disappearances from becoming a new norm in the fight against terrorism.

Some in the Argentine military government were proud of the methods they employed. It was considered a success, to be presented to the world as an achievement in warfare. A method that could be exported and taught. In the long run, this did not happen. The facts came to light with the IACHR’s public report, the collapse of the military government, the ‘Nunca Más’ report from the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the public trials of the Junta’s leaders, followed later by the trials of other officers and the total repudiation of the method by Argentine society and civilised people everywhere.

The policy has another positive result, from the perspective of US interests. It is captured in a letter sent by Emilio Mignone to his wife, Chela, explaining why he would not co-sign a document on behalf of CELS that denounced the United States and accused them of being responsible for the method of repression used in those dark years.

Mignone states that the issue is morally complicated. Even it if were true, he wrote, that through its School of the Americas the United States taught thousands of officers the doctrine of the National Security State, it is also true that when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president in 1977, his government became the most tenacious enemy of the military dictatorship.

They opened the doors of the US Embassy to the families that were detained and an exemplary foreign service officer, Tex Harris, attended to them. They pressed the Argentine government to invite the IACHR in to investigate human rights violations, resulting in the report that made known to the world – for the first time – the truth about what had been happening. In the end, the killing tailed off and stopped.

Tex had a role in all this. He was an exemplary diplomat, as noted by Mignone, and a great American.

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Mario del Carril

Mario del Carril

Author of 'La Vida de Emilio Mignone: Justicia, Catolicismo y Derechos Humanos' (Emecé); Co-author of 'Bill Clinton: las claves de su gobierno' (Emecé) and 'Por qué se fueron: testimonios de argentinos en el exterior' (Emecé).


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