Back in the 1970s, I had friends and colleagues of my age and older who spent four and more years in prison without charges or trial.
There was something special in a statement issued by the British Embassy in Buenos Aires on December 10, announcing that Britain and Argentina would co-chair the international Equal Rights Coalition (succeeding Canada and Chile). Henceforth both countries must work toward the increased protection of the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people. The “special” bit of all this was that one could start to think we can move forward. The announcement underlined deep social changes made by both sides. England and Wales decriminalised homosexuality in 1967 (Scotland followed in 1980) for men aged over 21, amended in 1994 and 2000. Argentina changed the law, starting in Buenos Aires and Rio Negro, in 2003, introduced same-sex marriages in 2010 and expanded reforms in 2012. However, some locals will argue that Eva Perón started the changes shortly before her death (in 1952), by granting protection to a Spanish film director who had been expelled from Francisco Franco’s Spain. And Juan Perón had ordered police not to be harsh with homosexuals. Judge as you will.
We are making progress, granted, but with bewildering gaps, and we are certainly not free from unfortunate setbacks. The December 20 announcement by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) that the government was sitting on promised funding, with the hint that none would be forthcoming was a huge step backwards. (The news prompted the usual excuses from whining officials that the authorities were considering the subject.) The forensic team had recently advanced successfully in the identification of the remains of Argentine soldiers killed in Malvinas/Falklands in 1982. The team’s work as from 1984 (and in timely tandem with the trials of the military dictators) won Argentina, and former president Raúl Alfonsín, renown worldwide and praise from the likes of the late US philosopher Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013) and the British sociologist professor Steven Lukes (born 1941), formerly of Balliol, Oxford, now in New York, as well as many other greats from all over the planet.
And yet in spite of the interesting progress illustrated in the bilateral agreement mentioned at the start, there is still quite a notable duplicity here in terms of public interest in human rights, clearly and mainly encountered in historic documentaries or scandalous sexual accusations which free the individual from personal involvement.
Pardon the reference to my own past, but in my beginnings nearly half a century ago in 1971 as an “informer” on Argentina for Amnesty International, the NGO founded in July 1961 by lawyer Peter Benenson (1921-2005), my biggest problem was how to explain what “human rights” were. Those were the days when Martin Ennals, secretary general, Inger Fahlander, his assistant, and Tricia Feeney, head of the Argentina and Uruguay sections, were based in a rather shabby building on Theobald’s Road in central London,. They were broadening AI’s interests further, beyond Cold War issues in Central Europe. However, the composite name of “human rights” was as unreal in Buenos Aires as was the idea of “civil liberties.” Mention of either, or both, produced strange reactions.
I launched my own opinion poll asking people if they knew of 19th-century human rights pioneers and patriots such as the founder of the Civil Code, Dalmacio Vélez Sarsfield (1800- 1875), or the intellectual author of the national constitution, Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884). The most notable reply heard was, “Yeah, I know the street, but I’m not sure…” My related experience came when trying to explain “human rights” in the early 1970s. On telling an elegant reader of La Nación about Amnesty International, the rejoinder was, “What about my human rights? You don’t think of mine, do you? You just think guerrillas have human rights…”
Decades on, the tables have turned. Back in the 1970s, I had friends and colleagues of my age and older who had spent four and more years in prison without charges or trial. The end of their lives was accelerated, even after release, post 1983 or later, and even if they survived disappearance and murder. The cruelty and the savagery in the dictatorship’s prisons had no sell-by date, it would have gone on forever. Few people cared, outside of the families perhaps,or closest friends. Winning the 1978 World Cup was far more important.
Much of Argentine society can’t give a fig for those men and women. It is the same now. Many of the men and women held others in awful prison conditions. Some found freedom, either because the dictatorship reached an end after seven years (December 1983) or were released due to pressure from abroad. None were released due to the kindness of their tormentors.
Today, there are in prison over 1,000 people associated with the dictatorship. Quite a few of the aged former tyrants have died while spending their old age behind bars: 35 years have gone by. Some were very young, such as Army conscripts during the dictatorship, who claimed, it then seemed, that they were “simply obeying orders.” General Martín Balsa (born 1934), Army commander in the 1990s, was the first senior officer to deliver a speech of self-criticism in April 1995, and as chief ordered that “obeying bad orders” should never be an excuse for wrongdoing.
And yet… however horrible those culprits were, a modern and democratic country needs to respect all “human rights” for the sake of the sanity of this society. There are 1,082 ”veterans” in prison with an average age of 75 years. Since the relaunch in August 2003 of the trials, during the government of Néstor Kirchner, 434 detainees have died, most of them in prison, on average one a week. There are 255 adults in prison aged 65 and 120 aged over 70 years. In total, 731 detainees have been in prison for more than three years and over half have not faced trial. In cases of crimes against humanity the average length of imprisonment pending trial is six years, while 68 per cent remain in prison during the trial. (The figures were supplied to Buenos Aires Times by a prison visitor.)
Families and friends of the detained argue that the extended detention of 1,000 people who took part in the last dictatorship is against the laws of the land. Just as many relatives and acquaintances of any kind, and many more, feel that this lot should rot and die in prison and are being punished for the horrors of the 1970s. Many members of society feel that these actors were part of the past and forgettable. Three points: first, they won’t be forgotten, the crime is too big; second, regarding the punishments, are they within existing laws?; third, how much or how little fits within the language of human rights?
The main problem now is to find the solution to these historic difficulties, as it’s an issue that needs collective solution. A large pot of collective guilt in which we must all see our responsibilities. No small matter, of course. We must wonder if we can face it.
Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).