Argentina’s truth commission at 30

A monumental victory for global justice, Conadep'€™s model should be followed more closely by other war-torn countries

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group made up of women whose children disappeared during the 1970's war against subversion, march in front of the Government House in Buenos Aires, Thursday, December 8, 1983, during the last march under military dictatorship.
Eduardo Di Baia/AP

Thirty years ago, after the fall of Argentina’s military dictatorship following defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands war with Britain, a newly elected President Raúl Alfonsín created the Human Rights Commission known as Conadep (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons). The first of its kind, Conadep’s main purpose was to investigate the crimes committed by the preceding military dictatorship and bring its perpetrators to justice.

Conadep was not a result of an armed revolution or imposed by occupying external powers as was the case in the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Rather, it was formed by Argentina’s freely-elected democratic government. In addition, its creation signaled a new form of democratic engagement based on a critical reading of Latin America’s past. Conadep advanced a form of Latin American democracy with history and justice as its foundations.

Three decades later, its legacy reverberates across Latin America and around the world. However, Conadep’s rejection of authoritarianism based on historical judgment remains unfulfilled in the region. The commission insists that, from the perspective of the state, there are only victims and perpetrators. Yet, in the recent years, in a clear departure from Conadep’s legal and historical framework, Argentine President Fernández de Kirchner began touting a narrative of “heroes” versus “villains.” To make matters worse, on Dec. 19, 2013, she appointed a general implicated in human rights violations that occurred under the reign of the military junta to the country’s top military post.

In Guatemala, which also adopted a commission similar to Conadep, the group’s work and subsequent trials of former military rulers are currently being obstructed. Last year, Guatemalan dictator General Ríos Montt was sentenced to a prison term of 80 years for his crimes, but his sentence was later annulled. 

Search for historical justice

One of Conadep’s central tasks was clarifying the fate of thousands of “desaparecidos” or “disappeared” — an ambiguous term used by the military junta to present those killed during its so-called “Dirty War” as missing. This recognition was seen as an early, and for some unexpected, outcome of Argentina’s return to democracy. Observers warned that Conadep’s establishment was risky for a country emerging from years of turmoil, and that it would alienate the country’s traditional power players — former military rulers, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and conservative sectors in and outside of Peronism, a populist movement created by Colonel Juan Perón in the 1940s.

During the 1983 presidential campaign, candidates for the Peronist Party, the country’s largest political party, proposed amnesty for military rulers. But they lost in that year’s elections, and the victorious Radical Party led by Alfonsín created the commission on Dec. 15, 1983 — only five days after Alfonsín took office — to gather evidence that would later be used at the tribunal that that judged the members of the Junta. According to Nunca Más, a report published by Conadep in September 1984, between 1976 and 1983, Argentina’s military junta killed around 10,000 citizens, while estimates by human rights organizations put that number at 30,000.

The commission began its work in 1984, a year famously associated with George Orwell’s eponymous novel about stifling dictatorial rule. As Argentina was just grappling with this new development, Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt was engaged in mass killing of his own citizens with support from the United States. The U.S. was also involved in a covert war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and it invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983. Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay were all still under dictatorial rule.

In a region long associated with dictators, Conadep embodied a democratic shift. But its original vision was very different from the truth commissions now used around in Latin America. Conadep combined historical research with justice by providing massive evidence for the trials of military perpetrators. Its historical inquiries were used as key evidence in the subsequent trials of military leaders in 1985. The trials reemerged in the early 2000s under the Kirchner administrations, after interruptions due to amnesty laws in the 1986 and 1987 and presidential pardons in 1989 and 1990. As a result of Conadep’s work, several former Argentine perpetrators are standing trial or have received sentences for crimes against humanity, and in some cases even genocide. But unlike Conadep, most commissions today are not even linked to prosecutions.

Conadep placed the search for historical justice at the center of Argentina’s transition to democracy.

Conadep’s achievements are well known in Argentina and throughout Latin America, but less so around the world. However, by creating a judicial precedent on state sanctioned mass atrocities, its achievements marked a monumental transformation for Argentina and the global justice regime. According to Argentine law, these crimes are considered to be imprescriptible and are not limited by national jurisdictions. For example, an Argentine judge, María Servini de Cubría Servini, is currently investigating crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship in Spain between 1936 and 1977. Last November, Spain also filed an extradition request for former Chinese President Jiang Zeming in connection with his role in human rights violations in Tibet. While Conadep’s influences are notable, these cases present an important dilemma: a conflict between universal ethical-juridical principles and national and global geo-political interests.

Conadep’s legacy is not a simple story, either. Even in Argentina, observers have criticized the commission for not addressing the responsibility of Argentine society when the state committed mass atrocities. But these criticisms conflate moral failures by large segments of the Argentine public — especially their support for the government during its hosting of the 1978 World Cup tournament and during the 1982 war with Britain — with legal guilt on part of the dictators. There is no doubt that the commission avoided historical dimensions of the public’s broad support for the dictators, even providing an image of Argentine society as “innocent.” But one fact remains: it placed the search for historical justice at the center of Argentina’s transition to democracy. 

Conadep’s global legacy

Conadep also had a positive global influence from Africa to Central America, the Balkans and beyond. It opened new pathways for the prosecution of human rights violations and processes of democratization.

However, an older pattern, similar to the Nuremberg trials, has made a comeback, albeit in a different context. Much of the inquiries and trials by recent truth commissions and tribunals have been overseen by external powers under the United Nations mandate. The UN’s supervisory role and the role of other external actors were necessary in many cases. For example, the UN backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala played an important role in bringing perpetrators to justice. During the three-decade long conflict, the Guatemalan Truth Commission found that 200,000 citizens lost their lives, while 93 percent of the human rights violations were committed by state forces and allied paramilitary groups.

Outside the region, the role of external actors in setting up investigations similar to Conadep was even larger. In Cambodia for example, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was setup in 2003 after an intense international campaign and as a result of an agreement between the UN and Cambodian authorities. It put perpetrators of gruesome state atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime – estimated at 1.7 million deaths – on trial.

After the Rwandan genocide, a similar International Penal Tribunal was created in 1994. The tribunal ruled on more than 700 cases of genocide perpetrators. The creation in 2002 of the International Criminal Court (ICC) stands as the most significant outcome of the process that started with Conadep. The ICC is charged with investigating and adjudicating on crimes committed against civilian populations in the course of an armed conflict.

Conadep represented a clear precedent for these cases, but its offshoots often took the form of truth commissions. One important distinction between Conadep and the subsequent truth commissions is their deviation from the powerful link between justice and historical inquiry proposed in Argentina’s case.

Evidently, Conadep’s legacy was reformulated and appropriated to meet its respective local contexts. In Argentina, Conadep was a state researcher for the trials. In many other places, however, the need for reconciliation among victims and perpetrators displaced the demand for justice. In South Africa, Brazil, Chile and Peru, reconciliation was added in part to diffuse many of the tensions that Argentina witnessed in its long democratic transition.

However, the reconciliatory nature of these commissions obliterated the work of justice. To some extent, and from an Argentine historical perspective, their meaning was attached to the notion of impunity for the perpetrators and a sense of unresolved, continuing trauma for the victims. In other cases, by equating the place of victims and perpetrators in society, it served the purpose of condoning legacies of state crimes.  

Unlike in Argentina, the democracies that came after internationally supported tribunals played smaller roles in bringing former dictators to justice. In addition, the presence of external forces often stifled national debate on history and justice.

In the 1980s, Conadep exemplified an important departure from years of coups, dictators, and the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Its far-reaching legacy was a momentous victory for global justice. If future truth commissions follow Conadep’s model more closely, the growth of democracy around the world could be consolidated as well.

Fabián Bosoer, a journalist and Argentine political scientist, is an opinion editor at the newspaper Clarín in Buenos Aires. 

Federico Finchelstein is an Argentine historian and associate professor of history at the New School in New York City. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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