The year was 2002 when Argentina was gripped in what was perhaps the worst economic, political and social crisis in its history. The situation quickly worsened as, according to the official government statement, more than half of Argentina’s population was living below the poverty line. This was a grim situation that was only going to become worse because there was no relief in sight as the unemployment level stood at twenty-two (22) percent. The public backlash resulting from this was catastrophic as the Argentines, regardless of race, class or belief, soon took the protests to the streets in response to the government ban on preventing massive withdrawals from banks. The government’s poor response to the public clamor led to the escalation of social unrest and crime.
While the economy of Argentina greatly suffered during this turbulent period, there was a rapidly emerging deterioration in the human rights situation in the country. The already poor human rights situation in Argentina was only getting worse as the country reeled from the social unrest and economic crisis that plagued the nation. The serious problem with regard to police violence continued unabated and the journalists who had tried to bring all the injustices to the attention of the international community were threatened and attacked. There was no end to the injustices being committed as even the judiciary was involved in some of these abuses. There were many justices who, if not bribed, were too afraid to take any initiative in addressing this grave situation since the government was run primarily by the military.
The grave human rights abuses that were committed during this period were a continuation of the previous abuses that were committed during the past one hundred (100) years of Argentinean history, mostly from 1976 to 1983 when the country was under military control. It was not until May 25, 2003, when current President Nestor Kirchner was sworn in as president, that the situation began to improve. Nestor Kirchner initiated the reformation of the Argentinean military and police. He also backed the measures that were taken to hold these human rights violators liable for the atrocities that they committed during that time. In further efforts to address the worsening condition of the human rights situation in the country, he also implemented positive measures to increase the accountability and transparency in the government.
This short discourse will highlight some of the major problems that have contributed to the deterioration of the human rights situation in Argentina. There will also be a brief discussion of the different steps that President Nestor Kirchner has taken to address this situation. The later parts of this discourse will tackle the effectiveness of such actions. Finally, an insight will be provided with regard to the future of the human rights situation in Argentina.
100 years of Human Rights Violations
The human rights violations that ensued after the economic crisis in 2002 were not unique to Argentina as there violations have been going on for a number of years prior to the economic deterioration of the country. As the chart shows, Argentina has continually ranked at among the lowest in terms of ranking with regard to Press Freedom and has only recently just received a higher rating from the Reporters without Borders Association.
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There is also no relief with regard to the corruption situation in Argentina as it has historically been considered as among the most corrupt nations in the world. As the rankings from the surveys reveal, not only has Argentina been among the most corrupt nations in the world but it was not until 2005 that the situation began to improve.
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The primary reason for all of this has been the fact that Argentina has been under military rule for most of its history beginning with the ouster of Hipolito Yrigoyen by the military in the 1930s. It was relatively peaceful during the time of Peron as he tried to empower the working class citizens of Argentina during his tenure. The situation was chaotic, to say the least, from 1950 to 1970 when the military and the civilian administrations just volleyed for power. It must be pointed out, however, that this political instability led to strong economic growths and for the first time the poverty level for Argentina had declined to seven (7) percent. After the wife of Peron took over his office in 1974, things would take a turn for the worse as she was removed from office after the military coup on March 24, 1976.
After the military had taken control of the government, the human rights situation in Argentina suffered greatly. The state sponsored violence against the citizens that followed was called the “Dirty War” and is responsible for the disappearance of over nine thousand (9,000) people. Human rights organizations, however, estimate that the real figure is closer to the vicinity of thirty thousand (30,000) disappearances and notes countless other human rights violations.
This Dirty War occurred mostly during the rule of Jorge Rafael Videla. This was termed as the National Reorganization Process that was aimed at suppressing all forms of protests against the government. The National Reorganization process is said to have been responsible for the torture, illegal arrest, disappearance or killing of thousands of people; most of them trade-unionists, students and activists.
The human rights abuses committed during this period were no limited to the domestics or Argentinean citizens. The Argentinean Military was also a part of Operation Condor that was a right-wing sponsored campaign of state terrorism and intelligence operations which lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s. Its role in Operation Condor was the extermination of the Chilean and Uruguayan exiles living in Argentina. Among the people who were murdered by the Argentinean military were some important figures such as General Carlos Prats who was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1974.
Another major atrocity that was committed during this period was during the issuance of the “Annihilation Decrees” by Italo Luder. The Guevarist People’s Revolutionary Army, which was led by Roberto Santucho, started a rural insurgency in Tucuman. In response to this insurgency, a decree was issued in February of 1975 that authorized the military to “execute all military operations necessary for the effects of neutralizing or annihilating the accion of subversive elements acting in the Province of Tucumán.”
By mid-1975, the situation became worse as the “Annihilation Decrees” now gave extreme right wing death squads virtually unbridled power in hunting down and killing the far-left guerillas as a pretext to achieve their goal of exterminating any ideological opponents that they had. There were numerous assassinations and kidnappings committed during this period and the whole country was in a state of fear.
Then, by July 6, 1975, the government issued three (3) decrees creating a defense council to combat the guerillas. This was headed by the President, the ministers of state and the chiefs of the Armed Forces. The defense council was so powerful because it had control over all the national and provincial police and correctional facilities. Its purpose was simple. It was to “annihilate…subversive elements throughout the country.” By October 28, 1975, the entire country was divided into five (5) strategic military zones of control. This was justified by the military directive of “Struggle against Subversion” and more human rights violations were committed during this era.
The number of Human Rights violations that were committed during this period is believed to be well into the hundreds of thousands with more than thirty thousand (30,000) of those resulting from deaths by disappearance of execution. There are also a large number of unreported torture and illegal arrests that have been done during this time.
Most of the victims were not armed and neither were these victims necessarily guerilla fighters. The modus operandi for the death squads during this period was to liquidate the entire organization regardless of degree of involvement. Anyone who was rumored to be a member of any activist group was to be arrested or killed. Trade-union members, students and even peaceful activists who were considered to hold left-wing views were kidnapped, tortured or killed.
In September of 1976, an operation dubbed the “Night of the Pencils”, which was conducted by Ramon Camps kidnapped and tortured over five thousand (5,000) people including the French nun Leonie Duquet. Ramon Camps, who at that time was the general and head of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, admitted during an interview in 1954 that he had used torture as his primary means of interrogation and was responsible for over five thousand (5,000) of the deaths and disappearances that occurred during such time. The abductions were non-discriminatory as even the new born babies of imprisoned mothers were taken away from them under the justification that “these subversive parents will raise subversive children.” The people who disappeared or were abducted this way were termed los desaparecidos (the missing ones or the vanishing ones).
Steps taken by President Nestor Kirchner
These atrocities were not taken lightly by the international community and soon there was mounting pressure from the international community to institute humanitarian reforms in order to alleviate the sorry human rights situation in Argentina. In response to this mounting pressure, President Nestor Kirchner vowed to institute the reforms necessary to address this situation. This came as a surprise for the international community as it was never perceived that President Kirchner could do something about a matter that was so deeply rooted in Argentinean history.
The first action undertaken by Kirchner was to bring the former Human Rights Violators to justice. Previously, the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws that were introduced in 1986 and 1987 had prevented all prosecutions for the abuses that were committed during the military rule with the exception of the theft of babies born to imprisoned mothers who were held in secret detention. Extradition requests from European Governments were also rejected by the Argentinean government under previous regimes. President Kirchner reversed these policies and in July of 2003 he repealed Decree number 1581 which was a significant change because the previous decree had barred Argentine judges from complying with foreign requests for the extradition of “Dirty War” suspects. This opened the way for the courts to recommend extraditions.
By August of the same year, Kirchner backed a proposal that was presented by the legislative body to annul the amnesty laws that were set in place to allow for the reopening of the crimes that were committed during the “Dirty War.” This led to the reopening of many cases such as those committed by fifteen former agents of the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), which was a notorious torture center. Of the people who were arrested because of this, Alfredo Astiz, the notorious former naval intelligence agent was finally brought to justice.
President Kirchner also addressed the restructuring of the judicial system. This was a highly heralded move as it increased the public’s confidence in the justice system and allowed for the apprehension of more of the Human Rights Violators. President Nestor Kirchner publicly denounced the blackmailing strategies that certain justices had employed in order to pressure him from reforming the justice system of Argentina. In an effort to remove the “bad” justices, he also initiated the impeachment of two justices and pressured the other notoriously corrupt justices to resign. In order to fill in the positions that were opened by the resignation of the justices, President Nestor Kirchner placed new justices whose political ideologies were much closer to his. These appointments were highly criticized and they included the appointment of two women justices, one of who was an avowed atheist.
President Kirchner also implemented a restructuring of the military and the police in response to the growing pressure to capture those who had committed human rights violations during the “Dirty Wars”. Among those that were forced to retire were dozens of generals, admirals, brigadiers and police chiefs including many of their subordinates and agents.
This was perhaps one of the more significant actions taken by President Kirchner because Argentina previously had high rates of criminal violence. It was reported by the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a nongovernmental human rights group that by May of 2003 forty-nine (49) civilians and twenty-eight (28) police died in shoot-outs in Buenos Aires alone during the first four (4) months of the year. The extrajudicial executions and torture methods that were employed by the Argentinean police were also addressed by this move and in September of 2003 a decree was issued which allowed victims to participate in official inquiries of police abuses.
In August of 2006, pursuant to the changes that were implemented led to the sentencing of major offenders such as former police official Julio Héctor Simón to 25 years in prison for the illegal arrest and torture of José Poblete Roa and Gertrudis Hlaczik de Poblete, a Chilean/Argentine couple who “disappeared” after being detained in November 1978 and held at the “Olympus,” a secret detention center run by the federal police. The following month a court in La Plata sentenced another former police official, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, to life imprisonment for illegal arrest, torture, and homicide in connection with six “disappearances.” Etchecolatz had been previously convicted in 1986 on numerous counts of illegal arrest and sentenced to twenty-three (23) years in prison, but he was released the following year when his sentence was nullified by the “Due Obedience” law.
The judiciary has also become more active and efficient. Since 2005, there have been several presidential pardons that have been voided by federal judges. These pardons that were granted by President Menem in 1989 and 1990 in favor of former officials convicted or facing trial for human rights violations led to the subsequent arrest of many Human Rights Violators. The latest development concerns the September 2006 ruling of the Cassation Court that held that the pardon of General Santiago Omar Riveros, a former military commander in Buenos Aires, was unconstitutional.
Another significant move by President Kirchner was getting the support of key European governments such as Spain, France, Germany, and Sweden, in pressing requests for the arrest and extradition of Argentines for gross human rights violations committed during military rule. This was a positive act that greatly assisted in the efforts to bring Human Rights Violators to justice. In July of 2003, the arrest of thirty-nine (39) former military officers who were accused of the arrest and torture of thousands of Argentines during military rule was initiated.
Assessment of Human Rights Policies
While the plans that have been implemented by President Nestor Kirchner have not totally removed all the Human Rights Violations in Argentina, the actions that he has taken has greatly improved to situation. There have been a number of criticisms from Human Rights Organizations all over the world, however, as they believe that these actions have taken too long and may not be as effective in bringing the past offenders to justice. Certain actions, such as the measures such as the act proposed by the provincial government to allow prosecutors to conduct warrantless searches has been criticized as being a violation of constitutional guarantees.
Another problem that has been pointed out is the effect that the legal reforms of President Kirchner are that this might lead to a slow deliberation of cases due to the judicial reformation plans. The dockets of the Argentinean Supreme Court are now lined up with several cases concerning cases wherein the federal court declared that the laws were unconstitutional. The situation is such that at the end of September 2003, after almost two years of waiting, the Argentinean Supreme Court finally referred the appeals to a lower appellate court rather than decide the matter by itself. The appellate panel is expected to reach a decision in 2004, and the issue will then go before the Supreme Court once again.
There has arguably been great progress in addressing the Human Rights Violations that have occurred in Argentina over the past few decades. The plans implemented by President Kirchner manifest a genuine situation by the government to institute the necessary reforms to address the issue. The key for Argentina and for President Kirchner remains to be the international support that is given and the role that the human rights bodies of the Organization of American States continues to play in ensuring the rights of the citizens of Argentina.
As of this writing, there have been several important developments in this area that are a result of the cooperation of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Argentine government. In October of the year 2003, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered the Argentinean government to pay $400,000 in reparations to the family of the seventeen-year-old Walter Bulacio, who was detained during a rock concert in April 1991, and subsequently died after torture in a police station. In a unanimous verdict issued by the court, the Argentinean government was ordered to investigate and punish those responsible for the crime, which has remained unpunished.
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 Decrees 2770, 2771 and 2772