Human Rights & Law

I meant to mention this in my last post, but it was getting too long!  My last week at the human rights office, I had the opportunity to attend a court session to witness one of the "La Perla" trials.  To provide a brief overview of the long and complex history behind these trials, I will include some of the text from the handout we were given by our program:


"Operation Condor was a mass-scale campaign of state terrorism and political repression officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships in South America. In Argentina the military dictatorship started on 24 of March 1976 after a military coup and lasted until 1983. This was, as mentioned, a period of state terrorism against first and foremost political dissidents, and it is known to many outside of Argentina as ‘the Dirty War’. However, in Argentina this is not an expression they like to use and they call this period ‘Guerra Sucia’, or ‘Guerra Política’. During this period approximately 30 000 people went missing, although this number varies depending on the source.  These were the victims of the military government’s suppression, and the majority of these were tortured and killed.   These victims are often referred to ‘the disappeared’ due to the fact that they simply vanished after being taken and the majority of
their bodies have never been found in the aftermaths of the dictatorship.

It might be difficult to imagine that even though thousands of people disappeared no one seemed to know what had happened to them and where they were. What happened was that the military government established hundreds of clandestine detention centers that officially were not under the government's control and denied the existence of the victims. This enabled the military to physically eliminate their victims without being held responsible for it. In Córdoba, the main detention center was called La Perla where between 2000 and 3000 victims were brought, tortured and killed. Only 2-300 survived during the two years this detention center was actively used for this specific purpose.

In 1983 the military government was forced to step down after the defeat against Great Britain after the Guerra de Las Malvinas (The Falklands War). Democracy was restored and it was no longer possible to ignore the issue.   In 1983 a truth commission called The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) by the newly elected constitutional president Raul Alfonsín to start investigating what had really happened during the dictatorship.

In 2005, amnesty laws that prohibited perpetrators from being prosecuted were abolished, which opened up the floor for new investigations. The difference between these new investigations and the ones that were done during the 1980s is that in 2005 there was no new truth commission or any other body of government leading the investigations. The difference is that prosecutors are now allowed to start their own investigations in order to make a case and prosecute the ex-military leaders for their crimes."

My Experience

It was one of these trials that I attended this week.  When we entered the courthouse, the first thing we saw was a large group of young students holding red carnations.  Upon closer inspection, we could see that the plastic flowers each had a tag wrapped around the stem containing the name of a still-missing person and the day they disappeared.  Members of the press were taking photos of them as well as the other people who attended court that day.

When we entered, we saw a large group sitting together from the "Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo," an Argentine human rights organization geared towards locating children stolen and illegally adopted during the Guerra Sucia.  A little further towards the stand sat the perpetrators of the crimes.  Because their backs were turned to us and the Spanish was very quick, it was difficult unfortunately to follow the complexity of the trial.  However, being present in the environment we could still feel the incredible impact that the war years left on Argentina and its people as well as the long-awaited hunger for justice.

After the trial, a woman approached us holding poster boards with large photos of young men in military uniforms.  She began speaking English to us, and respectfully we took a moment to listen.  She began a speech on how it is wrong to implicate young soldiers for crimes they were not aware of committing.  As she continued to speak, we quickly realized how extreme her view was, and how offensive her presence was to those who came in support of the disappeared.  Although her speech was disconcerting, it was interesting to note a perspective so radically different than those we had been familiar with.

Attending court was an interesting lens through which to learn about Argentina's history in the context of the present struggle for justice.  I also appreciated experiencing the legal aspect of human rights, one very essential to the discussion and implementation of the subject.


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