The Lasting Legacy of Argentina's Human Rights Commission

October 20, 2016

In 1983, the violent dictatorship in Argentina fell following the loss in the Falklands war with Great Britain. Following this huge shift in power, Raúl Alfonsín was elected the president of Argentina. Alfonsín then created the Human Rights Commission, Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP. The first of this type of commission, the goals were to investigate the crimes committed by the military dictatorship and to bring the wrongdoers to justice. Unlike the Nuremberg trials following World War II, which were organized the conducted by external powers, CONADEP was formed and controlled by Argentina’s new democratic government. In addition, CONADEP’s actions were carried out with a strong knowledge of Latin American history and strived for justice so as not to make the same mistakes.  

Just over 30 years later, CONADEP’s legacy remains powerful across Latin America and the rest of the world. However, issues have arisen regarding the penalties and the classifications of those involved. In the eyes of the state, there are only victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains; however CONADEP has insisted that the lines are not that clear in some cases. In a bold and rather insulting move, on December 19, 2013, current president Fernández de Kirchner appointed a general who has been implicated in human rights violations under the military dictatorship to Argentina’s top military post. Moves such as this have caused conflict between the decisions and rulings of the CONADEP and the Argentine government.

The primary task of the CONADEP was to uncover the fates of the thousands of “disappeared” people by the junta during the Dirty War in the 1970s and early 1980s. While this seemed a logical move, there were also great risks in this action, especially in a newly democratic country. Investigating these disappearances and possibly implicating those involved put the new and delicate balance in Argentina in jeopardy. After years of violence and turmoil, implicating traditional power players could have had catastrophic results. What would stop the recently powerful military leaders from picking up their guns again out of fear of prosecution? Critics at the time warned of former military rulers, the Catholic Church, and conservatives like Peronists would lash out against the proposed actions of the CONADEP.

During the 1983 presidential election, that Alfonsín would later win, the candidates for the Peronist party proposed amnesty for the military rulers during the Dirty War. When Alfonsín won the election, he formed CONADEP just five days after he took office. The Commission immediately began to gather evidence to be used at a tribunal against the members of the Junta. In September of the next year the CONADEP published a report called Nunca Más (Never Again). The report stated that between 1976 and 1983 the military junta in Argentina had killed an estimated 10,000 citizens. Other outside human rights organizations had estimated that 30,000 citizens had been killed during the same time period. While Argentinians were pouring over Nunca Más, much of Latin America still struggled with war and dictatorships. Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay remained under dictatorial rule while in Guatemala and Nicaragua; covert U.S. support was helping to quash opposition uprisings.

While various Latin American countries remained in turmoil, the formation of CONADEP represented a different type of democracy that was achievable. CONADEP strived to be different from traditional truth commissions. The aim of CONADEP was to combine historical research with justice by accumulating evidence for the trails against those involved in the military dictatorship. With the evidence collected, trials began in 1985 and reemerged in the early 2000s under the Kirchner administration. Trials temporarily stopped in 1986-1987 because of amnesty laws and again in 1989-1990 because of presidential pardons. Consequently, numerous former leaders have received a sentence or are currently standing trial for their actions. Some have even been charged with genocide along with many other crimes against humanity.

While CONADEP’s actions have gained attention throughout Latin America, global attention has done little to recognize their achievements. However, this unique system has gained respect for their actions; “By creating a judicial precedent on state sanctioned mass atrocities, its achievements marked a monumental transformation for Argentina and the global justice regime.” Despite these achievements, some critics still find loopholes in the system. Critics maintain that CONADEP failed to lay any fault on the citizens of Argentina. There is clear evidence of public support for the junta in events such as the 1982 war with Great Britain or the 1978 World Cup tournament. However, far from every citizen supported the actions of the military dictatorship. CONADEP’s legacy also remains in a positive light because of the emphasis on historical justice while transitioning into a democratic system. CONADEP also remains stronger than a truth commission process because of the powerful link to the judicial system.

In many countries, at the end of a dictatorial regime during the transition to democracy, the new government has taken a small or no role in bringing perpetrators to justice. Argentina broke that mold when forming CONADEP and its legacy has created a model for global justice. By excluding outside forces, the debate and information gathered on history and justice was able to thrive within Argentina. If more countries transitioning out of a dictatorship followed the model of CONADEP, their transition would surely be smoother and justice for those killed or disappeared would be firm. CONADEP’s legacy has not only brought peace and justice to much of Argentina, but has also undoubtedly changed the model for global justice.

About Author(s)

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Kelcey Hadden-Leggett
Kelcey Hadden-Leggett is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in Spanish, a Certificate in Latin American Studies, and a related area Certificate in Portuguese. She recently completed the Pitt in Ecuador program in the Amazon.