Cleaning up a Dirty War

What America's anti-torture advocates can learn from Argentina's darkest days.


Zero Dark Thirty may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but human rights groups are still up in arms about the film and the role waterboarding may have played in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the day after the Academy Awards, Amnesty International cited the film’s nomination in calling on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to make public its report about the CIA’s treatment of detainees. Amnesty and others are frustrated that years after the U.S. use of torture became public no high-level Bush administration officials have been held accountable.

President Obama seemed to close out that possibility when he called for "turning the page" shortly after winning election in 2008. That "forgive and forget" approach, coupled with the failure to close Guantanamo and the recent white paper laying out a drone policy asserting the right to kill Americans abroad, has discouraged advocates of civil liberties, who had hoped that a Democratic president — a constitutional law professor no less — would have investigated and punished such egregious acts. The fact that they are using one movie’s Oscar loss as a call for action suggests how desperate they are.

Those advocates might, however, derive encouragement by looking south — way south — to Argentina. That may seem an odd source of inspiration, given that the country has hardly been a model for good governance. Cristina Kirchner is currently president, having succeeded her now-deceased husband Nestor in 2007, and their dual reign has been marked by the expropriation of foreign-owned enterprises, rampant inflation (which the government consistently tries to hide), and a dubious alliance with ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who may have helped fund Kirchner’s 2007 campaign.

When it comes to human rights, though, the couple presided over a watershed in Argentine history: They made it possible for members of one of the most brutal military dictatorships in South America to finally be tried and sentenced for kidnapping, murder, and torture. In the late 1980s, those men seemed forever protected by a spate of amnesty laws. Now, hundreds have been convicted. It’s a narrative that activists who long for a similar meting out of justice in the United States can take hope from — and learn from, too.

Obviously, there are enormous differences between the U.S. and Argentine cases. During the so-called Dirty War, the military junta killed as many as 30,000 people, the vast majority of them native Argentines. Their repertoire, moreover, was shockingly grisly: It included kidnapping, rape, electric shock torture, and drugging and dumping prisoners’ inert bodies from airplanes into the sea. Perhaps most egregiously, the government took hundreds of babies from sequestered mothers and gave them to members of the military and their supporters. While the war was ostensibly waged against guerrilla fighters, the military’s victims expanded well beyond that group to include anyone with suspected leftist sympathies. Students, journalists, and even psychologists were particularly vulnerable to being "disappeared."

While the United States tortured in the so-called war on terrorism, its actions certainly did not reach the depths of the Argentine junta. (No one is accusing senior officials of taking newborns away from their mothers.) But there are not-insignificant parallels between the U.S. war on terrorism and Argentina’s Dirty War. Both had a similar incitation: They were launched in response to terrorism. The military junta was able to seize power from Isabel Peron’s hapless government in 1976 largely because it was incapable staving off the Marxist Montoneros guerrillas, who were kidnapping high profile targets and setting off bombs in movie theaters and hotels. Some of the hallmarks of the U.S. war on terrorism also echo tactics deployed in the Dirty War, like indefinite detention, "hooding" (placing a hood over the entire face of a prisoner, so he cannot see), and waterboarding. And, as in the United States, for a long time in Argentina it seemed like no one would ever be forced to answer for their actions. For decades, the perpetrators of the Dirty War lived openly, and seemed immune from prosecution.

Yet now many of them are behind bars. How did that turn-around happen? Generally speaking, human rights activists employed three tactics. They documented and disseminated information on the abuses; consistently staged public demonstrations, even when the political climate seemed hopeless; and leveraged international courts to try members of the military brass in absentia when domestic jurists did nothing. "When the doors were closed," says Mirna Goransky, who has prosecuted cases against Dirty War military officials, "we did all we could to leverage the small openings that remained."

Human rights advocates were aided by the fact that, immediately following the fall of junta government in 1983, democratically-elected President Raul Alfonsín put top generals on trial and initiated a truth commission to investigate their legacy of political violence and repression. When the military threatened to take down the government, Alfonsín ended up pushing through what would be only the first round of amnesty laws, but the findings of the truth commission, published under the title Nunca Mas ("Never Again"), stunned the Argentine public. Documenting what happened during the period popularly known as anos de plomo, or "years of lead," became a useful placeholder for justice. In the 1990s, when courts wouldn’t jail junta-era torturers, human rights attorneys pursued so-called "truth trials," in which they didn’t demand punishment, but rather judicial investigations into the fate of the disappeared.

In addition to all of the legal wrangling, human rights groups consistently staged public demonstrations. The most iconic were, of course, the madres de la plaza de mayo, who took to walking in the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires every Thursday, wearing their signature white handkerchiefs. Most of the women were mothers of desaparecidos. Their consistent presence, and maternal bonafides, made them potent opponents.

The activists looked internationally, as well, to effect change at home. Attorneys proactively took on the cases of European victims, and had officers tried abroad in absentia. In 1999, in part at the prodding of Argentine attorneys, Spanish jurist Baltazar Gaston followed up on his warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by filing charges against members of the Argentine armed forces. The censure put pressure on Argentina to act, and when Kirchner annulled the decree forbidding extradition in 2003, the Dirty War cases started being heard in domestic courts.

To be sure, human rights groups today are using many of the same tactics deployed in Argentina. In 2011, for example, Amnesty International called for Canada to arrest and prosecute George W. Bush for his role in approving torture. This appears to have curbed the former president’s international travel, but if he were in fact detained by a foreign government, it would probably backfire. Rather than whip up more U.S. public support for a thorough accounting for what happened post-9/11, most Americans would be outraged that a foreign power had put a former U.S. commander-in-chief in the dock.

The part of the Argentine playbook that could be most effective in the United States is the public documentation of acts of torture. It was almost nine years ago that pictures of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib surprised and sickened the American public. Although news accounts of what happened during the Bush years — and popular media like 24 and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty — have no doubt inured the public to the reality of U.S.-sanctioned torture, putting more information out there would have an impact. Government officials implicated in the Bush-era policies know this; that’s why the C.I.A. destroyed tapes of its interrogations.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have released reports documenting the role senior officials played in condoning "enhanced interrogation techniques." More powerful than these efforts would be for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify its 6,000-page report on the use of torture post-9/11. It reportedly makes the case that subjecting prisoners to torture did not play a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden and was counterproductive in the broader effort to root out terrorists. Despite persistent demands from human rights activists like Amnesty, the report remains shrouded from public view.

That gets to what is arguably the real lesson of the Argentine experience: Don’t give up. By seizing on every opportunity to obtain and disseminate information and keeping the pressure on, activists eventually succeeded in getting trials. In a speech he gave in 2011, ACLU president Anthony Romero said his counterpart in Argentina — the head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires — routinely bucks him up when Romero despairs of seeing charges brought in connection to the war on terrorism. "You’re thinking too short a time frame," Romero’s counterpart purportedly tells him. "It took us 37 years."

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