Since 2003, civil society groups in Argentina have led a vigorous push to hold criminals accountable for the human rights abuses perpetrated during military rule—which has ultimately resulted in a new wave of trials of high-ranking officers. ICTJ provided advice and support to local NGOs, prosecutors, and the media in relation to these accountability efforts.
Background: Thirty Thousand Gone, but “Never Again”
From 1976 to 1983, a series of military juntas resulted in the disappearance of over 30,000 people in a campaign of terror, torture and kidnappings. Since the last military regime collapsed in 1983, Argentina has struggled long and hard to confront the legacy of these abuses and to consolidate the rule of law.
Truth-seeking, prosecutions and reparations have all played a vital part. In 1983, a presidential decree created the National Commission on the Disappeared. An abridged version of the Commission’s report on human rights violations during the military dictatorship, Nunca Más (Never Again), became a best-selling book in the country.
In 1985, nine former members of the military juntas were successfully prosecuted in a landmark trial. This led to the conviction of former presidents Jorge Rafael Videla and Roberto Eduardo Viola, the Admirals Emilio Eduardo Masera and Armando Lambruschini, and Brigadier General Orlando Ramón Agosti.
Lower military ranks began to agitate against the threat of prosecutions resulting in the Alfonsin government’s decision to close avenues of criminal accountability by passing laws limiting the legal responsibility of soldiers and the timeframe in which criminal cases could be brought. A few years later civil society saw the good work of the earlier prosecutions undermined by President Menem’s decision to pardon the convicted Junta members.
Despite these setbacks, the Argentine human rights movement and families of the disappeared continued to press for accountability. In 2003, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that the laws protecting military personnel from prosecutions were unconstitutional.
Argentine authorities today express strong support for prosecuting past crimes. As of 2010, more than 800 accused faced criminal charges, and 200 have been sentenced.
Current prosecutions include key leaders, direct perpetrators and civilians who contributed to the crimes—including priests, judges and former ministers.
In addition, human rights groups filed thousands of petitions for obtaining reparations granted by Congress in the early 1990’s. Although the reparation policy was criticized as a political tool to hide the impunity provided by the pardons, in the end it was a significant program that helped to consolidate the idea of State responsibility and it continues to offer many lessons for reparative justice worldwide.
ICTJ works with local civil society and state actors to facilitate prosecutions, identify gender-based crimes, and document Argentina’s experiences with transitional justice.
Our work in Argentina, in partnership with the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), includes:
- Criminal justice: We provide technical advice to state prosecutors and local NGOs working on criminal prosecutions. We assist the Attorney General’s office to develop prosecutorial strategies and engage with victims. In 2009, we started a mapping project to identify evidence available to prosecutors who hope to open new cases.
- Gender-based violence: We help identify gender-based components of systematic human rights abuses that are often buried. In 2010 we held a conference highlighting this topic. We also produced guidelines to help the prosecutor’s office identify gender-based crimes and released a paper on the subject.
- Media: We help the media to accurately report on issues of criminal justice. In 2010, we successfully campaigned for the trials to be open to the press.
- Sharing knowledge: Argentina’s push for justice and accountability offers important lessons to the rest of the world. Through its research and publications, ICTJ contributes to documenting and disseminating analysis on these lessons. At the end of 2011, ICTJ will publish a book of eight essays by social scientists, lawyers, academics, and prosecutors on the Argentine experience.