“I’m not a cynic or a romantic,” says Pablo de Greiff, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. “I have taken care not to generate expectations or promises that I cannot keep.” De Greiff recently spent 10 days in Spain trying to ascertain how much of each of the three words in his extensive title victims of the Franco regime have received since democracy was restored: by his own preliminary conclusions, the answer is very little. De Greiff will publish his full report in September. The Colombia-born Yale graduate was amazed when he saw the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s vast mausoleum outside Madrid, and by the “immense distance” between the victims and the Spanish state. He believes that the former “deserve” a government review over the monument that Franco raised with the forced labor of Republican prisoners.
Never in his 20 years in the field, he says, has he seen a similar case. And when it comes to the “privatization” of the exhumation of Civil War dead – the government subsidized them until recently, but never accepted responsibility for them – De Greiff sees the original sin of “the indifference of state institutions.”
Question. What went through your mind when you saw the Valley of the Fallen? Have you seen anything similar in another country?
Answer. No, it is absolutely unique. It is astounding that a country in economic ruin raised this monument with forced labor.
Q. Why do you think a place like that – which would have been inconceivable in other countries, such as post-war Germany – remains exactly as Franco left it?
A. Because he was in power for 40 years, and that changes everything.
Q. Why did you also visit Paracuellos [the site of a massacre of Nationalist troops and civilians by Republican soldiers during the Battle for Madrid]?
A. It was on my list from the start, as a way of reaffirming that this is a matter of rights, not politics. But that is not to say that this establishes any symmetry.
Q. Spain was the first country you asked to visit in your post as UN rapporteur. Why?
A. Because these issues have been debated for a long time and have not been resolved. Because of the victims; because of the claim Spain’s Transition was exemplary, because many countries from the Middle East to North Africa are watching Spain’s democratic process.
Q. And was the Transition exemplary?
A. Exemplary is an inappropriate term. My interest is in understanding if it has worked or not.
Q. Did the Transition draw a line on the Franco era?
A. The  Amnesty Law was initially applied as a law to draw a line, and the argument that it was adopted by a democratic parliament is the only difference between a self-pardon of the sort generals give to themselves. But it shouldn’t be used to shelve all the cases. I agree with the recommendation of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances that Spain should withdraw it.
Q. Spain is not the first country to come across this problem. Which country would you compare us with in terms of truth, justice and reparation?
A. In Argentina there are so many court cases underway that the issue has become normalized. Trials are no longer considered newsworthy. This is the message I have for Spain. There is a sector here that thinks this should not be discussed because underlying hatreds will rise to the surface again. But nothing leads me to believe this is true. In [Spanish] villages everybody knows who killed whom.
Q. In which other countries are difficulties arising?
A. Our work is spread across Latin America, Eastern Europe, South Africa and now Africa. Sierra Leone isn’t too bad, but consider the unmanageable challenge of introducing transitional justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Q. Is Spain like the DRC?
A. That is not a very useful comparison.
Q. After 10 days here meeting with judges, politicians, forensic investigators and victims, what concerns you the most?
A. What concerns me the most is the distance between victims and the state. And what amazed me most was hearing of the suffering of mothers. In one horrifying case the husband of a family disappeared, their house was expropriated and a falangist moved in.
Q. What explanation did the government give for stopping subsidies for the Historical Memory Law?
A. The economic crisis.
Q. Do you think it is an excuse?
A. We’ll see if they reinstate it when the crisis is over. In any case there is a debt to a generation that is very, very old and that should be made a priority.
Q. Former Franco official "Billy the Kid" is accused of torturing detainees during the regime. If Spain refuses to extradite him to Argentina, where universal justice cases are underway, should he be tried here?
A. That is the principle: either you extradite or you try. That is the obligation.
Q. And if neither happens? How will Spain look?
A. It would be a shame if a country that has been a pioneer in the implementation of universal justice now refuses to extradite somebody in order to block a legal process.