Records of Argentina’s dark past enter Washington human rights archive

Defense Minister says junta-era documents unearthed in 2013 will help preserve historical memory

Argentinean Defense Minister Agustín Rossi.
Argentinean Defense Minister Agustín Rossi.REUTERS

Copies of the records of 280 meetings held by Argentina’s military junta (1976-1983) became part of the official archive of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC on Tuesday. The organization played a pivotal role in condemning the massive human rights violations that took place under the Argentinean dictatorship, particularly the missing persons’ cases, many of which remain unsolved.

The records were found in late 2013 in the basement of the Cóndor building, the headquarters of the national air force. They represent the first official executive records that have been uncovered – pages and pages detailing what should never have happened and what so many tried to hide. They were “issued by the highest power in the land, the junta, during those seven years,” Argentinean Defense Minister Agustín Rossi said after handing over copies of the documents to IACHR Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza in Washington.

The documents reveal the priorities of the military junta leaders and show when decisions were delegated and when the executive bypassed the corresponding ministry. For instance, junta leaders made an executive decision regarding higher education in Argentina, putting an end to the independent administration of universities and eliminating student centers.

The documents “chronicle a very
painful past, but an indispensable past in the quest for justice”

“These 280 meetings reflect different times and situations of that era,” Rossi continued. Besides their historic and judicial importance, the documents “are an enormous contribution to what is already a cultural paradigm in Argentina – memory, truth, and justice. The preservation of memory is an evolutionary, dynamic, continuous process and the discovery of these documents will help strengthen” that memory, he said.

Álvarez Icaza highlighted “the immeasurable historic and judicial importance” of the documents and said that their discovery and handling reflected “a search for the truth” that he called “inspiring and courageous.” The documents “chronicle a very painful past, but an indispensable past in the quest for justice,” he added.

Since the discovery, the Argentinean government has also handed over copies of the records to various universities and human rights organizations in Argentina and other countries, including Spain and Mexico. Their arrival in Washington has symbolic meaning given the crucial role the IACHR has played in the country’s recent past. With its historic visit to Argentina in September 1979, it was the institution that showed the world what was happening in the country.

In its 1980 report on Argentina, the IACHR strongly condemned “numerous serious violations of fundamental human rights” and “the circumstances relating to the thousands of detainees who have disappeared … [who] may be presumed dead.” More than 5,500 cases of human rights violations have been reported.

“As many direct victims of the Argentinean dictatorship have said, the IACHR visit marked a watershed moment for the dictatorship,” Santiago Canton, the organization’s ex-executive secretary, told EL PAÍS.

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In 2011, more than three decades after that historic visit, some of the documents IACHR had collected made their way back to Argentina. These papers included around 100 photographs and reports from Uruguayan authorities on bodies found on the coast and in its national waters that showed signs of torture and were presumed to be Argentineans who had disappeared. Canton was the man who delivered the documents that would provide proof of the so-called “death flights” – in which victims were drugged, stripped and thrown out of aircraft – at the trials of those who had committed crimes against humanity at the Naval Mechanics School.

The new junta records do not seem to promise the same kind of irrefutable evidence offered by the material found in 1979 but Rossi said they showed a concerted effort on the part of the regime to “stop using the word ‘disappear’” after IACHR’s visit. The government even created a new category in the civil code for “the presumably dead citizen.” The new batch of records also offers extensive documentation about the end of the dictatorship and the creation of the Law of National Pacification, a piece of self-amnesty legislation repealed under Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratic president elected after the regime.

Defense Minister Rossi said he wanted to maintain contact with IACHR in order to “match up and exchange different perspectives coming out of their respective analyses of the documents” – an effort Canton believes will be important for the historical memory of the region. “And historical memory is important so that these things don’t happen again,” he said.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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