Images of people disappeared during Argentina's last dictatorship in 1976-1983 are displayed at Plaza de Mayo during the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo last 24-hour Resistance March last year. Picture: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters
Images of people disappeared during Argentina's last dictatorship in 1976-1983 are displayed at Plaza de Mayo during the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo last 24-hour Resistance March last year. Picture: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

Argentina's crimes against humanity judgement gives hope to victims in other countries

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 16, 2020

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This is part 2 of a three-part series which looks at what South Africa can learn from Argentina in terms of transitional justice. Read part 1 

Pretoria - Ever since people started disappearing under Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1977,

women with white scarves have converged on the famous public square in Buenos Aires called Plaza de Mayo, to protest the disappearance of their sons and daughters and grandchildren.

Even though the dictatorship ended in 1983, countless families still do not have answers about what happened to them, so women still converge at the plaza every Thursday morning, holding up placards of their loved ones, demanding answers and justice 43 years later.

In South Africa, many black people disappeared at the hands

of the security police, the military, and hit squads under apartheid, and the families still grieve and want answers as to what happened to their loved ones.

But our frustration and demands for justice have not been as public or determined as those in Argentina.

It is the groundswell and momentum of civil society that has pushed for justice over so many decades that has led to a very broad consensus in Argentinian society that justice must take place no matter how long after the fact.

The process to prosecute the perpetrators has enjoyed large consensus within the Argentinian cabinet, and that has enabled the process to move forward.

In 1981, women in Argentina embarked on what became an annual March of Resistance, an event which lasts for 24 hours to demand justice for their disappeared.

The 39th March of Resistance took place in December last year, and will continue until the truth of

these murders has been fully uncovered. Many women were detained by the dictatorship and even gave birth in captivity.

Five hundred babies were born to these opponents of the regime, and the authorities kidnapped them from their mothers and gave them to families close to the regime to raise as their own.

For years there has been a

quest to find the stolen children of these detainees using DNA to identify them.

In Argentina, the process of justice for the victims began shortly after the end of the dictatorship.

A famous trial took place of leading junta members, particularly nine senior armed force officers.

In 1985, leading figures were sentenced to prison, including Junta leader General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera.

The problems started in 1986 and 1987 when the Congress passed two laws to stop the prosecution of human rights abuses committed under the dictatorship.

As a result, the conservative President Carlos Menem pardoned the Junta leaders in 1990.

But in a landmark judgment in 2001, a judge declared the two laws blocking prosecutions unconstitutional, ruling that “Crimes against humanity are not subject

to amnesties”.

The watershed moment came

in 2003 when Congress, at the behest of President Nestor Kirchner, revoked amnesty laws and, in

2005, the Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that no statute of limitations or pardon applied to crimes against humanity.

This is a landmark judgment that gives hope to the victims in other countries, that crimes against humanity cannot be pardoned.

In South Africa, the amnesties handed out at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are likely to stand.

But it is the crimes against humanity perpetrated by security force members who never made a full disclosure of their crimes that should still be prosecuted, especially those in the top echelons who bear the greatest responsibility.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

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