Opinion

We need a truth commission to uncover Bush-era wrongdoing

As Latin America's experience shows, there's great value in confronting official misdeeds.

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Does the United States need a truth commission to uncover wrongdoing committed by the Bush administration in the war on terror? Yes, says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. Earlier this month, he proposed a process to do just that. "Many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong," he said. "We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page."

Many in Washington bristle at the idea. "If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. "This is not Latin America."

No, Senator Specter, this is not Latin America. But as someone who has spent the past quarter century researching and working on human rights issues in the Americas, I cannot help noticing instructive parallels and lessons that we might learn from the experience of our southern neighbors.

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To be clear: I am not suggesting that the scale of wrongdoing by the US in the past eight years equals the atrocities of Argentina's dirty war, Augusto Pinochet's Chile, or Guatemala's long civil war. But the nature of the abuses and the official responses and justifications are, tragically, similar. How so?

Let's begin with the violations that characterized the authoritarian Latin American regimes of the 1970s. In Argentina and Chile, state agents employed brutal violence in the interrogation and detention process (torture). They kidnapped political dissidents and suspected subversives whom they often tortured to extract information, and ultimately, secretly executed them (forced disappearances). Latin American judicial systems failed to oversee the actions of the executive branch of government to gauge the legality of security and antiterrorism policies (lack of judicial independence). And, all too frequently, state agents killed suspects without legal process (extralegal killings).

Sound familiar? It should. In the past eight years of the war on terror, the US government has compiled quite a record of torture, forced disappearances, extralegal killings, and lack of judicial independence. In light of these similarities, we should ask – despite Mr. Specter's objections – whether anything can be learned from the Latin American experience. Two lessons spring to mind:

First, as Senator Leahy implicitly recognizes, while the period immediately following the departure of the offending officials may not always be the most opportune for prosecutions, it is precisely the period in which information must be gathered. In Latin America, where militaries often threatened fragile transitional institutions, many prosecutions were not undertaken for nearly two or even three decades. Because no such threat to US democracy exists, however, that basis for delay does not apply.

Today, in Latin America, the countries that most respect human rights are precisely those that lived through terrible periods of repression but that – gradually – have come to terms with their abusive pasts by thorough investigations and accountability. In each successful case, authorities created truth commissions to document and preserve relevant information in the early transition period in which they were unable or unwilling to prosecute violators.

Second, even without the creation of truth and reconciliation commissions, revelations about past abuses irrupt. Human rights expert Alexander Wilde has termed these "irruptions of memory" – unplanned moments in which vital truths about repressive practices are made public. One example is the 1995 confessions of Adolfo Scilingo, an Argentine naval captain who had participated in death flights over a decade earlier in which drugged detainees were thrown out of planes to drown. Mr. Scilingo simply could not live with his conscience and, a dozen years after Argentina's transition, chose to speak openly about the many crimes he had committed and witnessed.

Another source of this sort of irruption of memory is external: foreign courts, as was seen with the investigation and arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998 and the effects this produced within Chile. But there are other similar cases of leaders (such as Peru's Alberto Fujimori, extradited by Chile) and mid-level administrators who have been brought to justice or forced to testify outside their home countries. Each of these instances has triggered consequences in the country of origin. What irruptions of memory and external prosecutions have in common is that both destabilize the apparent calm established in the country, a calm often built on a negotiated forgetting and non-examination of the past.

What Specter and the rest of the US can learn from Latin America is this: If we are to control our own destiny, we must reclaim our past. A truth commission, along the lines suggested by Leahy, would be a good means of beginning that process. The alternative – to turn the page without knowing what is on it – could doom us to a haphazard and unpredictable future in which individual consciences and other nations' courts control our destiny.

James L. Cavallaro is a clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School. He worked in human rights in Pinochet's Chile (1988-1990) and in post-transition Brazil (1994-2002).

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