HUMAN rights abuse remains one of the most persistent and pervasive global problems. New York's Freedom House estimates that 119 million citizens have died at the hands of repressive governments in this century. Yet as new, less authoritarian governments take power, they are often reluctant, in the interests of stability and political harmony, to hold their predecessors accountable for such past crimes. In South America, where 10 nations since 1979 have shifted from military to more democratic civilian governments, the issue is particularly sensitive. Often the new and old leaders reach quiet understandings not to look back.
But Argentina has taken a remarkably different approach. After his election three years ago as the first civilian President in a decade, Ra'ul Alfons'in immediately set up a special commission to check into human rights abuses under previous military rulers between 1976 and 1983. In that so-called ``dirty war'' against those viewed as leftist subversives, tens of thousands of Argentines were rounded up and systematically tortured in secret detention centers.
Acting on citizen complaints, the courts last December convicted five former junta members, including two ex-Presidents. Five more retired Army and police officers, including Gen. Ram'on Camps, former police chief of Buenos Aires Province, were convicted last week. A key witness against General Camps was Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine journalist who was arrested, tortured, and stripped of his citizenship before being exiled to Israel.
Both the scale of the abuse and the status of the outgoing military regime made it easier for Argentina than its neighbors to take the stand it did. Nine thousand Argentines are officially listed as having disappeared, presumed dead; human rights groups put the total at closer to 30,000. Also, the departing military rulers had left in disgrace after losing the Falklands war.
The most difficult test of the Argentine government's courage, however, may be yet to come. More than 300 military officers have been named so far in citizen complaints. As those still on active duty, particularly in lower and middle ranks, are called as witnesses or tried, the going is sure to get tougher. The armed forces are pressing the government to halt the trials; human rights groups and victims' families want to pursue the cases to the last man in the name of justice. This week in a bid for national reconciliation, Mr. Alfons'in proposed a legislative compromise. It would close the cases of those not called to appear in court within 60 days of the passage of such a law of limitations and limit to 30 days beyond its passage efforts to open any more cases. Opponents see the President's move as bowing to armed forces pressure; the government argues it is time that past accounts are settled. But is the cause of justice served by less than full prosecution, especially in the case of capital offenses?
By tradition military forces in Latin America are responsible for both external and internal security. The challenge for newly democratic, civilian governments is to get the military to ease up on internal police duties and accept a new role. Argentina is moving legislatively to do so. For most transition governments, the goal remains elusive.
There is no current threat of a coup in Argentina. But members of the armed forces, already irritated by the proposed curbs on their power and recent sharp budget cuts, are increasingly hostile to the idea of continuing the trials. Alfons'in, long an outspoken proponent of human rights, must walk a careful line.
In the meantime it is remarkable that a country with a such a strong authoritarian tradition has alone among its neighbors brought a significant number of those responsible for past torture, abduction, and murder to justice. As Jacobo Timerman says, with an astonishment we can appreciate, ``It never happened before in Latin America.''