Report on the `disappeared'. Argentina struggles to come to terms with a brutal past

Nunca M'as: the Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared. Introduction by Ronald Dworkin. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 450 pp. $22.50. A national drama with worldwide import is playing itself out in Argentina.

For the past three years, this newly democratic country has been struggling to come to terms with its recent past - with the campaign of repression that flourished under the authoritarian military regime of 1976-83, and with the fact that a large portion of the population, whether out of fear or acquiescence, looked the other way. At least 12,000 Argentine citizens (some say 30,000) were abducted and sent to detention/torture centers, and 9,000 completely disappeared.

``Nunca M'as'' (Spanish for ``never again''), recently published in English for the first time, is Argentina's own report on this national nightmare. Prepared by the National Commission on the Disappeared, which carried out an exhaustive investigation, the report tells the story of a government that, to fight terrorism, deliberately set out to create a climate of fear and uncertainty among its countrymen, kidnapping Argentines of all classes from homes, offices, and street corners, all the while claiming it knew nothing of their whereabouts.

Though the scale of abuse in Argentina seems huge, it was not unique. Tiny neighboring Uruguay during the same period is said to have had the highest number of political prisoners per capita in the world. And the problem ranges far beyond Latin American military regimes. Freedom House of New York recently pointed out that in this century more than three times as many people have been killed in their own countries by repressive governments as have died in all civil or foreign wars - some 119 million, compared with 36 million.

Yet the course of action Argentina has chosen since 1983 is unique. The government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in has sought to reestablish the rule of law by seeking justice through the courts. The trials and convictions of military junta members and top police officials during the past 18 months are unprecedented in Latin American history. Never before has a country moving from military to civilian rule insisted on holding the armed forces directly accountable for their excesses.

This has come about in Argentina for several reasons: the military's dramatic loss of public support because of the disastrous Falklands (Malvinas) war of 1982; the pressure from human rights groups, including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were among the thousands who disappeared; the courage of a new civilian government highly committed to democratic principles; and the work of the National Commission on the Disappeared, created by President Alfons'in soon after his election in 1983.

The commission's report, first issued in Argentina in 1984, laid the foundation for the trials that began the following year. Based on 50,000 pages of documentation from the testimony of torture victims, families of the disappeared, and members of the security forces who participated, this extraordinary document lays bare, in a straightforward but devastating fashion, the structure of repression created by the military to rid the country of ``subversive thought.'' After the military coup of 1976, the Supreme Court and many other judges were replaced with junta appointees (resulting in a virtual suspension of habeas corpus), and a carefully organized ``dirty war'' was initiated, to be waged in some 340 secret detention centers.

Begun ostensibly to eliminate violent leftist guerrillas, the ``dirty war'' spread quickly to students, labor leaders, lawyers who attempted to defend detained citizens, journalists, members of the clergy, and even children, disabled people, and pregnant women. People were abducted, tortured, and murdered who had no apparent political involvement. What began as antiterrorist action became a terrorism more pervasive and capricious than anything it was intended to combat. Excerpts from individuals' testimony are used throughout the book to substantiate the findings of the commission. Most disturbing - apart from the horrors experienced by the detainees - is the evidence of attitudes held by those involved.

In the book's introduction, Ronald Dworkin - professor of law at New York University and professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University - provides insight into Argentine history, the roots of fascist views that led the armed forces into the ``dirty war,'' and the efforts of Alfons'in's government to fulfill his campaign pledge to face the human rights problem.

Alfons'in's strong human rights position was viewed as a significant factor in his surprise victory over the Peronist candidate in the 1983 presidential race. But the past three years of facing the bitter, tragic truths revealed in the commission's report and the trials of top officials have been agonizing for Argentines. The prospect of further prosecutions of middle and lower ranks, extending over a period of years, heightened public controversy and brought intense pressures from a disaffected military. Last month, with the stated aim of national reconciliation, the President introduced legislation to end the prosecutions within 60 days of the bill's passage, and it quickly passed both houses of Congress.

But the controversy has not been stilled. Some Argentines were relieved, others were outraged. Human rights groups plan to challenge the constitutionality of the bill and have presented the courts with a list of some 650 names of security personnel and evidence they say is sufficient to begin investigatory hearings against them. Any who are cited by the court within the 60-day period could still be put to trial. The courts are working overtime. The issue now rests with them as to which of the accused will actually be prosecuted.

This dramatic close (at least for now) to Argentina's unprecedented push for justice raises several questions in the light of this remarkable book. What will the implications be for Argentine society of cutting off the prosecutions in midstream? What about those troubled parents whose children were buried in mass graves or thrown out of airplanes over the River Plate? Were the convictions of top military officers sufficient to convince members of the armed forces that what was done was criminal and indefensible? (One general recently remarked that the passage of the new bill had vindicated the values the military had been defending.)

In the face of the new circumstances, ``Nunca M'as'' takes on even greater significance. Now that the effort to achieve justice through the courts has been curtailed (and a total amnesty for the military was passed in Uruguay almost to the day the bill passed in Argentina), this book stands as eloquent witness to the truth, so far as it could be determined. It proffers a warning to those who might accept too readily the protestations of authoritarian regimes engaged in human rights violations that they are merely ``fighting terrorism'' (or communism or ``subversion of Western values''). It illumines the challenges faced by democrats in many Latin American countries and elsewhere who are battling modes of thought distinctly antidemocratic, on the right as well as on the left.

Most of all, it affirms a reality recognized by a majority of Argentines and stated in the book's prologue: ``It is only democracy which can save a people from horror on this scale, only democracy which can keep and safeguard the sacred, essential rights of man. Only with democracy will we be certain that never again will events such as these ... be repeated in our nation.''

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