Chile's latest step on path to truth

When people in other countries think of Chile, they sometimes think of earthquakes. Indeed, from time to time, Chile is shaken by an earthquake. But there is also another kind of earthquake - that which affects a country's soul, the very essence of its being. And when that happens, we also feel the eyes of the world on us.

The days since Monday's publication of the report of the National Commission on Political Detention and Torture are just such a case. The report revealed for the first time to Chileans the truth about state responsibility for torture during the 1973-1990 military regime. It is a truth that they had previously only suspected, that some had denied, and about which others had remained silent. This truth is contained in the testimonies of more than 35,000 people, in Chile or abroad, out of which, after rigorous verification, 28,000 were accepted as valid. The remaining 7,000 will be reconsidered.

It would not, I think, be an exaggeration to describe this experience as unique in the world. The report is the work of a state commission that reached its conclusions over a period of a year, hearing and recording the personal testimony of each and every victim. In this way, Chile has been able - after three decades - to confront a dark chapter in its history, a deep abyss of suffering and torment.

Why did we undertake this difficult challenge? I would say it is because, ultimately, every society has to find the path along which truth meets history.

In 1988, the Chilean people were able, with joy and optimism, to defeat dictatorship by referendum. The entire world saw how Chile said "no," rejecting the plans of the authoritarian regime to maintain its hold on power. Just 15 years ago, in December 1989, we freely elected a president and a parliament, putting Chile back on the road to democracy.

Since then, we have advanced with maturity and prudence, but without pause, in demolishing the walls behind which truth was hidden.

The first step on this road was the Rettig Report, published in 1991, which attempted to give the clearest possible account of the worst violations of human rights - those that resulted in loss of life and disappearances - committed by agents of the state or private individuals for political ends. More than 3,200 names of the dead and disappeared were gathered, outlining what had occurred in Chile and what had never before been recognized.

Subsequently, we took measures to help those who had been forced into exile or who had lost their jobs for political reasons. Each step along this road was guided by three overriding principles: truth, justice, and reparation.

In 1999, we established a Human Rights Roundtable where, for the first time, representatives of the armed forces, together with leading figures from human rights organizations and from different religious groups, agreed on what had happened in Chile. That was the first time that we spoke of the secret disposal of bodies and of prisoners thrown into the sea.

In 2003, this hard road posed an even more difficult challenge - that of setting up a commission where surviving Chileans, with their untold memories and pain, could be heard and, in this way, contribute with their testimonies to establishing truth in Chile and to healing the country's wounds.

I've been deeply moved by these thousands of testimonies - by the accounts of the victims. I've felt closely the magnitude of their suffering, the irrationality of the brutal cruelty they suffered, and the immensity of the pain. However, I believe that the courage to face this truth speaks well of Chileans and of the maturity we have attained. The report confronts us with an undeniable truth: Political detention and torture were institutional practices of the state. This was absolutely unacceptable and out of keeping with our nation's historic traditions.

Chile is, of course, not alone in having suffered such a chapter. It wasn't so long ago that Europe, which we now look to as a model of respect for human rights and individual liberty, went through a period in which the human rights of millions of its citizens were widely and terribly violated.

Yet history shows us that other countries suffering such experiences have healed the wounds of their past and built a present of freedom and prosperity - some with more ease than others. In none of them have memories been erased; instead, they have been transformed into part of a shared view of the past. And for new generations, the challenge is to preserve respect for human rights as part of a heritage shared by all of society.

In Chile, the work of this commission and the publication of its report has gone far beyond what many imagined. The testimony of each man and woman will be preserved in an individual file, forming part of the country's permanent archives.

Perhaps this is the most important step we can take to repair the victims' pain. We have put an end to their silence, restoring their dignity in the eyes of society. Of course, there will also be material reparation. It will be modest, but it symbolizes the obligation of the State to recognize its responsibility, and the details will be debated by Congress.

But that is not what is most important. What is most important is that the light of truth now illuminates the coexistence of Chileans. Because we have been capable of looking, unblinkingly, at the hard truth, we can now begin to defeat the pain, to heal the wounds.

I have spoken to my country from the ethical dimension of political life. In this 21st century, that should be the anchor of relations within every society, and of the international community.

In Chile, we have understood that if we want never to repeat a dark chapter of our history, we must never again deny it.

Ricardo Lagos is the president of Chile.

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