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August 29, 2016

Still Fighting for the Truth About Argentina’s Disappeared

This blog is cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

In June 1993 I attended the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the largest ever gathering on human rights, involving 171 governments and over 800 NGOs. The conference helped foster global solidarity and cooperation among human rights activists, who were just then becoming aware of other people working on the same issues that they were, issues like indigenous rights, torture, unfair trials, and disappearances. It was an eye-opening, mind-boggling crash course in activism.

I chatted with human rights icons I’d only read about, including Malawian lawyer Vera Chirwa and The Dalai Lama. But for me no activist or group was more impressive than the Mothers of the Disappeared from Argentina. They were more organized than most of us and really knew how to lobby and protest. An inspiration to activists from all over the world at the conference, they were already legendary figures for standing up to the military dictatorship and campaigning for justice for their disappeared children.

It’s a fight that still goes on. Last week  a court in Argentina sentenced 38 former military officers to prison, 28 of them to life, for their part in the killings of 365 people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Information about exactly what happened is still seeping out, and earlier this year Human Rights First successfully worked with human rights groups in Argentina to urge the United States government to release previously classified documents about the killings and disappearances.

The huge scale of the violence is becoming clear, with local rights groups estimating that around 30,000 people were killed. Seven years ago the supreme court of Argentina ruled that the dictatorship’s killings between 1976 and 1983 constituted “crimes against humanity within the framework of genocide.”

Tomorrow marks the International Day of the Disappeared, and the court ruling is valuable encouragement for others working around the world for justice for those disappeared, from Indonesia to Syria to Egypt. The work of the Mothers (and of the Grandmothers of the Disappeared in locating their missing grandchildren) remains a fantastic example to other groups. A decade ago I helped organize a trip for some of the Mothers to visit Indonesia. There they met with KontraS, a NGO representing relatives of the disappeared, and the two groups shared lessons of struggles won and lost over the previous decades.

There has been real progress in Argentina as the government comes to terms with what happened 40 years ago (and in Washington as the US government faces up to its support for the military dictatorship), and there is much to learn from the Argentine experience. For instance, those who blame Islam for inspiring extremist violence should remember what former police commander Miguel Etchecolatz said at his trial before being convicted of torture, disappearances, killings, and baby snatching (taking a child from "disappeared" parents, passing it on for adoption by officials of the regime, and hiding the child's true identity). “Our Christian identity was in danger,” he said, holding and kissing his rosary beads. The regime openly vowed to defend “western and Christian civilization.”

Activists fear that Etchecolatz is soon to be moved from prison to house arrest, and there is worry too over efforts to whitewash the truth, with current Argentine president saying in an interview with Buzzfeed earlier this month that, on the number of disappeared, “I have no idea. That’s a debate I’m not going to enter, whether they were 9,000 or 30,000.”

Rewriting history will fuel an impunity the Mothers of the Disappeared fought against for decades, one we can’t afford to let happen.