From “Dirty War” to Genocide: The Power of Language

Argentina Genocide Chronicles – Vol. 1

From “Dirty War” to Genocide: The Power of Language

by Natasha Zaretsky

Recently, on a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I visited the archives of Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) – http://memoriaabierta.org.ar – created to collect testimonies related to the political repression of Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), a period of state terrorism that resulted in an estimated 30,000 citizens disappeared and tortured.

Memoria Abierta had just moved their offices and archive to the Space of Memory, at the ex-ESMA (the former Navy School of Mechanics). Located in the northern part of Buenos Aires, the ESMA served as a site of torture and disappearance during the dictatorship, when Argentina’s military targeted students, psychoanalysts, historians, priests, and anyone else they deemed to be “subversive” to the national order.

It is disturbing to walk along the gates to the ex-ESMA – located in a residential area, where people went about their days during this period of extreme repression. Now, at the entry gate to what is officially called the ex-ESMA, stand three large pillars, with the following words engraved: Memoria (Memory); Verdad (Truth); Justicia (Justice). The Argentine state erected these pillars and took over this space of torture – now the home to Memoria Abierta and other important human rights organizations as part of the reforms enacted in response to what has been known for many years as the “Dirty War.” Although I had used that term since I first learned about this period in Argentine history during my coursework in graduate school, during my recent trip to Argentina in July 2014, I was corrected by my Argentine colleagues working on human rights– I was no longer supposed to use that word.

Why was it so problematic to use the term “Dirty War”? This question takes us into the intersections of language and power that are so important to understanding Argentina’s political history. In Spanish, there are several ways to refer to this time – it has been referred to as the proceso (short for the Process of National Reorganization – the official policy of the military dictatorship to rid their nation of whoever they deemed to be “subversive”) or simply the dictadura (the dictatorship). But the term “Dirty War” is the language of the perpetrators of that violence that somehow, by using the term “war,” lends some kind of legitimacy to their acts. As the scholar Marguerite Feitlowitz reminds us in A Lexicon of Terror, the perpetrators also waged their violence and exerted their power and terror through language, for instance, changing the meaning of ordinary words like “disappear” to take on a radically different meaning in this context.

While the battle over language and meaning was central to the military dictatorship, it also became critical for the human rights movement that arose to resist and challenge that dictatorship. During the dictatorship itself, there were important moments of protest and dissent – including, perhaps most notably, the marches of the Mothers of the disappeared – the Madres de Plaza de Mayo –who would take over the plaza facing the presidential palace every Thursday afternoon, to protest the dictatorship and demand the appearance of their children. Wearing simple white headscarves hand-stitched with the names of their children and the dates of their disappearances, these mothers resisted the idea that their children had simply “disappeared.” Since their first marches in 1977, many other human rights groups emerged – including Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), H.I.J.O.S. (Children of the Disappeared) – building a powerful foundation to the civil society that emerged after the return to democracy in 1983.

One of the first steps the newly elected President Alfonsín took was to create a landmark truth commission in 1984—the first of its kind in Latin America and one of the first in the World. The CONADEP gathered testimonies into a report, Nunca Más (Never Again) that established the systematic patterns of political repression by the military dictatorship. The significance of this report – to be published in what became a bestseller – cannot be overstated and represented an important step forward from the clandestine nature of the political repression during that time. Yet, despite these advances, and some initial trials, by the end of the 1980s, impunity reigned: amnesty laws were enacted that allowed the many perpetrators of the crimes of the dictatorship to remain free and unpunished. After many years of advocacy and political changes, the amnesty laws were finally overturned in 2003, allowing the trials of perpetrators to begin again after decades of impunity.

In addition to these trials, we also see other changes in social memory — the establishment of March 24th (the day the military took over power in a coup in 1976) as the Day of Memory, and the creation of the Park of Memory along the River Plate (that also happens to be the site of the infamous Death Flights). And perhaps one of the most important changes focuses on language – on how Argentines refer to that time—now, using the terms “state terrorism” or “genocide” to describe the crimes the state perpetrated against an estimated 30,000 people, deemed subversive to the national order they sought to establish.

Genocide in Argentina?

It may seem surprising to use the word “genocide” in this context. Indeed, can we consider this to be a genocide, in the way genocide is used to describe the killings in other well-known cases, such as Cambodia, Rwanda, and during the Holocaust?

In Argentina, the military targeted anyone they deemed to be subversive – a category used to define anyone “different” or a threat to those in power, including students, priests, historians, and those associated with anyone found to be subversive. They were routinely disappeared, killed, tortured, and abused – often kidnapped in a clandestine way. The extent of state repression was severe – young women who were disappeared while they were pregnant, gave birth while detained and had their children taken from them – adopted by military families (the focus of the Abuelas is to reclaim those grandchildren born during captivity). Many of those detained were then killed and thrown into the River Plate from planes, as documented in the groundbreaking text, El Vuelo (The Flight), written by journalist Horacio Verbitsky.

Clearly, this was state terrorism and political repression. But can we use genocide in the case of Argentina if the targets were not primarily ethnic or racial “others”? Before we examine how appropriate it may be to use “genocide” in reference to Argentina, it is useful to review the history of the term “genocide” and how it acquired it current meaning.

Genocide: History of a Term

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish jurist, created the term “genocide” to have a legal and juridical framework for framing, prosecuting, and hopefully, preventing, the crime of trying to destroy another group of human beings (whether you define that group by their culture, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation). He coined the term in 1944, while the horrors of the Holocaust were underway in Europe, to juridically define what was happening in Europe and in past genocides, such as the Armenian case.

Lemkin was central to the efforts to create the Genocide Convention, ratified by the UN in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II. In the same years as the UN was creating the Genocide Convention, Argentina was also playing an important role in the history of genocide — becoming a haven for Nazis, who lived there under assumed names, in the very same years that the world was seeking legal frameworks for ensuring that the genocide those Nazis perpetrated would never happen again. Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960, standing trial in Jerusalem in 1961, as chronicled by philosopher Hannah Arendt in the work that made the phrase “the banality of evil” famous.

Yet, while the Holocaust was unequivocally a genocide, can we consider what happened in Argentina a genocide? Here, it is useful to look more closely at the way the definition of genocide became ratified as a legal instrument in the UN’s Genocide Convention. Though Lemkin had originally proposed that genocide can be defined as any intent to destroy in part or whole a group, based on ethnic, religious, national or political reasons, due to negotiations in creating the Genocide Convention, the final version excised the political from the legal definition. This in turn shaped the evolving social understandings of genocide as linked primarily to race or ethnicity (as evidenced during the genocides in Rwanda and during the Holocaust). But does that mean we cannot look at this as genocide? Was this not an attempt to destroy a group in whole or in part?

From “Dirty War” to Genocide in Argentina

In critical genocide studies, many contemporary scholars and activists argue that we should expand the definition of genocide. Indeed, we understand genocide as the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, which is certainly what took place in Argentina. There is also a lot at stake in calling it “genocide” instead of “war” (or even “Dirty War”); with genocide, the state has a different responsibility to investigate the crimes and the term carries a different weight in terms of political, legal, and social accountability.

It may seem like it doesn’t matter what name we place on the devastating crimes of that time. But aside from the juridical and political implications of using the term “genocide” – and the accountability it warrants – using the term “genocide” to describe the crimes of those years also positions it within the boundaries of our shared history and our shared social obligations as global citizens.

The UN, formed in the years after World War II and the Holocaust, ratified the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, as a way to make universal claims about our rights as human beings on this earth – where certain acts, like the intent to destroy another group of people because of who they are – were crimes that transcended the borders of nation-states. These conventions and understandings also assert that in such moments, as fellow human beings, we need to take account and prevent genocide from happening. Acknowledging the genocides that happened in the past is one step forward to that goal.   And acknowledging the scale of the crimes in Argentina as a genocide is part of a greater effort on the part of Argentina’s human rights movement and current government to account for those years.


Natasha Zaretsky is a cultural anthropologist, working on the politics of memory and human rights in Argentina.  Currently, she is a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. For more updates on the Argentina Genocide Chronicles, follow @genchronicles1 on Twitter.

Copyright Natasha Zaretsky 2014 – All Rights Reserved

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