Nisman: Rethinking Memory and Justice

In my latest post for Latin America Goes Global, Nisman: One Year Later,” I reflect on the one year anniversary of the death of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society)–the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, still unsolved and in a state of impunity.   One year ago today, on the eve of presenting evidence that allegedly implicated government leaders of colluding to avoid investigating Iran’s role in the bombing (a charge Kirchner’s government denied), Nisman was found dead in his apartment, a “mysterious death” that also resonated with broader questions about the rule of law.  There were many theories about who killed him (or whether he killed himself), and whether his allegations were legitimate or part of a plot against the president.  But, a year later, his death remains with more questions than answers, and now, a new leader at Argentina’s helm.

With Mauricio Macri inaugurated Argentina’s new president in December 2015, he has instituted several economic reforms in stark distinction to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s policies.  The question, now, is what kinds of changes he will implement in relation to human rights.

Under Néstor Kirchner, and then, Cristina Kirchner’s rule, changes to the juridical landscape coalesced with important cultural changes.  The amnesty laws that had protected the perpetrators of human rights abuses under the dictatorship were repealed, thereby opening the door for trials critical to holding those responsible accountable (including the historic ESMA mega-trial).  But the juridical processes intersected with social changes underway.   The ESMA, for instance, became the ex-ESMA, a Space for Memory, where important organizations (like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and institutions (like Memoria Abierta) became located.  At the ex-ESMA, Memory stands as a literal pillar (Memoria) together with Truth (Verdad) and Justice (Justicia) — intersecting to shape a certain narrative about contemporary Argentine values.

And yet, memory cannot stand on its own.  The memorial calendar grows all the time in Argentina — March 24th commemorating the coup that brought in the dictatorship, July 18th commemorating the AMIA bombing, among so many other dates.

As Nisman’s death adds yet another anniversary to Argentina’s memorial calendar, as I wrote in “Nisman: One Year Later,” the question is not whether Nisman will be remembered, but to what ends, and what meaning his death will take on.  This anniversary, as all anniversaries, should be taken as an opportunity to reflect on the evolving relationship between memory and justice in Argentina, and the future of human rights.

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The Morning after the Day of Memory in Argentina

Yesterday, Argentina commemorated the 39th anniversary of the coup that brought in the repressive military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Those years–when up to 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured, and killed–came to be known by many names – the “Proceso” (shorthand for the Process of National Reorganization, the official policy of state repression during that time), the “Dirty War,” civic-military dictatorship, and later, state terrorism and genocide.

The Argentine state targeted anyone they deemed subversive, and it has taken decades for human rights groups to attain public and official recognition and support for their struggle for justice and memory. Under Néstor Kirchner’s presidency (2003-2007), the amnesty laws that had protected perpetrators for years were overturned, opening the door for prosecutions and trials to begin, including the ESMA mega-trial currently underway.

During the years of impunity that preceded these trials, the advocacy devoted to memory and truth sustained this history in the nation’s consciousness, including the marches of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups.

As part of those efforts, we see March 24th — commemorating the date in 1976 when the military took over rule through a coup d’état– officially designated as the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice (Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia) in 2002, becoming a national holiday on 2005.

Yesterday, throughout the nation, Argentina commemorated this date that brought in years of human rights abuses and genocide. Although decades have passed since these crimes, the demands for justice continue – including, most recently, the call by human rights groups yesterday for the investigation of current army chief César Milani for his alleged involvement in forced disappearances and abductions during Argentina’s genocide. (See http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/185115/marching-with-next-government-in-mind.)

This call only highlights the continuing importance of memory for truth and justice, even as trials are underway.  It also reminds us of the need to continue sustaining such memory not only March 24th, but the morning after, and every day.

Julio Strassera dies – prosecutor in the historic military junta trials

Today, Julio César Strassera, an important figure in Argentina’s human rights history died.  Strassera was the chief prosecutor in the military junta trials that took place in 1985, trials that were significant in that they were conducted by a civilian court in a democratic government against leaders of the previous military dictatorship.  In total, there were 9 leaders who stood trial, including Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Eduardo Massera, and Roberto Eduardo Viola.  General Videla and Admiral Massera were sentenced to life in prison, General Viola received seventeen years (two others — Admiral Lambruschini and General Agosti received eight years and four and half years respectively; the remaining accused were acquitted).

Despite these convictions, the Full Stop Law (1986) and the Law of Due Obedience (1987) prevented any further prosecutions of perpetrators; under President Carlos Menem, those who were sentenced or court-martialed received pardons (during the years 1989-1990). In the years of impunity that followed, the activism of human rights groups and the ongoing symbolic power of the CONADEP “Nunca Más” Truth Commission Report continued the efforts to attain justice in relation to the crimes of that time. Under President Néstor Kirchner, the laws were overturned, opening the way for new human rights trials to begin again, taking up the call of “never again” voiced by Strassera during the first military junta trials, where he famously said:

“I wish to use a phrase that is not my own, because it already belongs to all the Argentine people. Your Honors: “Never again!” (Nunca mas!)”

Also see http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/183081/dirty-war-trial-prosecutor-strassera-dies-at-81

http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/ultimas/20-267029-2015-02-27.html

Never Again: The Legacy of Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth in Democratic Argentina

Argentina Genocide Chronicles 2.0

Never Again: The Legacy of Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth in Democratic Argentina

by Natasha Zaretsky

In the February 10, 2015 New York Times, Uki Goñi, author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina, wrote a piece about truth in Argentina, provocatively titled, “How Argentina ‘Suicides’ The Truth,” or in Spanish, “Como se ‘suicida’ la verdad en Argentina.” He explores the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of Alberto Nisman, the lead prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building, the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history. Despite killing 85 people, wounding hundreds, and destroying the main Jewish community center in the nation, twenty years after the attack, the case remains in a state of impunity.

Nisman had been investigating the bombing since 2004, and in January, had made controversial accusations directed against Argentina’s government (accusations they deny). [1] Shortly after making those accusations public, Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment on January 18th, the night before he was scheduled to appear before Congress to formally present his findings.   Since his death, questions have abounded about who killed him, whether it was a suicide or a murder, who is really behind it, and what it all really means for Argentina.

Truth, as noted by scholars like historian Jeremy Adelman, [2] has important implications for democracy.  So, what is at stake here is not only the truth of what happened in the Nisman case, or the AMIA bombing, but more broadly, truth itself as a central foundation for Argentina’s democracy — a promise of truth drawing on the legacy of the historic truth commission report, Nunca Más (Never Again).

Nunca Más and the Promise of Truth

Why does truth matter so much? In Argentina, truth, or the promise of truth, became one of the foundational principles of the newly formed democracy, as symbolized in the CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) truth commission created to help Argentina transition from state terror, repression, and genocide to a society based in the rule of law. The CONADEP released their findings in a best-selling 1984 report, aptly titled Nunca Más as a way to further reinforce the idea that truth is integral to preventing such atrocities from happening again.

In 1983, after 7 years of a brutal dictatorship that left an estimated 30,000 disappeared, Argentina transitioned to democratic rule. One of the first things newly elected President Alfonsín did was to create the CONADEP – The National Commission on the Disappeared was created by President Alfonsín in 1983 to investigate and document the systematic abuses committed by the state from 1976-1983, the years of military dictatorship euphemistically called the “Proceso” (the Process of National Reorganization), classifying out, disappearing, and torturing those considered dangerous or subversive to national order by the military in power.

The historical significance of the CONADEP truth commission cannot be overstated. As one of the very first truth commissions to take place in the world, it became a model for transitional justice efforts that became paradigmatic in Latin America and beyond.

When justice did not seem immediately possible, the official documentation of the truth in the Nunca Más report became an important way for the state to acknowledge the experience and history of the survivors of state violence and the family members of the estimated 30,000 victims of state violence and repression. The Nunca Más report also connects the experience in Argentina with other genocides that preceded it, like the Holocaust, and is a term used for responses to subsequent genocides as well – suggesting the power of truth to prevent the recurrence of state violence and genocide.

In Argentina, truth and memory became especially important in response to the overwhelming silences of the dictatorship. The detentions, tortures, and disappearances were waged in a clandestine way, with the military in power attempting to disappear not just human beings but also the truth of that time. The social movements formed during the period of state repression — such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and later the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo – actively resisted the official narratives that denied the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity underway, using protests in public spaces like the Plaza de Mayo to challenge the notion that their children simply disappeared, and defend their rights to know the truth of what happened. Through their protests and advocacy, they inscribed memory into public spaces and into the political ethos of democratic Argentina.

While the CONADEP and the Nunca Más report were an important official support of these efforts and a step forward in a new democracy established in 1983, the late 1980s saw new challenges with the amnesty laws that heralded in a period of impunity for perpetrators. In the 1990s, in a period when justice was deferred, truth and memory remained critical tools in the advocacy work of the human rights movement, in the work of the Mothers and Grandmothers, along with other groups representing ex-detainees and children of the disappeared (H.I.J.O.S.) and the continuing efforts of organizations like CELS (Center of Legal and Social Studies).

We see, then, that the idea of “truth” and the promise of that truth, as symbolized by Nunca Más, continued to expand its meaning and relevance as time wore on, through the work of human rights groups struggling to resist the impunity that surrounded the state terror of 1976-1983 and the period of amnesty for perpetrators that existed in the first years of democracy.

A New Era for Memory, Truth… and Justice

Under the leadership of President Néstor Kirchner, human rights reforms took place that finally opened the door for prosecutions to begin for the perpetrators of torture and abuse. The largest such trial, the ESMA Mega-Trial (which began in 2012 and will conclude in 2015; to read more, see the CGHR Argentina Trial Monitor), builds on the promise of the Nunca Más report. Now in the context of justice, the trials are chronicling the juridical testimony of hundreds of witnesses that are documenting the abuses that took place at the ESMA. The ESMA itself is now officially called the Ex-ESMA and has became an important site of memory, home to organizations like the Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) archive and other human rights groups.

These trials then are taking place in tandem with a greater human rights effort, for whom memory and truth were historically central.   The connections between Memory, Truth, and Justice – literally pillars standing at sites of former torture and abuse – have become foundational to Argentina’s democracy, critical to ensuring that “never again” will the state be able to commit human rights abuses against their own citizens, thus reinforcing and sustaining the promise of truth in Nunca Más.

The Continued Importance and Legacy of Nunca Más for Democracy

But despite the genocide trials, challenges remain for democracy in contemporary Argentina.  In this time of political crisis, members of the government are defending their human rights record and their efforts in this case. [3] The trials prosecuting the perpetrators of state violence, along with the many other efforts of Argentina’s government to support human rights, are significant, and indeed carry out an important part of the promise of Nunca Más – hoping to ensure that the state will never again be responsible for such atrocities.

But part of the promise of Nunca Más is also in the step forward it represented in terms of establishing a democracy based in the rule of law. Indeed, the “never again” not only refers to human rights abuses but also to impunity. The promise and possibility of truth of Nunca Más is also to ensure the rule of law and a functioning civil society, so critical for any democracy.

The power and promise of truth in Nunca Más remained strong in an Argentina during a time of the amnesty laws in the 1990s, and continues to expand under the historic genocide trials currently underway. Now, as Argentina grapples with the challenges of Nisman’s death and the ongoing impunity in the AMIA case, we can hope that the legacy of truth embodied in Nunca Más continues to inspire the nation and help move it forward.


Links to References

– Jeremy Adelman, “Why It’s So Hard to Know the Truth in Argentina,” Slate, February 9, 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2015/02/alberto_nisman_s_mysterious_death_and_president_cristina_fern_ndez_de_kirchner.html

– Alicia Castro, “Argentina Upholds Values of Peace, Truth, and Justice,” in Financial Times, February 9, 2015 http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b2d4763e-ae02-11e4-8188-00144feab7de.html#axzz3RpXtWShN

– Uki Goñi, “How Argentina ‘Suicides’ The Truth,” The New York Times, February 10, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/opinion/how-argentina-suicides-the-truth.html.

– Uki Goñi, “Como se ‘suicida’ la verdad en Argentina,” The New York Times, February 10, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/universal/es/comentario-como-se-suicida-la-verdad-en-argentina.html

– Natasha Zaretsky, “Something is Rotten in Argentina,” The Tablet, January 21, 2015

http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/188458/alberto-nisman-argentina

– CGHR Argentina Trial Monitor

http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/argentina-trial-monitor

[1] For more background on his accusations and another analysis of the impact of Nisman’s death on the family members of the victims of this bombing, see Natasha Zaretsky, “Something is Rotten in Argentina,” The Tablet, January 21, 2015

[2] See Jeremy Adelman, “Why It’s So Hard to Know the Truth in Argentina,” Slate, February 9, 2015.

[3] Alicia Castro, “Argentina Upholds Values of Peace, Truth, and Justice,” in Financial Times, February 9, 2015

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