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Coming to Terms with the Past: Transition, History and Human Rights

Martin Evans introduces a new series on the painful past.

‘A country without justice or memory does not have a destiny.’ Speaking shortly after his victory in the May 2003 Argentine elections, the new President Nestor Kirchner’s forthright manner struck a chord with his compatriots. During the military dictatorship of the 1970s, some 30,000 people died – the so-called ‘Disappeared’ – and in recognising the need to face up to this bitter past Kirchner was acknowledging the incomplete nature of Argentina’s political transition. Formally the country had become a democracy again in 1983, after the end of General Galtieri’s regime, but the system had never completely won over the trust of its citizens. The ease with which military leaders escaped justice made large numbers of Argentinians cynical about politics, a cynicism that was brought to breaking point by the economic collapse at the end of December 2001.

So, by reopening the possibility of prosecution for members of the military accused of human rights abuses; by annulling the decree blocking the extradition of members of the military to other countries; and by announcing his desire for the Supreme Court to declare as unconstitutional the laws which amnestied known human rights violators, laws passed in 1987 under the threat of a military rebellion, Kirchner was making a statement about the need to bring the military under civilian control. Such political courage won large scale public sympathy – whereas he had only won 22 per cent of the vote in May, just three months later opinion polls showed that 80 per cent of the electorate supported his leadership.

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