Summary of "The Legacy of Human Rights Violations in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay"

Summary of

The Legacy of Human Rights Violations in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay

by Luis Roniger and Mario Sznajder

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Roniger, Luis, and Mario Sznajder. 1999. The Legacy of Human Rights Violations in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This book provides a systematic and comparative study of the way three countries in the Southern Cone of the Americas have confronted the legacy of past human rights violations. The aim is to examine how the Southern Cone has "confronted this legacy of past human-rights violations and attempted to reshape the domain of human rights in several areas ranging from institutionalizing acceptable patterns of public accountability to mechanisms of expiation and compensation, from educational policy to constitutional reform, and from policies of national reconciliation to debates about history and collective memory." (2) This is an important book for anyone interested in the longer-term consequences of transitional justice. The literature has generally suffered from a tendency to look only at the immediate reception of truth commissions and trials.

They identify a number of factors "shaping the variations in institutional patterns and in patterns of interpretation in these societies. The most important among these parameters are the social, political, and legal traditions of each country; the constellation of social and political forces within it; the timing of the transition and the sequence of choices following it; the way in which each society reacted to the experience of the neighbouring countries; the patterns of public mobilization and debate; the symbolic involvement and collective catharsis of the different sectors of population in the recurring crises." (2-3)

The analysis begins with an overview of the breakdown of democracy in the 1970s in the three countries. It compares the nature and scope of repression. Militaries in all countries rejected human rights discourse based on the fact that they were facing a national security crisis and an imposition on sovereignty. While they argue the UN had little influence in moderating state behavior, the Carter administration did. What is more, local NGOs were able to establish links to the outside world.

They then go on to examine the period of redemocratization. in all three countries, there was a tug-of-war between normative desire and political constraints in dealing with human rights abuses of the past. Argentina went the farthest as the Falklands (Malvinas) War had discredited the Argentine military. They discuss the truth commission, CONADEP, and the trials. They find that those favoring each path were in opposition, which made the government vulnerable to rising pressures for amnesty. In Uruguay, the military retained significant control of the process. There was an implicit understanding in the negotiations that violations would not be punished. Political elites were used to making deals amongst themselves, but the transition prompted mass participation. They discuss the ensuing referendum effort to force an examination of the past, which ultimately failed. For Chile, they find that, for many, the issue in the late 1980s was not so much human rights, but socioeconomic concerns. They discuss the truth commission, the Rettig Commission, the creation of follow-up bodies to Rettig, legal reform efforts, and reparation plans. The Rettig report produced much distress in the military, which rejected it. Guzman's assassination switched the focus to leftist violence. The government's management of legal accountability strained relations with the military and within the Concertacion.

Next, the authors explore the destabilizing threat of the legacy of abuses from the continued pressure for accountability. The legacy of human rights abuses added to other pressures that strain society. In all three states, it was perceived that national reconciliation was necessary to become an orderly democracy (110). "In the three cases national reconciliation was projected as a rhetorical device, which almost everybody could accept at low cost." (111) Despite all side agreeing on the need for reconciliation, each group had very different ideas of what that meant which consequently had varying implications for the costs involved. "As institutional partial solutions were implemented, national reconciliation fulfilled a dual role. It was used to legitimate impunity granted to past violators of human rights, and it was a source of legitimacy for political leaders trying to minimize the public impact of the legacy of human-rights violations." (113)

They discuss how in Argentina the past had largely fallen from public attention until new revelations emerged in the mid-1990s. In Chile, too, 1995 marked the reemergence of the past when the verdict was issued in the Letelier case and new unmarked burial sites were found. Scilingo's confession reopened wounds in Uruguay too (119). "In the three societies, policies of national reconciliation did not achieve the closure of the issue nor were they able to avoid reverberations and repercussions that strained the processes of democratic consolidation and recentered the legacy of human-rights violations in the public agenda." (121) They go on to discuss how the events in 1995-6 led to more details emerging about Plan Condor, that human rights abuses had a regional dimension. They also touch on the role of foreign courts keeping the past alive.

Following, they discuss how the legacy has been dealt with in terms of reparations, constitutional and legal reform, and educational reform. Generally speaking, the authors see the reforms as mainly reactive and they did not strongly affect authoritarian enclaves.

The problem of ongoing human rights violations is also addressed. They find they have taken different forms and there has been little public outcry due to strong support for a tough stand on crime (151).

To summarize, in examining the legacies comparatively, they find four variables important in explaining variations. The are: social, political, and legal traditions; specific institutional mechanisms adopted by political leaders; the balance of forces; and the relative success or failure of implementing policies to confront the legacy.

They go on to a comparative assessment of the politics of memory and oblivion by the military, politicians, intellectuals, and activists. The book examines how cultural elites create symbols of abuses in order to reshape identity in their societies. Some politicians, intellectuals, and other elites have suggested the need to look further back to pre-military times from conquest and colonialism. Roniger and Sznajder discuss efforts at historical revisionism. There is also significant discussion of how memory has become infused in the arts.

It concludes with a discussion of the politics of memory in the context of the confinement and expansion of collective memory under democracy. Their conclusion is not overly positive. "[T]here is no institutionalization of a shared or widely recognized interpretation of the past, and that information and full acknowledgement of the legacy of human-rights violations under military rule is still partial." (222) What is more, "[s]harp disagreements about the past have precluded in most cases the confinement of memory, while the apathy of the majority has at the same time allowed for the marginalization of the issue." (269)