Friday, March 24, 2006

Chile 1st, Argentina 2nd; Washington?

By Justin Vogler
The Santiago Times

Analysis: 30 Years Later, Argentina Finds No Excuse For State Terrorism

(March 24, 2006) Thirty years ago today the Argentine military launched a coup that toppled the presidency of Isabel Perón and brought to power the most bloody and incompetent of all the South American dictatorships.

For the first time the “national day of memory, truth and justice” will be observed (commemorated is an inappropriate word) throughout Argentina. President Kirchner is expected to lead an official ceremony to mark the coup’s anniversary and remember the victims of the ensuing horror.

The Argentine defense minister, Nilda Garré, has announced that all the armed forces’ secret files relating to human rights abuses are to be made public. The move is expected to help thousands of relatives of disappeared political prisoners find out what happened to their loved ones.

In the last few weeks the heads of the Argentine armed services have accepted that members of their institutions were complicit in the seven years of repression that left an estimated 30,000 dead, and saw tens of thousands tortured or forced into exile. They have all said that no justification can exist for these crimes.

This is the first time that the Argentine air force has officially referred to human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. Brigadier Eduardo Schiaffino said last week that today’s military must “understand that there can be no collusion with crimes, torture or cowardice.”

In a similar vein, Admiral Jorge Godoy declared: “There are no valid arguments that can deny or excuse the perpetration of these violent and tragic actions.”

The commander of the army, General Roberto Bendini, went further by apparently accepting institutional responsibility for the creation of a vicious “repressive state apparatus”.

These statements echo the now famous declaration made be the ex Chilean army commander in chief, General Juan Emilio Cheyre, in 2004. Cheyre accepted “institutional responsibility” for the abuses committed by the Pinochet regime and pledged that the armed forces would “never again” be involved in human rights violations.

The Uruguayan and Brazilian military now appear to be edging towards similar admissions of guilt and repentance.

All these countries were involved in Operation Condor, the joint intelligence and counterinsurgency initiative that sought to track down and eliminate leftwing activists and subversives across the Southern Cone in the 1970s. The logic was simple. The threat poised by the “terrorists” was so great that the use of extra judicial means –torture and murder – was justified.

Ex Chilean intelligence chief, Manuel Contreras, had this to say in a 2002 interview:
“We were ordered to repress subversion and terrorism, and that is what we did (…)We eliminated the terrorists from Chile, throwing them out of the country, detaining them in Chile, putting them on trail, with the result that we produced very few dead compared with other countries that still have terrorism.”

Crucially, the recent declarations made by the Argentine and Chilean top brass involve forthright rejections of this doctrine that the ends justify the means in the fight against terrorism. Bitter experience has taught the South American military that terrorism and subversion can only be fought using the law. Once security forces step outside the law, the distinction between terrorist and state agent becomes dangerously blurred.

This conclusion stands in stark contrast to current US policy. The Bush administration has repeatedly stated that it will not be constrained by legal considerations in the war on terror. The most forthright articulation of this position came from Bush himself on September 12, 2001.

“I don’t care what the international lawyers say,” said the President, “we are going to kick some ass.” (Quoted in Richard Clark’s Against All Enemies p. 24).

Subsequent revelations about the torture of prisoners held by the US at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and the use of “extraordinary rendition” – the clandestine deportation of suspects to countries that use torture – illustrate what the president meant by “kicking ass”.

But is it really fair to compare the tactics used by the notorious Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships with the approach taken by Washington in the war on terror? I put this question to Philippe Sands QC, the renowned international lawyer and author of Lawless Worlds.

“One has to be careful,” Sands cautioned. “In relation to extraordinary rendition we don’t yet have a clear sense of the numbers and it doesn’t yet look like the sort of figures which were involved in Operation Condor.

“That said, the principle seems to be the same. You are right to note the claim made in the 70s in South America that terrorism and related threats can in certain circumstances justify the trampling of human rights law. That is precisely the argument being made today by the Bush administration.”

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