What can we learn from Argentina’s process of truth and reconciliation?

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The Monument for the Victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

By Peter McKenna (commentary)

The word ‘genocide’ or even ‘cultural genocide’ is a controversial, polarizing and often emotionally charged concept. It matters not whether you are referring to Canada’s First Nations peoples or the many victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the late 1970s.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not comparing or equating the two dreadful experiences. Still, having just returned from a two-week research trip to Argentina, I couldn’t help but think of the interesting parallels in how these scarring human rights atrocities are being handled by each respective country.

The process of truth and reconciliation with aboriginals in Canada has been a long, expensive and, by times, an impeded undertaking by Ottawa. The whole sordid matter of how the residential schools question has been managed in Canada speaks volumes about its sad and problematic nature.

The same cannot, for the most part, be said about how Argentines have sought to reconcile their present reality with their troubled past. And what a horrific past it has been.

Almost every day there was a story in the newspapers about politicians, former military officers or judges who were put on trial for perpetrating “crimes against humanity” (or callously looking the other way) during the last military government (1976-1983). Each person was being accused of unspeakable conduct — often involving the brutal detention, torture and eventual painful death (some victims were actually sedated and pushed out of the back of military aircraft all along the coastline of Argentina) of so-called “subversives” (translation: those who disagreed with the ruling military junta).

 When I visited the wall of victims with my family (not far from the small military airport in Buenos Aires, the capital, that was used in this “transfer” technique that involved pushing drugged people off airplanes at 35,000 feet into the Rio de la Plata), carefully dubbed the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism, it’s bone-chilling to see the thousands of names (some say over 30,000 “disappeared”) ranging from age seven to seventy. Your stomach turns when you see the names of young women who were pregnant at the time and think about what their last days must have been like.

 The maniacal military and intelligence service, which learned a good many of their torture techniques from the French Army’s experience during the bloody 1960s Algerian War, perfected their trade over the years.  Besides the use of submarining (similar to waterboarding) and hot, scolding metal objects, starving rats were used to terrify those who had the misfortune of being picked up by the military. Suffice to say: those individual Argentines who were detained did not succumb to a peaceful death.

I won’t even delve into the sick and demented actions of the Argentine military at the notorious Navy School (Escuela Superior de Mecanica de la Armada or ESMA) in Buenos Aires, where more than 5,000 people disappeared (including whole families). All I can say is that those Argentines had to confront a fate of terror and degradation that no person should wish on their worst enemy. I felt chills as I walked around that place wondering what the walls of those many buildings would say if they could only speak.

Unlike in Canada, the Argentine authorities have been relentless in bringing alleged perpetrators before the courts. Indeed, amnesty for high-ranking military officers has been rescinded and no one linked to the atrocities of the Dirty War has escaped judicial scrutiny.

Most Argentines are proud of the ongoing prosecutions and trial process. There are, of course, those who fiercely oppose the trials, who dispute the numbers of “disappeared”, and who would like the country to get passed the Dirty War and move forward.

But there is no rush to judgment in Argentina and many alleged war criminals are getting more than one trial. Everything is being done to ensure that the trials are conducted properly, that the evidence presented is strong and corroborates the charges against the accused, and that they have robust defenses and appeals to other courts.

It is true that the celebrated Mothers of the Disappeared — who marched under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in front of the country’s presidential palace — have pushed the national government to go after those who committed crimes against humanity. But as one Argentine told me: “They are influential today because ordinary Argentines want the perpetrators of those crimes to be held to account.”

While the two experiences are obviously different, there is much that Canada can learn from the Argentines when it comes to dealing with our difficult aboriginal-governmental past. First, nothing should be swept under the rug and all federal government documents pertaining to First Nations abuses should be brought into the light. We should not be afraid of discussing our past openly and harshly, of still trying to hold people and institutions to account, and to setting the historical record straight for all to see.

Just as Argentines have come to learn that there cannot be a bright future unless they deal purposefully and honestly with their past, we Canadians will need to do the same.


Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the editor of Canada Looks South: In Search of an Americas Policy.

Organizations: First Nations, French Army, Navy School University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Argentina, Canada, Buenos Aires Ottawa

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