A Push in the Right Direction: Latin American Countries Escalate Fight Against Crimes Against Humanity

Last week showed a marked increase in the intensity with which several Latin American countries have been addressing crimes against humanity. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina all took measures to hold responsible those convicted of committing crimes under the oppressive governments and political instability of the 1970s and 1980s. Many crimes were conducted against civilians and foreigners in the name of preserving autocratic rule during this period. But despite recent progress toward justice, Brazil and Uruguay need to do even more to attempt to wipe their moral slates clean.

Building upon successful Argentinean and Chilean efforts at convicting past military and government officials in power during their countries’ periods of civil conflict, Uruguay canceled pardons on ex-military and government officials for any crimes committed during civil conflict.

This move allows Uruguay’s judicial systems to bring those guilty of crimes such as torture, murder and kidnapping to justice. The Brazilian government also authorized a truth and reconciliation commission on crimes against humanity committed by the state against its people. However, the government made no mention of punishing those found guilty by the commission.

Autocratic Latin American governments supported by the US notoriously cooperated during the 1970s in Operation Condor, in which governments detained, tortured and killed thousands of left-wing activists, students and political opponents.

Argentina ruled on two cases dealing with crimes committed during its Dirty War (1976-1984) when the state sanctioned violence against its own citizen activists. In the more widely followed case, Argentinean courts found former naval officer Alfredo Astiz guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. Known as the “Blond Angel of Death,” Astiz was found guilty of torture, murder and forced disappearances during his tenure working at the Naval Mechanical School in Buenos Aires.

In the second case, Argentina secured the repatriation of ex-military officer Alejandro Duret from Chile to serve 15 years of prison time for the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of activist Carlos Labolita in 1976. Human rights groups claim that over 30,000 Argentinean citizens disappeared or were killed during the eight-year period.

While successful convictions are nothing new for Argentina and Chile, Uruguay’s withdrawal of amnesty for officials and Brazil’s establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission come from increased cooperation between liberals and military officials in their respective governments.

In Uruguay, following the official lifting of amnesty, scores have filed suits against military officials on behalf of missing or mistreated people. Military officials, however, have protested the decision by arguing that reciprocal treatment demands that leftists who committed crimes against humanity ought to be punished as well. The officials do have a point. In order for Uruguay to be truly committed to fighting injustice and coming clean, the government has to not only try and punish those guilty on the military side, but it must also open up prosecution for leftists who committed the same atrocities. Priority should be placed on the nature and violence of the crime rather than which side committed the atrocities.

Likewise, Brazil’s authorization of a truth commission, while indicative of a growing movement within the government to acknowledge past crimes, reveals the persistent power of Brazil’s old military cadre. The truth commission does not aim to punish anyone, meaning its usefulness is symbolic at best. Only a commission with the ability to actually punish Brazil’s earlier dictator group can demonstrate its fulfillment to righting past wrongs and preventing future atrocities.

While the push toward recognizing past crimes against humanity committed by these countries’ ex-governments is commendable, Uruguay needs to be more impartial in distributing its punishment while Brazil ought to do much more to deliver consequences for those found guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Completion of the entire justice process from accusation to sentencing is necessary for these countries to prevent future crimes against humanity and to demonstrate their commitment to a democratic system that defends the interests of its citizens. Lucas Chan is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a freshman in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.