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September 21, 2017

OPINION

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why using the figure of genocide to describe those crimes

By Carlos Rozanski
for the Herald

Mass crimes committed against entire populations have historically gone unpunished for numerous reasons. First and foremost, perpetrators with absolute power have been able to erase the majority of the evidence of those crimes and in many cases have given themselves amnesties or imposed laws that prevent the courts from investigating. It must also be considered that once the totalitarian processes that generated the crimes come to an end, incoming governments are limited by diverse factors that condition the implementation of laws allowing to try and sentence those responsible for massacres.

In the few cases that there has been judgment and conviction for those who ordered genocides, it has been in international tribunals but not with judges from those countries. Once the last civilian-military dictatorship ended in the Argentine Republic, there were few trials in 1985 of the commanders of the Military Juntas that resulted in convictions.

However a few years later the enactment of laws known as the Full Stop (Punto Final) and Due Obedience (Obedencia Debida) prevented trials from continuing, thus slapping criminal responsibility only on the upper echelons of the military.

A few years later former president Carlos Menem pardoned those who had been convicted in those early trials, meaning that Argentina was entering an era of impunity. Convicted commanders were not punished, and neither were their subordinates who kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of persons.

In addition the effect of the trials was reduced to a mere historical anecdote. That reduction affected the pillars of true justice, which is reparation. A quarter century later, by way of the invalidation by Congress and fundamentally by declaring those laws of impunity unconstitutional, the Supreme Court permitted the current trials that Argentina has undertaken.

The La Plata Federal Criminal Oral Court No. 1 that I am a part of had the responsibility of carrying out the first of those trials in 2006. The trial concluded in September of that year with the conviction of former Buenos Aires provincial police deputy chief Miguel Etchecolatz and his sentencing to life imprisonment – the maximum allowed by Argentine law for aggravated murder, illegal detention and torture. The sentence used the term genocide for the first time in the country to name the military regime of 1976-1983.

The reasoning behind the term “genocide” was to place it in the context of a larger phenomenon instead of the summation of kidnappings, torture, murders and forced disappearances.

The idea was to break free from an arithmetic operation and instead use a concept that is in line with the infinite pain of a society in which tens of thousands of people were massacred by a violent and terrorist state and millions were affected by the cultural effects of that terror. Argentine playwright and psychoanalyst Eduardo Pavlovsky authored a play titled El Señor Galíndez before the genocide in which a repressor says, “for everyone that we touch, a thousand will be terrorized, we work by irradiation.”

The irradiation of terror, precisely, cannot be contained in an arithmetic summation of crimes nor can it be correctly defined by traditional criminal charges. Kidnapping, torture, disappearance and death describe horrendous acts without a doubt. But to say genocide is to say all that within a context of brutality that affects humanity in its entirety and, like other genocides in history, leaves an indelible mark on entire generations. Children have lost their parents, parents have had their children ripped away from them, babies who had their identities stolen and grandparents who have been looking for them for decades.

To say genocide is to denounce a murderous state usurped by people with miserly economic interests and who, in the name of civilizations they idealized, thought out, developed and executed a plan to forcibly disappear tens of thousands of citizens.

That brutal process, 40 years later, has tested a society that with unimaginable pain is facing its past. This society has identified it and calls murderers and accomplices by their name, judging and convicting them when it is appropriate with the guarantees that an honest democracy must provide. It is in that complicated challenge that Argentina has accepted that true peace lies. That challenge is a society whose children are raised and educated with an understanding the truth about what happened in the country, are confronting them with a judiciary that is more understanding and sensitive every day.

Their teachers, in turn, can cultivate memory in every classroom, so that peace can never again be interrupted by violence.

* Judge Carlos Rozanski is the president of the La Plata Federal Oral Court

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