Dealing with the Past: the Argentinian Experience

I. Introduction

Argentina is frequently cited as an exemplary case for how transitional justice can be achieved in the aftermath of state violence and, the role truth commissions, memory work and legal reform can play in the process. The purpose of this report is to reflect upon observations through a study visit conducted to Argentina and thereby engage in a comparative analysis of Turkey and Argentina both of which have gone through a series of military regimes and have suffered severe human right violations.

The last coup d’etats in Turkey occurred in 1980 and lasted for two years until 1982. The 1982 Constitution which was prepared by the military dictatorship is still in place in Turkey. Moreover, although the military relinquished power only two years after the coup, the Southeastern provinces which are predominantly populated by Kurds remained under its control between the years 1987 and 2002 due to the rule of emergency declared against the guerilla movement of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). To this day, there is no serious official attempt to account for the crimes committed during the military regime or in those 15 years when emergency rule reigned over South Eastern provinces. As such, one could argue that different from Argentina, Turkey has not experienced a full transition to democracy. On the contrary; its recent history is one of irregular and pragmatic continuities and ruptures not easily reducible to a coherent historical narrative. This said, certain recent transformations in the legal realm are cherished by the public in Turkey as a step towards transitional justice –comparable to countries like Argentina– despite mixed messages on the part of the state and those in power.

For example, a series of legal reforms towards democratization were made in 2000s as part of the accession process to the European Union. Many oppositional groups regarded these reforms to be an opportunity for freedom of expression which eventually could enable the questioning of ―state terror.‖ Unfortunately, the Terrorism Act passed in 2006 prevented these legal reforms from being effective. A further development towards transitional justice is some partial changes made in the 1982 Constitution in 2011 which lifted the impunities of officers-in-post during the 1980- 1982 military rule and allow their prosecution. However, this was also far from being effective since no comprehensive framework for revealing and publicizing the ―terror‖ committed by the state in that period is established. Finally, while the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, who has been in power since 2002, plans to replace the Constitution which was crafted by the military regime in 1982 with a new one, it barely consults with those who have suffered state violence and denies their proposals testifying to the fact that changing the law and achieving justice remain disconnected in their political agenda.

On the other hand, the public in general has also only recently started to discuss the different ways in which past and present human rights violations and state crimes can be addressed officially and non-officially. For example, Kurdish actors who have been suffering from ―state terror‖ since the creation of the Republic have started to demand the building of truth commissions to investigate the 1990s when disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, mass arrests and forced displacement occurred under the state of emergency. Concomitantly, Kurdish and Turkish feminists are questioning gendered crimes committed by the military and the police first during the military rule of 1980-1982 and then, during the conflict with the Kurdish armed guerilla forces since 1982. Once again, no singular officer has been brought to trial for such charges. The Diyarbakır Prison Justice and Truth Commission, a non-official group who came together under the leadership of The Foundation of 78 Generation is lobbying for the Military Prison in Diyarbakır, which was a center of torture during the Military regime, to be turned into a Museum and Memorial.In other words, despite official unwillingness, oppositional forces in Turkey increasingly use tactics and strategies that have been developed under transitional democracies. Human Rights Organizations (HROs) and Legal Associations play an important role in this regard.

Similar to many other southern countries, Human Rights Movement (HRM) in Turkey was formed and its influence accelerated right in the aftermath of the junta regime. Until currently, these were only visible to the state and to those whose rights they protected and defended. Today however, activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights organizations (HROs) are becoming more visible in public due to these new tactics and strategies. For example, similar to Center for Social and Legal Studies (CELS) in Argentina (which we will discuss below), HROs in Turkey are trying to make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted and innocents released. Specifically, legal cases on hate crimes, on men slaughter by the state in the war zone and on activists accused by the terrorism act of 2006 are closely followed by these groups and mass attendance to trials is organized successfully—despite the fact that desired outcomes are unlikely to occur.

Also, different HROs and NGOs are conducting memory work, collecting testimonies and claiming places where ―state terror‖ took its toll such as mass graves—again with partial or no success. Social trauma and individual trauma stemming from officially unrecognized state violence is becoming a catchword for describing Armenians, Alevites, Romiots, Kurds, Leftists and even women with headscarf who suffered repression. Finally, in the last years more and more witnesses encouraged by HROs are coming out and reporting about mass graves where guerillas and civilians are buried. 114 mass graves have already been discovered while a further 117 are awaiting investigation. The urgent need for establishing a forensic anthropology team that will follow the Minnesota protocol is voiced by many organizations while the state continues to conduct its investigations and excavations with techniques that make identification impossible. In sum, the necessity of coming to terms with the past is gradually recognized by civil society in Turkey. Yet again, while all these are happening, the term ―transitional justice‖ which would give these kinds of mobilization a legitimate framework is never officially pronounced. On the contrary, the state and many other sectors in society oppose such mobilization vehemently; regarding them either as unnecessary or dangerous. We believe that comparative research and knowledge is an important means by which such a framework can be built, and civil mobilization publicly–if not officially— be legitimized. That is why for purposes of building a Memory, Truth and Justice Center, one of our initial activities has been to arrange a trip to Argentina.

We have traveled to Argentina in April 2011, met with several HROs and visited Monuments and Memorials in order to learn from the Argentine experience with memory, truth and justice. Certain similarities and differences between Turkey and Argentina were already known to us. However, our visit has taught us more than we have ever imagined in terms of the universalities and particularities of our own experience. It gave us an opportunity to look beyond our habits and to formulate our needs and priorities if we are to move towards justice through re-membering and recovering truth. After this visit we have also decided that we will continue such visits to other places where we can further learn from; since among our goals are to make transnational alliances, further south-to-south dialogue and most importantly, contribute to the empowerment of the local context through the production of comparative knowledge.

In Argentina, we specifically tried to access HR institutions professionalized in documentation and memorialization, that have both international acclaim and tight local ties and, those who managed to build alliances and cooperation. These aspects were of interest to us since they are the principles on which we want to build our work on memory, truth and justice. During our stay we had meetings with Memoria Abierta, Center for Social and Legal Studies, Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. With the help of lawyers we met in CELS, we were also able to attend the recent trial on ESMA which was used as the largest clandestine detention center during military rule. We also had the chance to talk to judge and former Minister of Justice Leon Carlos Arslanian who played an important role in Argentine’s transition to democracy both by serving in the panel of judges overseeing the historic 1985 Trial of the Juntas as a member of the National Criminal Court of Appeals and as the Minister of Justice in Menem’s government.

In all the institutions we visited we made specific appointments with people who were responsible for documentation based on the fact that during our previous meetings, HROs in Turkey had expressed a need to learn different strategies of collecting evidence and dissemination of findings.

Besides these, we visited Olimpo and ESMA, clandestine detentions centers in Argentina, both of which are today transferred to HROs and transformed into Community Centers. We were taken through guided tours at both Olimpo and ESMA and had the opportunity to talk to employees along with their directors. Last but not least the Memorial Park which is built in memory of those who died under ―state terror‖ was a meaningful ending to our trip where again we had a guided tour and engaged in conversations with different people. In the following pages, we will first give a background on the truth, memory and justice work in Argentina. In the second part of the report, we will share the information we gathered at each institution and place we visited based on our meetings, interviews and research. The final part of the report will include a comparative discussion of state violence in Argentina and Turkey as well as the work on memory, truth and justice with a particular focus on what those of us in Turkey can learn from the Argentine experience.

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