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  • Confronting the Past"Never Again" in Argentina
  • Raúl Alfonsín (bio)

During my years as president, Argentina went through a phase of its transition toward democracy that posed tremendous challenges to our society and its leaders. It is not easy to build democracy in a setting where political culture and civic habits have been degraded by authoritarianism. Nor is it easy to build democracy in the midst of a deep economic crisis exacerbated by the need to repay a huge foreign debt that the old dictatorial regime had contracted and irresponsibly misspent.

In our society, the building of democracy could not be viewed simply as a process of restoration; it was essentially a process of creating new institutions and implementing new routines, new habits, and new ways for people to live together. It was a matter not of reconstructing a system that was functioning well until it was interrupted by authoritarianism, but of establishing new foundations for an authentic democratic system, something that we had never fully achieved.

There was a tradition in Argentina that after each dictatorship, the crimes and abuses committed by the authoritarian government would go unpunished. My administration, moved by an urgent ethical imperative, for the first time opened the judicial channels so that the extreme violations of human rights perpetrated by both revolutionary terrorism [End Page 15] and state terrorism could be investigated and judged by an independent judicial body. Thus the impunity of the powerful would come to an end.

We created a commission of distinguished personalities to investigate the fate of the "disappeared"; after an arduous effort, it enlightened the public about the tragedy that had occurred. We also annulled the amnesty law imposed under the military dictatorship, and put in place a juridical regime that would respect the constitutional guarantees of due process, the right to a fair trial, and the principle of legality while making possible the conviction of those most responsible for these atrocious crimes.

Our intention was not so much to punish as to prevent: to ensure that what had happened could not happen in the future, to guarantee that never again would an Argentinean be taken from his home at night to be tortured or assassinated by agents of the state.

As we repeatedly explained, our principal objective was not to obtain retribution for every wrong but to help prevent the recurrence of similar wrongs in the future by internalizing in the collective conscience the idea that no group, however powerful it might be, is beyond the law.

This objective required that we take into account the necessity of assuring the loyalty of the armed forces to the democratic system, since the preservation of democracy is the main shield for the protection of human rights. Therefore, a careful distinction needed to be made between the legitimate and open struggle against terrorism and such practices as the torture and clandestine murder of human beings, which are universally recognized as illegitimate.

To be sure, the pursuit of this objective—supported by the vast majority of our people—was opposed by those who saw one side in the struggle between revolutionary terrorism and state terrorism as the transgressor and the other as a group of idealists that at most had committed some excusable excesses. These partisans either demanded punishment for each and every member of the group that they had a priori condemned, or else called for casting a cloak of absolute oblivion over these events, as had often been done both in Argentina and elsewhere.

In implementing judicial proceedings, a series of juridical and practical obstacles had to be overcome. Moreover, prudence required that three important limits be observed: a limit on the public unrest provoked by the judicial investigations and proceedings; a limit on the time period of the trials; and a limit on the categories of persons considered responsible for criminal behavior. That is why even during our electoral campaign we made distinctions among those who planned the actions and gave the orders that set in motion the repressive state apparatus; those who committed excesses in carrying out their orders; and those who in a climate of error and compulsion had decision-making power but limited themselves...


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pp. 15-19
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