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Iraq: Latin America's Legacy Of 'Disappeared' Offers Lessons In Transitional Justice (Part 4)

  • Robert McMahon

Tens of thousands of people went missing in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's decades in power and are presumed to have been executed or imprisoned. Now, with mass graves being discovered and excavated, the fate of those who disappeared may finally be learned. In the last of a four-part series on Iraq's missing persons, RFE/RL looks at what lessons in transitional justice Iraqis can draw from Latin America, where many states emerging from autocratic rule are still coping with the legacy of their own "disappeared."

United Nations, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Countries throughout Latin America are still coping with the abuses inflicted by former autocratic regimes.

Many have set up truth and reconciliation commissions to investigate those abuses, especially the thousands of cases of missing persons. Results have been mixed, but the region's ongoing efforts to deal with its recent past could provide lessons for Iraq as it begins exploring issues of transitional justice.

Worldwide, more than 20 truth commissions have been set up during the past two decades, many in post-conflict circumstances. A number have been inspired by South Africa's commission -- set up in the mid-1990s -- to deal with the abuses of the apartheid regime.

But for Iraq, a more important example could be Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission. It was formed in 1997 as part of a peace agreement ending a civil war of 36 years in which more than 200,000 people disappeared or were killed.

After 18 months of work, the commission released a tough report in 1999 blaming the Guatemalan military for the killing of civilians during the civil war. Its strongest conclusion was that agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people in the years 1981 to 1983.

But built-in limitations dulled the report's impact. Unlike the South African commission, Guatemala's panel held no public hearings, received only limited media coverage and did not name individual perpetrators.

The fact that former dictator Efrain Rios Montt is able to continue a push to seek the presidency highlights the shortcomings of Guatemala's truth commission. That's the view of Jonathan Tepperman, a senior editor of "Foreign Affairs" magazine and an expert on war crimes and human rights.

Tepperman tells RFE/RL that trials must be part of such transitional justice efforts. "It inculcates an environment of total impunity, and Guatemala is now slipping back into a kind of gangsterism from which it just recently emerged. So that in order to establish law and order and make the transition to free and open democracy, as well as provide some kind of solace to the victims of the past regime, trials have been determined to be very, very important," Tepperman says.

Tepperman says truth commissions must not be allowed to provide a way for former regime leaders to escape accountability. One of the reasons South Africa's commission was more successful, he says, was its powers of subpoena and search-and-seizure and its ability to name names.

"They need to make clear who was complicit, even if that means people who are currently serving in government, and they need to force the government to hand over documents. So, truth commissions can be very helpful if they're constructed the right way. But the other thing that one should emphasize is they are not, in fact, a substitute for trials," he says.

Latin America's latest experiment in transitional justice, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appears to be bringing new vigor to the process. It is the first in Latin America to include public hearings. A special unit within the commission has also recommended cases for judicial action and has publicly passed several cases on to prosecuting authorities.

In its two years, the commission has interviewed nearly 18,000 people to gather testimony about abuses committed by terrorist groups and government counterinsurgency forces between 1980 and 2000. The interviews have helped the commission revise the number of dead and missing to between 40,000 and 60,000. Its final report is due out this summer.

During a recent news conference at the UN, commission members said they hoped their efforts would help lay the groundwork for fundamental changes in Peruvian society. Commission member Sofia Macher said its work is already having an impact.

"Having collected testimony from those who suffered the violence, for us this was part of reparation in and of itself," she said. "The fact that we were collecting these testimonies, for us this was part of the recognition, an acknowledgement of what happened to these people in the country. Not only was there a violation of certain rights but also the victims of these violations were silenced and stigmatized."

Tepperman of "Foreign Affairs" says recent history in Latin America has shown that societal problems will persist if issues such as mass disappearances are ignored. He points to the distress caused in Argentina by the failure to properly account for the estimated 30,000 people who disappeared in the "dirty war" of 1976 to 1983.

But new Argentine President Nestor Kirchner has signaled a willingness to face the past. He has indicated he wants the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a series of amnesty laws and pardons that have been in effect for more than 10 years. After the fall of Argentina's dictatorship 20 years ago, civilian authorities set up an investigative commission and put members of the military junta on trial. But that process was sidetracked by a series of economic crises and an amnesty for human rights abusers approved by subsequent governments.

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