September 20, 2014
‘Region’s human rights present worrying’
Fabián Salvioli has held a seat at the UN Human Rights Committee since 2008. A well-known Argentine human rights expert, Salvioli began his career at Amnesty International and in other human rights groups. Before heading to Geneva to take part in the second annual meeting of the UN body, Salvioli welcomed the Herald in his office at the National University of La Plata to discuss human rights in an international context and give his impressions on sensitive issues affecting the country, such as the trials for crimes committed during the last dictatorship, security and the need to overhaul the Civil and Penal Codes. Though he considered César Milani’s appointment as a “mistake,” the expert praised the last decade’s human rights policy.
However, Salvioli highlighted that the Argentine judiciary lacks academic training in human rights and a gender perspective. “I think those magistrates should be out of the judiciary,” the member of the UN Committee said.
How is the country’s human rights policy seen abroad?
Argentina had two important political moments. The first, during the return of democracy, when a historical trial was carried out against the main people responsible for massive human rights violations. Over the past 10 years, since the overturn of the so-called impunity laws and the reopening of the trials, the country had its second prominent moment. In the Inter-American system of human rights, the country has also shown a commitment to meet its obligations and reach friendly solutions.
Do you think all countries in the region have the same commitment toward the Inter-American court and Commission?
There is a worrying retreat. Venezuela’s withdrawal from the pact of San José de Costa Rica (American Convention on Human Rights) is bad news for the whole region. There are many things to overhaul but dropping obligations on human rights is never the answer.
Given Venezuela or even Ecuador’s criticism toward the Commission and the Court, can their positions influence political allies?
Argentina is one of the countries that supports the Inter-American system. Ecuador is maybe more aligned with Venezuela, and Bolivia is a bit less. Political alliances do not generally end up affecting positions toward human rights.
A month ago, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti said that trials for crimes against humanity will not end next year when the government changes, but others disagree. Is there a way to stop these proceedings?
It would be a big mistake. There is no reason to end the ongoing trials. It involves justice administered for crimes against humanity — if a government wanted to put an end to trials, that would be a scandal. If the most serious crimes are not punished, what would happen to the rest?
The three state branches are discussing how to accelerate the proceedings. Can’t that be a double-edged sword?
There is a biological limit to these proceedings. Many of those accused of crimes are elderly so ordinary judicial timetables are not suitable. It’s OK to accelerate trials but they should not forget about quality and respecting the rights of the parties.
During the last meeting of the committee in March, you examined the human rights situation in the US. Did you focus on Guantánamo and the so-called War on Terror?
Yes, but we also discussed the racial disparities on death penalty prosecutions, human trafficking, indigenous communities. The US claims that the committee is not entitled to examine the country’s extraterritorial responsibilities, which is why the committee could not examine the situation in Guantánamo.
Washington claims it can only be held responsible for things that happen within the US borders...
That is what the US says. But if it were like that, the Committee could not examine Israel’s responsibilities in the West bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Committee recently put forward a list of issues to Argentina, pointing out it wants to know what happened with Jorge Julio López’s forced disappearance in 2006. What are your memories of his disappearance during the trial against Miguel Etchecolatz and why do you think it remains a mystery?
It was like an earthquake. We used to think that forced disappearances were a thing of the past. But when a forced disappearance takes place in democracy it is much more shocking. We cannot say it is a practice of the state but in the city of La Plata we also had two other cases, Miguel Bru and Andrés Núñez. López’s disappearance was different because he was a witness in a trial and his disappearance makes it clear that when you decide to prosecute serious human rights violations you have to protect all the people involved. His abduction also revealed these people still have power.
Is it possible to democratize security forces and penitentiary services?
It’s a difficult issue. A society reveals how democratic it is if it restricts and punishes torture in detention centres. There are several reports from the UN and from domestic organizations that Argentina is far from reaching that goal.
Why do you think judges are reluctant to examine these cases?
Indolence, collusion but, above all, a lack of academic training in human rights. There are judges administering justice who never took a human rights course in their lives. Some time ago I delivered a lecture at the Supreme Court and I said that those who do not have a gender perspective have to be out of the judiciary. It is like being a cannibal and a vegetarian at the same time. It’s impossible.
Security has played a central role in the agenda over the past few months. Is this discussion similar to the one held in other countries?
Security is a human rights issue. Repressive measures have never been efficient. The societies that are safer are the ones that respect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of their citizens. Public policies have a direct impact on this. Human rights have to cross the whole political agenda.
Do you think it’s necessary to overhaul the Penal Code?
Yes, because it no longer exists. If you steal a cow, you’ll receive a bigger penalty than if you kidnap a person. The draft is a serious piece of work. But we cannot say that with a new penal code crimes are going to decrease or to increase.
And what about the Civil and Commercial Code?
A great draft. I want it to pass, although I think there were some relapses such as the article that establishes when life begins.
You’ve worked with NGOs, and these days organizations are accused of not being critical enough with the government. What role should they play?
It seems logical that organizations that have been demanding some things for decades praise these achievements when they are reached. But they should not leave their critical thinking behind. Most organizations celebrate what they have to celebrate and criticize what they have to criticize. For instance, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).
Do you agree with CELS’ opposition to César Milani’s appointment as the head of the Army?
Yes. I think that a person suspected of these crimes should not have been appointed. His designation was a mistake, I think. But I also find it unacceptable to say that the government has an insincere human rights policy due to his naming.