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Human rights taken over by the left

A UN Human Rights staff stands in front of a drawing illustrating North Korean labour camp number 18 in Geneva.
By James Neilson / As I See it

When asked what is good about the Kirchnerite government, even those who despise it are prone to mention its ‘human rights policy’

Once upon a time, in the now almost forgotten past when the world was a different place, hard-line leftists took it for granted that only people in the pay of the CIA pretended to be interested in human rights. Being stalwart defenders of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Pol Pot and a host of other individuals who were more than happy to “liquidate” entire social classes for what struck them as perfectly respectable reasons, they could hardly object on moral grounds when others did much the same on a far smaller scale.

Instead, they tried to distinguish between the old fashioned rights reactionaries went on about, such as the right not to be tortured, shot or sent to some concentration camp for thinking unacceptable thoughts or writing a counter-revolutionary poem, as against the right to have plenty of food, a decent house and a well-paying job that communist regimes promised they would soon provide. To speed the Soviet Union on its journey toward oblivion, the US government harassed it by reminding those tempted to support it that “actually existing socialism” was not only pathetically inefficient but also barbaric. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 helped push it over the brink.

But then things changed. For many leftists, the demise of the Soviet Union was a godsend. Unless they were keen on North Korea and China, they no longer had to defend mass murder or the systematic persecution of dissidents. As for Cuba, they blamed whatever happened there on the “US blockade”. So, with remarkable speed, they picked up the human rights weapon the US had wielded against left-wing tyrannies and turned it against the few allegedly right-wing regimes that remained in Latin America or, in Europe and the US, against Israel and, with increasing frequency, their own governments. They are still at it.

Among the many who benefitted from the highly successful takeover by the left of what disgruntled sceptics call “the human rights industry” are Cristina and her friends. When asked what is good about the Kirchnerite government, even those who despise it are prone to mention its “human rights policy”. By this they mean its well-publicized determination to make military men and the odd civilian “friend of the Process” pay for crimes that were committed over thirty years ago. Of course, there are many exceptions. General César Milani has been amnestied as, needless to say, have the terrorists who did so much to make the “dirty war” inevitable, on the grounds that at the time they were not state employees but did their bit in the private sector.

It would be nice to think that after the departure of the military regime Argentina became a country in which human rights would be respected by all. Did it? Hardly. Police brutality still seems to be routine in many places, but it rarely attracts much attention. As far as most people are concerned, a human rights activist is someone who devotes himself or herself to hunting down those members, preferably senior ones, of the armed forces of the 1970s who are still at large rather than being left to rot in some wretched prison. Are they dangerous? Presumably some nurse a grudge, but since Carlos Menem taught the remaining holdouts a lesson they would not forget, astonishingly few military men have done anything that could be construed as antidemocratic. Had they behaved differently, neither Néstor Kirchner nor Cristina, who down in Santa Cruz had got on well with the local military when the junta was in power, would have dared take them on.

Argentina’s traditions are Mediterranean. The human rights business is dominated by relatives of the “disappeared” or the youngish men and women who were killed fighting for the Montoneros or some Marxist-Leninist-Peronist combat unit. This unhealthy development makes any discussion of the issues at stake far more difficult than should be the case. People who put family or clan first may deserve sympathy, but it would be unreasonable to expect them to be unbiased.

Not surprisingly, most react with horror if you suggest that the terrorists were just as bad as their uniformed archenemies and point out that there was never any doubt that, should the situation seem to demand it, the armed forces would confront them manu militari, as they eventually did with the, on the whole, tacit approval of much of the population. Had the country’s political leaders been up to the task, they would have taken charge of the “battle against subversion” and, after obliging the soldiers to do things by the book, would have assumed full responsibility for the tactics employed but, of course, most decided to look the other way.

From the point of view of the parents, widows, sons, daughters and grandchildren of those who died or suffered almost forty years ago, it is outrageous to argue that a general amnesty, for all but the very worst, would be justifiable. Like many other countries, back then Argentina experienced a moral blackout. Along with the military chiefs, left-wing and neo-Fascist terrorists, large numbers of intellectuals, pusillanimous politicians and many others found themselves irresistibly attracted by the idea of armed struggle, whether on behalf of some horrendous “utopia” or in order to save the country from what could well have been a terrible fate.

For those who think the Montoneros were merely “idealists”, on occasion violent but not really dangerous, it is easy to forget that, as one of their leaders, Héctor Ricardo Leis, recalled shortly before his death in Brazil last year, they were prepared to shoot or consign to concentration camps at least half a million Argentines in order to make the revolution they had in mind more secure. They were not just boisterous children. Like their contemporary, the Cambodian mass murderer Pol Pot who in his own country was showing them the way ahead, they were serious about what they were doing and therefore had to be stopped.

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