Interview with Secretary Claudio AvrujFriday, December 16, 2016
‘If the courts don’t push forward human rights trials, we can do nothing”
A year after assuming office, the government’s human rights secretary reflects on the past year, defends his department’s record on dictatorship-era investigations and says they are doing everything possible on the Milagro Sala case
Just moments after having personally received the second batch of declassified documents from the US government pertaining to Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-83), Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj met with the Herald in his spacious office in the former ESMA Navy Mechanics School (now a space for memory and human rights) to address the past 12 months.
The handing over of the files, from US Ambassador Noah Mamet, took place at a memorial service for human rights campaigner Patricia “Patt” Derian, who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in former US president Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Despite the importance of the event, the country’s main human rights organisations were noticeably absent, and a protest by activists asking for funds temporarily interrupted the memorial service. Both served as small reminders that things have been far from easy for Avruj in 2016. Many of the most prominent human rights organisations have expressed concern over cuts to key programmes and warned about the importance of trials investigating crimes against humanity. Tensions have also increased over more recent proceedings, with the most notable being the controversial detention of Túpac Amaru leader Milagro Sala, which garnered international attention, with groups like the Organisation of American States and the United Nations demanding she be freed.
After an admittedly long day, Avruj took time to reflect on the past year, highlighting the positive actions that have been taken since he took office and deflecting many of the accusations levelled by high-profile activists.
What progress has the Human Rights Secretariat made over the past year in terms of policy?
I am satisfied with what we’ve done this year. We’ve been able to become internally organised and create a working group. We’ve established a policy of dialogue in regard to human rights at a national level, which had been closed off over the last few years. We’ve travelled to almost 300 different regions in the interior of the country, (with) almost two activities per week in some parts of the country. The human rights agenda has become more federal and this has led to a greater impact. The issue of sexual diversity has been put at the forefront of the agenda for the first time, while we are also working hard to provide support to Afro-descendents, indigenous populations and supporting Syrian immigration. These are important achievements.
We are also working on creating a group that provides support for people that have suffered from institutional violence, other victims and persons who are professionals will participate in this programme. This is in addition to the Memory, Truth and Justice policy and — despite the criticisms we’ve faced — the data shows how we’ve followed this policy and even made it more efficient than the previous administration. The majority of people are giving us credit for the work we are doing. We’ve also promoted issues of identity, in addition to the forced-disappearances of people — such as the robbery of babies.
What were the biggest challenges you faced this year?
To be able to implement this agenda so that it understood that it is a state policy for the president and the Human Rights Secretariat and that we need to take care of it and recover it. And I think people have understood this. We’ve done this on the same level for international organisations, our presence in the last few years was lacking. Now we’ve received 12 different rapporteurs, and we have invited the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) to visit and the UN working group. I went to Panama and Geneva. We are where we need to be, giving the answers we need to, and receiving the responses we need to receive, whether they are good or bad, and administering them is our role.
What is the plan for 2017?
To advance human rights policy on a federal level so it will have more of an impact on the provinces. We will invest in recovering more memory sites (areas that were clandestine detention centres under the last military dictatorship) in the provinces. We are looking at Tucumán, San Juan, Chaco, Mendoza provinces. But not only to create silent sites for memory, but also expand the agenda, to provide human rights services. We understand that the investments made need to have an impact of people, so that centres can provide access to the judicial system, or to combat discrimination — it will depend on the necessities of each province. At the same time, we need to respect the areas of memory, like in the ex-ESMA. We are also going to advance strongly on the issue of femicides, along with the Women’s Council.
That’s a very big issue now...
We will see how it will work. We need to recognise that the last human rights secretary created a femicide registry and we are going to develop this. We’ve made agreements with the Supreme Court, and Women’s Council. This will be a very large part of our agenda, as well as the promotion of human rights. We want to educate people about human rights, so they form a pacific, inclusive and respectful society. And the third thing we are beginning is a pilot programme with Rosario city, in Santa Fe province, to help the justice system, which will provide support to victims of violence. This will provide emotional support, by providing a network of professional volunteers so that will provide help in different provinces. We want to advance the Memory, Truth and Justice policy, finish regularising the INADI anti-discrimination watchdog, and regularising the situation of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo University. In the next few months we are finishing an agreement on a building. We need to also talk about their budget, because it’s a law and we have to fulfill it. And we are working on ensuring that the buildings in the ex-ESMA are being fully used.
What plans do you have for these buildings?
Part of the Justice Ministry could possibly be transferred here. The International Centre for Promotion of Human Rights (CIPDH in Spanish), sponsored by the UNESCO, will move here. This organisation is led by (Spanish jurist) Baltasar Garzón. And we have a list of other organisations that still haven’t (decided to) come, but we will continue restoring the buildings so they can be used. I think that the INADI anti-discrimination watchdog should come here. We need to start advancing with UNICEF and other international organizations as well. But we hope this year we can finish this (process).
What is the importance of the latest batch of declassified documents from the US government?
Well, we haven’t gone through it yet. But what is important is that the US authorities provided us the new documents. They are mainly reports based on material gathered for the president from the (Gerald) Ford administration up to (Ronald) Reagan. So, this is the beginning of an important process for Argentina as it gives us information before the military coup d’état and afterwards. It provides us intelligence reports that had been demanded for so many years by organisations and by society. It took a lot of time to declassify them, with over 500 pages. Bringing new information to light is always very good for us. The military has caused a lot of pain, as the majority (of the military) haven’t recognised what they did and provided the information they have. There is information from around the world that is arriving now. (That) is now the work of the justice system, the journalists and investigators, to inform and help us so we can understand the details of what happened.
Do you think US President-elect Donald Trump could put in jeopardy the declassification, since it was agreed to by President Barack Obama? Is that a possibility?
No, I don’t think so. That is a speculation. Trump is a president of these times, and he wasn’t a politician during that period. I don’t think he is interested in hiding (the information) and I think with Trump, the good relations with Argentina will continue. As the foreign minister (Susana Malcorra) said yesterday, relations will continue being built. I think the American government will understand that if this is important for relations with the country, there shouldn’t be any obstacles. What should also be highlighted is how we handle our international relations. Because the declassification of documents that have to do with that period — which is being done by the US, France as well as the Vatican — has to do with the way we relate to the world. If we stop fighting with the world, and join it, the answers arrive.
What type of documents will Argentina receive from France?
They are documents from the French Embassy, complaints from family members of the victims, letters from relatives and their lawyers asking for information from those years. Now we are waiting for a response over the convention, so we can sign it. Even if nothing new is found, it will be very important because it will support what is known and not leave any doubts. The human rights movement in France was very active and helped a lot. There were many Argentine exiles located there and more than 20 French citizens had been forcibly disappeared. There was also a pilots’ centre that functioned there. So, this could lead us to very interesting things.
Trials investigating crimes against humanity continue to advance very slowly. Is there a way that the Human Rights Secretariat could provide more resources to make them go faster?
No, there is no way. I did ask the chief justice of the Supreme Court to call for a meeting of the commission composed of representatives of the three different branches of government, two months ago. This commission was initially formed when the trials began with the aim of monitoring the speed of the trials and how they are progressing. But it’s been two years since they’ve met.
The Human Rights Secretariat is a plaintiff in 226 cases, and there are 120 that have been elevated to trial — about 50 percent. Of those, only 16 have a court designated and in those courts there is a hearing every 15 days or so on average, that lasts two hours. If there isn’t a decision on the part of the Justice system to push forwards the trials, to designate judges to take up the case, to pick the courts, to fill the vacancies, there is not much more I can do than to make a political request or demand.
So, it’s out of the human rights secretary’s hands.
Exactly, it’s out of the Executive power’s hands, not even Cristina (former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) could mobilise it.
But didn’t former president Néstor Kirchner help push for the re-opening of the crimes against humanity trials by appointing judges that were more favourable toward them to the Supreme Court?
Yes, but when she (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) was later in power for four or right years, she couldn’t make them move faster. Either there was a decision not to move forward politically on their part, or they really couldn’t do anything. As I understand it, it’s been 40 years of delays. The criteria over how the trials are organised is very tricky. You could ask, if you have already someone accused (e.g. former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla), why do you have 70 trials? With 70 pieces of evidence or more? These are all the things that have to be dealt with. But this is the judiciary’s jurisdiction. It’s the same with preventive custody. There are more or less 470 military officials remanded in custody, 420 happened under the last administration with around 100 per year. But this year there were only 50 granted. These issues aren’t in the Executive branch’s domain to decide.
But isn’t there something that the human rights secretary can do about this?
No. With house arrest, the defence attorney can request it for their client and the judge has the power to grant or deny it. We aren’t even consulted over this.
There are some human rights activists who have criticised the government for dismantling certain areas dedicated to providing support for crimes against humanity investigations...
That’s false. The Security Ministry’s investigation unit continues to function (alongside) the human rights secretary. And in regard to the Central Bank, it has already been announced that we finished signing an information-sharing agreement and we are working toward its implementation. None of this has been stopped. Not one piece of information was denied. It’s been perfected or improved. This is the same with the Ulloa Centre (that provides psychological support to victims), which was claimed to be dismantled. That is false.
So, funds are still being provided to these units?
Yes, exactly. We are now renovating their headquarters which had been falling apart. The lawyers designated from the previous administration continue to work, we haven’t appointed new ones so — and this is how politics get mixed up in the issue... but everything is functioning. We received 27,000 requests for reparations that weren’t reviewed, 5,700 have been elevated to the Justice Ministry. Although that’s only 20 percent, we hope to increase the number next year. We systemised this, and gave priority by age, necessity and when the file was requested.
And in terms of the crimes against humanity trials that involve civilian complicity. Do you think the human rights secretary should accompany or advance on this idea?
Look, as long as they are accusations that are justified, we will review and study it. But, what we won’t do is back the cases against businesses and civilians a priori. We will review each investigation on a case -by-case basis.
How many cases has the human rights secretary removed itself from?
One, the (former banker Eduardo) Saiegh case. And that is because it was being used for the wrong purposes. It is a case that has existed for decades, but up until this day many of his accusations of torture and what happened during his arrest have not been proven. But independently of that, he had created a trust based on money that he would receive as a plaintiff of the human rights secretary. So he was trying to obtain an economic result in the name of human rights. The human rights secretary can’t be involved in this type of case. That is why we removed ourselves as a plaintiff.
The OAS secretary-general (Luis Almagro) has repeated his request to free Túpac Amaru leader Milagro Sala this week. Isn’t there a way for the Human Rights secretary or the national government — while at the same time respecting the federal jurisdiction of Jujuy state — to help free Milagro Sala, so that the international laws and agreements signed by the federal government are fulfilled?
Exactly everything that we’ve been doing in the human rights secretary goes in that direction. We have participated in every meeting, responded to every report request — this all has to do with finding ways to finding a solution. I said this in Panama to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, when we invited them to come. We are in support of initiating talks with Jujuy, and the national government is participating, in order to look for alternatives to resolve the situation. But you always have to balance this with respect for the federal system, and the autonomy and independence of the justice system. The UN working group’s committee made a suggestion, it is not binding. The only thing that would be binding is a ruling from the Inter-American court. If this happens, you have to comply with that ruling. Today, that hasn’t occurred. On the other hand, you have this whole process under way in Jujuy’s judiciary system. If the IACHR asks us something, we send it to the judiciary in Jujuy and request that they take it into account. And that they analyse it and respond to the request. We are always trying to mediate between the two parts.
In the letter by Almagro, he said three things that were interesting. First, that he recognised the importance of (the government) inviting the human rights organisations to visit the country, the importance of the state looking for a solution. And thirdly, that the answer needs to come from the justice system. This is the path we are following. We also are making sure that her rights and those of the nine other detainees are being protected in the penitentiary system where she is being held. We are collaborating with Jujuy’s human rights secretary to ensure this.
Couldn’t the federal government pressure the province to follow international law in some way, by either not sending national funds or using some other type of method?
No, here the president is saying that separation of powers and different judicial procedures must be respected. We can make requests or suggestions, but we can’t say you have to free them or we will cut off funding. It shouldn’t function like this.
The UN working group requested to (visit) Argentina in 2017. Under the previous government this was systematically denied. In 2011, they allowed them to visit in 2013, and one month beforehand they cancelled it. I received 12 rapporteurs this year, but in previous years they couldn’t come and weren’t invited. They wouldn’t attend the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights or only one person would be sent. The IACHR came out with a press release, and they didn’t say in any of the paragraphs that Milagro Sala should be freed. They suggested that the State, and Jujuy province should give a response to the UN working group. They also highlighted that she was arrested for one case, despite there being multiple cases against her now. They are creating a space for dialogue, and Almagro in this interview is saying the same thing.
He (Almagro) has compared Venezuelan prisoner Leopoldo López to Sala. Does the government, in some way, not lose moral authority when they demand López’s freedom — for Venezuela to follows the Inter-American Commission laws — but at the same time, doesn’t apply so much pressure over Sala? For example, last Saturday, Macri said that the majority of Argentines think that Sala should be in prison.
In reality, what the president said at that moment — without being his interpreter — is that there are two scenarios. In Jujuy there is a sector of the population that is in agreement with her being put in custody. Despite that, he is asking (Jujuy Governor Gerardo) Morales that he answer everything possible, without double standards. With this phrase, he separates the reality of what’s happening in Jujuy from what judicially needs to be done. He is waiting for that response, and it’s something that he is asking for López (to be given too). They are two different cases. López was arrested in a social protest, with a demand of aggravation against the president — a political persecution. This is something that is not proven in this case.