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Reconciling truth: Argentina paved the way

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It has been an interesting couple of years for me, as an academic and an observer of the path Canada has started down to reconcile past wrongs against native citizens who suffered the abuses of residential schools.

I emigrated from Argentina two decades ago. I know about suffering at the hands of the state.

In Argentina, the government carried out systematic repression of its own people from 1976 to 1982. Up to 30,000 people -- suspected "subversives" -- were kidnapped, detained, tortured and "disappeared" by a military dictatorship.

I have been in Canada for 20 years now, but the kidnapping and disappearance of my sister Mónica 36 years ago has not become distant, neither through time nor geography. My sister, my parents' daughter, was taken by the navy, tortured at the infamous Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada and then "disappeared."

As others have said, the only one thing worse than terrorism is state terrorism. This was the case in Argentina, no "dirty war," just simple and plain state terrorism.

The history left its wounds and scars. After much debate, in early 1983 with the return of a constitutional government, a National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) was created. Argentina needed to uncover the truth of what happened, where all these people had gone.

Composed of a group of notables, the CONADEP received 8,960 accusations of disappeared individuals, located 340 clandestine centres of detention, determined that 1,300 individuals had been seen in centres of detention and were still disappeared, and identified 350 individuals presumably responsible for the repression. Its 490-page report, Nunca Más, sold 300,000 copies almost immediately.

As Jorge Nállim, an Argentine historian also living in Manitoba has argued, Argentina's was the first modern truth commission to investigate severe, state-sponsored human rights. Its findings not only contributed to a national debate on memory and justice, but were instrumental in the prosecution of the military leaders that had presided over the torture, killing and disappearance of thousands of citizens. It was the model for commissions created later in South Africa and other Latin American countries.

It was not without controversy -- why scratch old wounds? some asked. Ernesto Sábato, a key literary figure of Argentina and head of the CONADEP, addressed this in the prologue to Nunca Más: "They accuse us of hindering national reconciliation, of stirring up hatred and resentment, of not allowing the past to be forgotten. This is not the case. We have not acted out of any feeling of vindictiveness or vengeance. All we are asking for is truth and justice... in the understanding that there can be no true reconciliation until the guilty repent and we have justice based on truth."

Nunca Más. Never again. But the promise not to repeat is hollow without acknowledgment of wrongs done, the truth behind the history.

Over many years, Canada has received thousands of immigrants and refugees who have experienced state repression in one form or other. These experiences have been difficult, and for many, traumatic.

At the same time, it has provided many of us with an important background that can make a contribution to particular challenges within Canada. We are watching the country struggle for truth and reconciliation out of its Indian residential school legacy.

While the abuses were different in kind and magnitude, there is one significant common element between the CONADEP and Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The mandate of acknowledging the truth of what happened, as well as the injustices and harms done.

Many immigrants and refugees know too well that true reconciliation cannot take place if it is not based on truth.

The process of truth is not an easy path. Many of those who shared their experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have felt the reopening of wounds. However, they were willing to do so because being witness to the truth enabled a stronger journey of healing for themselves, their families, and their communities.

 

I admire the strength of these individuals, as I admired years ago the strength of my own parents bearing witness to the forced disappearance of my sister Mónica. She was 24, a social and political activist who worked in the slums of Buenos Aires. Over the years, the pieces of her disappearance came together for us. We believe she was thrown, while drugged, from a helicopter or plane, into the sea. This was the way the military regime got rid of people.

My mother was a founding member of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. My father founded, with other lawyers, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights organization that still plays a significant role in Argentina's reconciliation of its past.

A country, like its people, can emerge from trauma stronger.

These shared strengths, arising from truth, will help Canadians to establish, in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future."

 

Javier Mignone is associate professor at the faculty of human ecology, University of Manitoba. He has strong interest in social determinants of health, indigenous health, social justice and human rights.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J1

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