We could not publicly tell anyone. We had an important speaker coming but her visit could not be advertised. She desperately wanted as many people to know about what was happening in her country as possible but she knew that if the generals then ruling Argentina heard of her efforts, her remaining family in that troubled land would be in grave jeopardy.
Our word of mouth invitations to the meeting brought together a modest crowd in a small, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, church hall. All listened to her powerful, personal story of an activist son “disappeared” during the Dirty War, which was then still scourging her land. It lasted from 1976 to 1983. Her unanswered requests for information from authorities on her son’s fate lead her to join a small group of white scarfed women who bravely staged a weekly protest in the Plaza de Mayo which fronted on the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, in downtown Buenos Aires.
The Mothers of May Square sought answers. They drew wide attention to the flagrant human rights abuses of the dictatorship. The risks they faced were real. Their witness had consequences. One of their founders, Azucena Villaflor, involvement in the protests lead her to share the same fate as her missing son and daughter-in-law. Though all knew she had been taken to a military concentration camp in late 1978, forensic efforts only identified her remains in 2005. Her ashes are buried today at the foot of a monument in the Plaza de Mayo.
On a visit to Argentina in 1986 I met Hebe de Bonafini, a seamstress and mother of three who took over as head of this women’s organization in 1979 as well as human rights activist, torture victim and 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aldolfo Perez Esquivel. A dark cloud still hung over the country at that time. De Bonafini and Perez Esquivel’s struggle for human rights definitely had not ended. The military, though forced to relinquish power after the disastrous 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, had remained an institution to be contended with. Despite attempts to call those guilty of gross human rights violations to account the military demanded and got immunity from the consequences of their crimes.
The Argentine Supreme Court eventually overturned the amnesty laws protecting the perpetrators of Dirty War crimes in 2005. Justice could then be pursued. This past Wednesday General Reynaldo Bignone, de facto president of Argentina in 1982-83 and second in command of Campo de Mayo, the country’s largest torture centre from 1976 to 1978, was found guilty of involvement in 56 cases of kidnapping, torture and murder. A court sentenced the 82-year-old general to 25 years in prison. Six others also received jail terms for these crimes.
The rule of law must check impunity. This is as true for human rights issues as for environmental or financial crimes. Government, corporate or for that matter ecclesiastical powers still all too often believe they can act with impunity by virtue of their position. This is not acceptable now and for that matter really should never have been.
Spring food drive volunteers from the Christian churches of Whitehorse will be canvassing the city in support of our community food bank from the evening of Tuesday, April 27th to Thursday, April 29th. Please be generous.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.