Human Rights in Latin America

Ko'aga Roñe'eta


In Search of Vindication

Reparations for Human Rights Violations in Argentina

Graciela Lois
Executive Director
Derechos Human Rights - Argentina

Margarita Lacabe
Executive Director
Derechos Human Rights

March 24th is the Day of Memory in Argentina.(1) It was on March 24th, 1976 that the last and most brutal military dictatorship took power, unleashing its reign of terror throughout Argentina. Thousands of men, women and children were "disappeared" by the security forces, most taken to secret detention centers where they were tortured and kept in subhuman conditions before being murdered. The truth as to what happened to the majority of the "disappeared" is still not known, the military has yet to turn in the records of the repression to civilian authorities, and the families of the disappeared continue clamoring for truth and justice, remembering and making sure that the memory of the disappeared continues forever.

On March 24th we remember them publically, more loudly, with marches and demonstrations but also with concrete actions. Last year (1998), on March 24th Congress voted to repeal (but not annul) the laws of "due obedience" and "punto final" which enshrined de jure impunity in Argentina.(2) And this year (1999), on March 24th, the first stone of what will be the Monument for the Victims of State Terrorism was placed. The Monument, inspired by the Vietnam Memorial, will include the names of the disappeared. It will face the waters of the Rio de la Plata, where so many of the disappeared were thrown to their deaths, and will be set within a much larger "Park of Memory," that will contain sculptures honoring the victims and open spaces for collective memory.(3)

This sculpture and memorial park does not intend to heal wounds that cannot be healed, nor to replace truth and justice. Nothing will bring back real peace of mind to the families that have not been able to find out yet the final destiny of their loved ones, savagely tortured and murdered. Nothing will replace the social void provoked by their absence. This park will stand as a testimony, as a memento and as homage to all those whose lives were effaced and that have become known to the world as "the disappeared", as well as to all those who were murdered. They will be present in their inscribed names and in the evocation of their obliterated lives.

Future generations will confront here the memory of the horrors committed and thus become aware of the need for them to happen NEVER AGAIN.(4)

The struggle for human rights in Argentina has been centered not only on the search for truth and justice for the victims of state terrorism, but also on the memory and vindication of the victims and their need, and right, of redress. Projects like the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism cannot in themselves make the victims, and society, whole again - but are essential component in the vindication not only of the victims as human beings who fought for their believes and were killed in the most cowardly of ways, but of the families and other human rights workers who have put their lives and livelihood at risk for so many years, facing guns and social opprobrium, in their struggle for truth and justice. The monument, as the other monuments, plaques and memorials that remember the victims, is both a public acknowledgment of the inherent worth of each person who was killed and disappeared, and a public condemnation of those who tortured and killed them. In paying homage to the victims, we condemn their victimizers.

Truth, Justice and Reparations

The struggle for human rights in Argentina has to a large degree been shaped as a struggle for truth and justice. Learning the fate of the thousands of disappeared was understood to be primordial from the beginning - at first the goal was to find them, later, when it became clear that they had been killed, to find out what happened to each one of them. Families had a strong psychological need of knowing what happened to their relatives, and society itself needed to (and needs to) understand what the military did in their name. Human Rights organizations and activists worked very hard investigating, and organizing and analyzing information about the disappearances, and their work provided a base for the activities of the CONADEP..(5)

Truth, of course, is only part of the equation. There is an equally great need for justice for the victims of human rights violations; those who tortured and killed them must be held accountable for their deeds. Lack of justice impedes the establishment of the rule of law in Argentina and contributes to a conscience of impunity which encourages further human rights violations.(6) Human Rights groups and activists in Argentina worked and continue to work actively for the prosecution of human rights abusers both before Argentinian and foreign courts.(7) They also participate in the continuos denunciation of human rights abusers, both so as to impede their promotions within the armed forces and to let the public know who they are and what they did.

But the struggle for human rights and against impunity has another equally important element: the reparation of victims of human rights violations. Human rights organizations and activists in Argentina have worked tirelessly and to a large degree effectively to obtain redress for the victims of state terrorism. However, the struggle for reparations has been arduous and one that has painfully divided and continues to divide the human rights community at its core. This is due, to a large degree, to a deep misunderstanding in the part of some human rights workers as to what is the purpose and significance of reparations. The international recognition of the right to reparation as additional to, rather than a substitute for, the rights to truth and justice, and the international understanding of reparations as an acknowledgment by the state of its responsibilities for human rights violations is needed not only to repair this rift, but to assure that similar rifts do not develop elsewhere.


The right to reparations implies both individual and collective measures. At the individual level, victims of human rights violations(8) must be able to enjoy effective remedies which cover all the injuries suffered by the victims. Reparation must include restitution (to re-establish the situation that existed prior to the violations), compensation (for any economically assessable damage resulting from the violations) and the rehabilitation of victims. At the collective level, reparations consist in the public acknowledgment of the State of its responsibility for human rights violations and should include public declarations reestablishing the dignity of the victims, ceremonies and monuments in their memory and the naming of streets and other public areas.(9) Providing truth and justice for the victims is also an essential element of reparations.

Argentina has made very important strides in compensating the victims of human rights violations for the economic damages they suffered. Political prisoners and ex-disappeared were compensated for the time they spent in prison or in concentration camps and thus forcibly away from their jobs or studies. The families of the dead and the disappeared were compensated for the economic hardship that the loss of their family member involved. While financial compensations are only a part of the reparations due by the State and society to the victims, they are important both for their practical effects and because they constitute a clear acknowledgment by the State of its responsibility for the human rights violations committed against its subjects. By agreeing to provide compensation to the victims of human rights violations, the State is acknowledging that it is responsible for those violations and that they were wrong.

A number of laws and executive decrees were passed by the Argentinian government to compensate the victims of human rights violations. These included both laws providing financial compensation and laws recognizing the special status that the disappeared have in Argentinian society, due to the methods used by the military dictatorship against them.

In 1985, Congress passed law 23.466 which established provisional benefits for the families of the disappeared. The law established a minimal pension(10) for the wife,(11) minor children and other dependents of the disappeared.(12) In 1991, a law was passed to exempt direct relatives of the disappeared from military service.(13) This law was necessary given that human rights violators in Argentina continue to enjoy not only their freedom, but their military careers, and so as that the children of the disappeared would not end up serving at the same place where their parents might have been tortured or killed.

The disappeared were not the only victims of human rights violations in Argentina. Thousands of people were imprisoned during the 1970's, often because of their imputed political beliefs. Most of them were put at the "disposition of the executive power," though a few were actually sentenced through highly political and unfair trials. After democracy returned to Argentina, some of these people sued the government for false imprisonment - however, the courts ruled that the suits were barred because of the statute of limitations. The victims petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that their right to justice had been violated. In response to this, in 1990 the government set up an ad-hoc Commission to draft a law that would provide reparations for people in the situation of the petitioners. When Congress was slow in approving the law, the President passed an executive order that authorized the payment of compensation. The amount of the compensation was calculated in relationship to the amount of time each victim had spent in detention, larger compensations were given for victims who had died during detention or endured particularly gross mistreatment. About 260 people asked for compensation under this law.

In 1991 Congress passed law 24.043/91 which established reparations for people who were imprisoned between November 6, 1974(14) and December 10, 1983(15) by orders of a military tribunal or the executive power. It provided a similar compensation scheme to that of the decree.(16)

Two very important laws were passed in 1994 to further provide reparations for he disappeared. The first, law 24.321/94, creates the juridical figure of the "Absent by Forced Disappearance" for people who were disappeared by the repressive forces until Dec. 10, 1983. The law calls for the recording of the disappearances in the National Registry, where births, marriages and deaths are also recorded. The law fills a legal vacuum, it allows the wives of the disappeared to legally remarry, have sole legal custody of their children and allows for the disposition of the property of the disappeared. More importantly, this recognition of the disappeared as a juridical person signifies an official acknowledgment by the State and society of the disappeared as such.

The second, law 244.11/94, provides compensation(17) for the families of the disappeared and killed by the repressive forces before Dec. 10, 1983. It also allows for the registration of people killed, filling the vacuum left by the CONADEP which concentrated only on people that had been disappeared.(18)

Finally, in 1999 Congress passed a law creating a "Historical Reparation Fund for the Location and Restitution of Children Kidnaped or Born in Captivity". Under this law, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo will receive about $25,000 a month during two years to fund their efforts to search and recover disappeared children.(19)

Still on the inkwell is a bill that would compensate Argentinian exiles. Thousands of people had to leave Argentina during the military dictatorship to save their lives, often at a great financial and emotional cost.

While financial compensations are essential when human rights violations have lead to economic losses as in Argentina, they are only a part of the reparations that both the State and society owe to the victims. As mentioned above, public memorials and homages to the victims are needed both to vindicate them and to remind society of what happened. While the Argentinian national government has done a lot to provide financial compensation to the victims, its record on providing public reparations is much poorer, and most public reparations have been provided by other institutions.

In Argentina, most of the public commemorations of the victims have focused on the disappeared, perhaps due to the uncertainty about their fate and the monstrosity of the treatment they received. Schools and universities have been among the first to honor their disappeared students, graduates and professors.(20) They have erected plaques with their names honoring them, often unveiled during commemoration ceremonies to which their relatives are invited. In 1998 the University of Buenos Aires for the first time gave a diploma to a disappeared student,(21) in a ceremony attended by his parents, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and many others.

Some cities and municipalities have also erected memorials to the disappeared or found other ways to pay homage to them. The city of Trenque Lauquen, for example, erected an open-air sculpture garden on a city plaza in honor of the seven disappeared from the city. The city of Villa Regina in the province of Rio Negro declared a "El Libro de Mariel," a book about the disappeared sister of the author, to be of "municipal interest." Even cities in Italy, from where many of the disappeared came, have named streets, parks and buildings after them.

The Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism, a project of the city of Buenos Aires rather than the national government, will probably become the most important public memorial to the victims. The name of each and everyone of the disappeared and killed will be written facing that river which devoured them, and their names will be able to be read aloud by everyone.

Another type of reparation which is essential both to vindicate the victims and to preserve the collective memory of the genocide, is the preservation of those places that functioned as the centers of terror. In Germany and Poland, concentration camps have been preserved as a reminder of the holocaust to the world, and the same should be done in Argentina. Human rights activists are now working to turn the ESMA(22) concentration camp into a Museum of Memory, where future generations could learn about the genocide that took place in Argentina. The National government, however, has opposed this measure and would instead like to destroy it.

In 1998, President Menem issued decree 8/98 where he ordered the transfer of the Navy's Mechanics School to another installation and ordered the Ministry of Defense to destroy the ESMA building, which had functioned as a concentration camp, so as to construct "a green space for public use and a place for siting a symbol of national union". The prospects of destroying a building that might provide information about the disappeared and building on its place a monument to "national union" was like a slap on the face for many of the families and friends of the disappeared, and it generated a very strong negative public reaction.

In response to the decree, relatives of the disappeared filed an "amparo" action asking that the destruction of the building be stopped, ad the building represents both for them and for society a symbol of the horror and that destroying it would mean erasing the living testimony of our past.(23) This action allowed two relatives of the disappear for the first time to visit the ESMA concentration camp. Meanwhile, a bill has presented in Congress that would convert the ESMA into a museum. Human rights activists would like to see all concentration camps become museums and thus permanent reminders of what should happen never again.

Truth as Reparation

As important as financial compensation and homages to the victims are, they only constitute part of the reparations due both to the victims of human rights violations and their families, and to society as a whole. Obtaining the truth as to what happened is a most important part of the reparations due, and without truth, to the undying pain of the disappearance must be added the haunting uncertainty as to what happened to the disappeared.

Human rights organizations and activists have done much of the work of uncovering what took place and what happened to their loved ones. As mentioned above, they collected, organized and analyzed information from survivors, families and in a few cases the torturers themselves. In this sense, it's appropriate to mention the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team which for many years has been investigating and identifying the graves where some of the disappeared were dumped, and identifying the disappeared themselves. While the majority of the families will never be able to find the remains of their loved ones, so many were thrown to the river, the team's worked has helped many be able to bury their own dead, under their own names. For many families, finding the remains of their disappeared relatives, while painful, is akin to being reunited with their loved one. The remains of the disappeared also speak loudly through their injuries as to what was done to them. In addition, finding the remains of a given person helps identify those responsible for their death - as each cemetery was under a particular jurisdiction.

While human rights groups have worked very hard to uncover as much information as to the disappearances as possible, it is the ultimate responsibility of the State to provide the families of the disappeared and society in general with a complete and detailed account of what took place. This, the State has not done.

In 1984, the Alfonsin government set up the National Commission on the Disappearances of Persons, which compiled and systematized much of the information the human rights groups had uncovered about the disappearances. It also took testimonies and compiled a list of the disappeared. However, it's investigatory powers were limited and while the report it produced served to create a bases of collective truths about the disappearances, it did not provide answers about individual cases.

The role of investigating individual cases was and is the proper province of prosecutors and investigative judges. However, the abovementioned amnesty laws stopped practically all investigations as to what happened to the disappeared. While new trials may bring some information, the Argentinian State still has to fulfill its responsibility of releasing all the information about the disappearances. And this obligation is not one that only falls on the shoulders of the Argentinian State - countries like the United States which have ample documentation about what took place in Argentina and other Latin American countries, must open their archives and declassify these documents.


The views presented in this paper about the significance of reparations are not shared by all human rights activists, families and survivors. As mentioned above, the issue of reparations brought about a profound rift within the human rights community. In 1986, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo - the organization that has become the symbol of the struggle for human rights in Argentina - split into two separate groups precisely on this issue. While the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Founding Line advocate reparations as a symbol of the State's acknowledgment of its responsibility for human rights violation, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, headed by Hebe de Bonafini, have been vehemently opposed to them. The organization of ex-disappeared (though not all the ex-disappeared themselves) have sided with the Association on this issue.

For these groups accepting financial compensation is akin to giving up the struggle for truth and justice, it's selling out for money. They believe that the only possible reparation is justice, and that the State should start by punishing all human rights violators. They reject all other types of compensation. For this reason, they are also vehemently opposed to the excavation of the tombs of the disappeared and the identification of their remains. It should be the State who provides all the answers as to what happened to the disappeared. In addition, for the Association, all the disappeared should be remembered collectively and not individualized.

Needless to say, these organizations have also strongly opposed the Monument for the Victims of State Terrorism, again because they see it as a sell out, an attempt by the state to give much less than what it owes.

While ideological differences are common among human rights groups all over the world, the conflicts that have arisen over these issues have been profoundly painful for everyone involved and destructive for the human rights movement in Argentina. The organizations and individuals which oppose reparations have often accused those who have accept them of being prostitutes or traitors. Accusations like those were shouted at human rights workers on the March 24th march, for example - and are printed on a big signed carried by the Association to their Thursday marches at the Plaza de Mayo.


Argentina has gone a long way in providing reparations for victims of human rights violations; much more needs to be done however. The struggle for truth and justice continues, and full reparation will not be paid until these are reached. The reparation legislation that has been passed in Argentina can serve as an example to other countries with similar histories as to what can and should be done for the victims. The Argentinian experience with intra-group conflicts should serve as a warning sign of potential problems that other countries might experience. It should also remind us all of the importance of truth and justice for reconciliation.

1. In 1998, the Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires declared May 24th as they Day of Memory to remember the victims of state terrorism in Argentina.

2. The "punto final" law, issued in 1986, extinguished criminal actions against human rights violators who had not yet been charged with a crime. The "due obedience" law, issued in 1987, declared that all but the top military and police leaders were to be presumed to have been following orders and could not be prosecuted for the human rights violations they committed.

3. The park will also include a monument to the victims of the AMIA bombing.

4. From: Commission for the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism, document read at the ceremonies for the placement of the first stone.

5. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) was set up by the newly democratic government in 1984 to investigate the disappearances during the military dictatorship in Argentina. Their report, "Nunca Mas," summarizes their findings.

6. See Avila, Marcelo La Lucha Contra la Impunidad Como Garantía del Estado de Derecho in KO'AGA ROÑE'ETA se.iii (1997) -

7. Soon after democracy returned to Argentina on Dec. 1983, the civilian authorities initiated criminal prosecutions against human rights violators. Most of these criminal procedures were stopped, however, when under heavy military pressure the National Congress passed two laws effectively amnestizing all but the highest military leaders. These were tried, mostly convicted, and later pardoned by current President Menem. Human rights groups then focused on possibilities for justice abroad, and criminal prosecutions against Argentinian military were initiated in France (where Cpt. Astiz was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the murder of two French nuns), Italy (where preliminary hearings for the deaths of 7 Italian citizens should finish in May, 1999), Spain (where dozens of Argentinian military have been indicted on charges of genocide, terrorism and torture) and Germany (where prosecutors have began to investigate the murder of German citizens in Argentina). New criminal procedures were also initiated in Argentina against Argentinian military on charges of misappropriation of minors (kidnaping), and to obtain the truth about the fate of the disappeared.

8. By "victims" we refer both to the direct victims of human rights violations and to their family members and other people with close personal relationships to the direct victim.

9. See Question of the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations (civil and political). Revised final report prepared by Mr. Joinet pursuant to Sub-Commission decision 1996/119, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/20/Rev.1, 2 October 1997

10. It's currently about $140 a month., the cost of living in Argentina approximates that in the United States.

11. This was later expanded to include common law wives

12. In essence, this meant elderly mothers that could show that their disappeared child supported them, and younger disabled siblings of the disappeared.

13. Law 23.852/90 was passed on Sept. 27, 1990 and issued on Jan. 2, 1991. It became moot when obligatory military service was abolished in Argentina.

14. The date when a state of siege was declared in Argentina by the Isabel Peron government.

15. The date when a democratic president took power in Argentina.

16. Financial compensation was given at an official rate of $75 per day of imprisonment. The actual compensation paid, however, was significantly lower due to the compensation system set up. About 7,000 people have already been paid compensation under this law.

17. The amount of the compensation is about $200,000, paid in government bonds with several years before maturity.

18. In addition to disappearing people, the repressive forces also killed some of them outright. They would then be reported as having died in an armed "confrontation" with the security forces. The CONADEP only had jurisdiction to investigate the disappearances, so there has not been a through investigation of the summary executions nor a list of victims officially compiled.

19. The repressive forces in Argentina kidnaped pregnant women and mothers with young children. While some of these children taken, or born in captivity, were returned to their family, a large number of them were given to families close to the military to raise as their own. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have been searching for their disappeared grandchildren ever since they were taken, and have been successful in finding about 60 of them.

20. About 21% of the disappeared were students, almost 6% were teachers.

21. Daniel Bendersky, a Physics student, disappeared on 16 Sept. 1978, a month after he turned in his thesis, but before he was able to defend it. His thesis was so brilliant he received a "10".

22. The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy's Mechanics School - ESMA) was the largest concentration camp in Argentina. Thousands of people were taken there after being kidnaped by the Navy, and there they were savagely tortured and later killed.

23. The action was filed by Laura Bonaparte, a member of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Founding Line, who has seven family members disappeared and Graciela Lois, the co-author of this paper, whose husband was disappeared and seen at the ESMA. An "amparo" action is equivalent to a request for an injunction based on a possible violation of constitutional or other fundamental rights. The amparo was at first granted by the court, but has been denied by the appellant court. It is now being considered by the Argentinian Supreme Court.

Paper presented at the Hague Appeal For Peace Conference in May, 1999.

Cite as: Lois, Graciela and Lacabe, Margarita In Search of Vindication: Reparations for Human Rights Violations in Argentina KO'AGA ROÑE'ETA se.vii (1999) -

Human Rights in the Americas
Ko'aga Roñe'eta, Series VII

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