Faces of human rights in Argentina

Lisl Brunner [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 2L, in Argentina]: ""Asesino!" resounds from the stained-glass windows and marble columns of the makeshift courtroom in the city hall of La Plata, an hour south of Buenos Aires. Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, former Director of Investigations of the Buenos Aires Police Department during Argentina's last military junta, has just appeared to face charges of kidnapping, torture and murder. A middle-aged woman near me is weeping, and groups of young people waving flags start to clap and chant about how the Nazis are going to get it. In an empathetic tone, the president of the three-judge panel reminds the observers that he can order the trial closed to the public. The bustle subsides during the two hours it takes to read the charges against Etchecolatz: a woman dumped in the mountains after being beaten and raped; a house looted and machine-gunned while its occupants were carried off in hoods; an infant given to a military family to raise when her parents were arrested . . .

High-profile cases like these now constitute the minority of the cases taken on by the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) in Buenos Aires. While the group was founded thirty years ago for just this purpose, its mainly volunteer staff has transformed it into a multifaceted organization that has evolved with the country's legal climate. Free legal clinics are held at the main office on Monday evenings, and on other days the attorneys travel to "emergency neighborhoods" to hear a variety of problems akin to those presented to an American public interest lawyer; the only difference is that perhaps the situation is more desperate. Although the country has recovered impressively from its financial crash of 2001 in the macroeconomic sense, the unemployment rate still hovers around 16%. At night, the sheer number of people rifling through garbage bags on the street to find recyclable items for which the city will pay a few pesos is alarming. I read in the newspaper that there may be 40,000 of them, and on average they earn $100 per month. Many of them come to the legal clinics with complaints of wrongful eviction, denials of welfare benefits, and police refusal to answer calls or investigate in certain neighborhoods.

The Wednesday legal clinic, held in a one-room building of plywood and tin and framed by hundreds of shacks haphazardly scattered in the mud, is the focal point of another major case that APDH is sponsoring. The city of Buenos Aires proposed to give the residents a sum of money to relocate — the settlement is on prime waterfront property — but it has not offered assistance in finding new homes. The lack of an official census means that some people have already spent their subsidy and returned to the settlement, while others moved in for the sole purpose of collecting it. With APDH's support, the neighbors are suing the city for the right to stay, or at least for its help in finding new places to live. As they like to remind me, the less glamorous cases such as these illustrate what human rights work is really about.

Human rights work is also attending meetings of Mercosur, where NGOs have recently been invited to ensure that its policies respect the rights of immigrants, children and indigenous people. This new approach echoes my law professors' constant admonitions that international trade and human rights are interrelated aims that can be pursued together. Nevertheless, the delegates' nebulous statements about the importance of these rights and the absence of clearly articulated policies that protect them suggest that I am not the only one for whom this concurrence is unclear.

My greatest curiosity is to explore whether the trials of people such as the 77-year-old Etchecolatz are evidence that the rule of law and the respect for constitutional rights have truly taken root in Argentina. The case of Etchecolatz is the first to follow the annulment of laws granting impunity to most of those responsible for atrocities during the dictatorship. Originally passed to quell threats of yet another military uprising, the impunity laws were struck down by the Supreme Court last June. It is an auspicious moment for the legal system, yet at the same time, new cases of detainees being beaten to death in police custody seem to emerge every week."

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