Why the Whole World Should Be Watching Argentina
By ALEX ZUCKER
On Dec. 19, 2012, a federal court in Argentina sentenced 16 men to life in prison for crimes against humanity during the country’s 1976–83 military dictatorship.
These crimes—kidnapping, torture, murder, and sexual violence—were planned and carried out, by military and civilian officials alike, against activists who opposed the right-wing regime. The number of victims is estimated at 30,000 children, women, and men.
And the judges declared it a genocide. This is why the world should be watching.
On Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the first human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly—even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Sharp-eyed observers will notice, however, that the Genocide Convention offers protection only to national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Political, gender, and sexual identity groups, among others, do not qualify.
This makes it difficult to punish the crime, as the Argentinian scholar Daniel Feierstein explains, “given that nearly all modern genocides are, to some degree, politically motivated.”
In order to resolve this dilemma, Feierstein and his Argentinian colleagues argue that the concept of “partial destruction of a national group” may be interpreted to apply to groups not currently protected under the Genocide Convention.
In Argentina, for example, when the state kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and raped people who opposed the military regime, it was in fact destroying part of a national group: Argentinians—in this case defined by their political stance.
Based on this argument, the judges in Federal Oral Criminal Court No. 1 of La Plata declared that although the men they sentenced on Wednesday were guilty of crimes against humanity, their actions had been aimed at the extermination of a national group and therefore amounted to genocide.
While on the whole the world may be getting less violent, as Steven Pinker claims, it still depends who you are. Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples; gays and lesbians; women—all remain at risk of being targeted by governments for violence, even outright physical destruction, because of their identity, because of who they are.
Last month’s verdict in La Plata offers a breakthrough approach to punishing those who seek to destroy human identity. Punishment is not enough, of course. The Genocide Convention is also about prevention. But Argentina has taken a step in a new direction. Down the road, it may save lives.