by Margaret Quixley, Australia
Week two began with the case study analyses of post-conflict transitions from around the world. Professor Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and former President of the ICTJ, joined us to speak about the challenges of transitioning Argentina. We listened in awe to the honest account of a nation faced with the atrocities of its past, and sought to learn from the lessons on its own path to reconciliation and justice. Mendez described the ‘reign of terror’ that characterised the punitive military regime ruling Argentina between 1976-1983. Thousands of revolutionaries and youths, filled with political ideals and hopes for the future perhaps no different from the young people that filled the room around me, had their lives cut short through the systematic brutalisation in a policy to eliminate subversion. For the military targeted not only armed opposition, but human rights activists, lawyers, teachers and priests: any person deemed to be indirectly involved. Held in clandestine detention centres around the country, at least 9000 people were arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured and murdered, under a policy known as ‘disappearance’. Shocked and moved by the 2008 documentary ‘Our Disappeared’, Mendez also generously shared his own personal story of incarceration and torture; himself ‘lucky’ to be arrested before the country entered a state of siege and subsequently released into exile.
From the Argentinian example, we as policymakers can learn so much: that the right to truth, enshrined in international law, is still no substitute for justice. For it is only when truth is told, justice is done, reparations are made, institutions are reformed and reconciliation measures taken, that a society can truly begin to heal. Whilst steps must be made to ensure a society can holistically rebuild, we must also stop to reflect on how such measures may be contextualised in local discourse and setting. For in Argentina, Mendez explained, the term ‘reconciliation’ is often synonymous with impunity; indeed co-opted for political ends. It is with this in mind that international policymakers must apply the lessons learnt but also be cautious in their application. For there is no ‘one size fits all’ in post-conflict transition. It is only then that we can hope, as an international community, to move beyond conflict and beyond uttering the words ‘never again’.