On 24 March 1976 the military took power in Argentina. Twenty-five years on, the true history of the ‘disappearance’ of an estimated 30,000 people is still hazy. The main perpetrators are either free or under mere house arrest, thanks to a series of amnesty-granting decrees passed by subsequent democratically elected governments.
Human-rights organizations in Argentina have been intensifying their campaign to raise awareness about the so-called ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s and the impunity enjoyed by over 1,000 military officers. All the key groups took part in demonstrations and educational workshops on the anniversary. Children in state schools, for the first time ever, participated in official actos (commemorations).
A new challenge is the way political parties now co-opt human-rights campaigns, blurring the issues and dividing the organizations. Mercedes Meroño, Vice-President of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, argues that they should not march with other groups. ‘We may not get the press coverage they get, but we cannot march alongside groups working towards reconciliation. The Abuelas (‘grandmothers’) and some of the HIJOS (‘children of the disappeared’) members have let themselves be photographed alongside military officers and politicians and we reject any idea of reconciliation.’
Meroño claims the present government is guilty of Big Brother-style abuse. ‘The De la Rua Government announces another austerity measure,’ she says, ‘and then lets it be known through a Federal Judge that the laws of Punto Final and Due Obedience [the 1986 and 1987 decrees which granted impunity] may be revoked. It’s a lie.’
Though they share the Plaza de Mayo on Thursdays with other groups, the Madres have chosen to stand apart. Last year they created their own educational centre to ‘continue fighting for the beliefs of our children’. Increasingly an umbrella organization for a variety of militant causes, the best-known of all Argentine human-rights organizations stirs up mixed feelings. Their leader Hebe de Bonafini recently spoke out in support of ETA, the military wing of Basque separatists in Spain. The close-knit clan of women in their sixties and seventies are at the forefront of the main international debates on globalization, IMF policy and even ecology.
In contrast, the Abuelas, who focus on the whereabouts of the children of their dead children, accept a degree of dialogue as a matter of necessity. ‘No-one owns us as a party but a good relationship with the national government is necessary to our cause,’ says Abel Lanzillotto.
The Madres Línea Fundadora – a splinter group of ‘founding Mothers’ – also rejects the tendency to tar military and democratic governments with the same brush. On the anniversary they marched alongside the Abuelas and trade unions under the banner ‘Memory, Justice and Truth’.
After spending more than half their lives in camps in eastern Nepal, 32 Bhutanese refugee students have been offered a chance to voice their feelings through photography. PhotoVoice is teaching them photographic and journalism skills so that they can document their lives. Tiffany Fairey, co-ordinator of PhotoVoice, says: ‘I hope their work will encourage a more intimate understanding of refugee issues.’
There are 100,000 refugees from Bhutan now living with great difficulty in Nepal. Bhutan remains a monarchy with no constitution and no Bill of Rights. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is currently Head of State and of the Government, as well as being the highest court of appeal.
Without a permanent home or avenue of opportunity, the young people of the Bhutanese refugee camps are dedicating their efforts to raising awareness. As Derin Charan, a determined student says: ‘Living in huts and dreaming in castles is like trying to make castles out of air. But my endeavour will not be in vain. I will be an outstanding intellectual giant of my generation.’
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Since the signing of the Ottawa Treaty on landmines in December 1997, the big ‘G8’ countries and their arms-manufacturing companies have been seeking to circumvent it. Research published in a new report from the charity Landmine Action* has revealed the continued manufacture and use of anti-vehicle mines fitted with anti-handling devices or sensitive fuses. These modified weapons can be accidentally detonated by civilians and so act like powerful anti-personnel mines.
One example is the German AT-2, a scatterable anti-vehicle mine equipped with an anti-handling device and magnetic fusing. It is sensitive enough to be detonated by someone stumbling over it or even by their proximity. As a result, the Italian Government destroyed all its AT-2 mines in 1997. The British Ministry of Defence continues to hold an estimated 100,000 AT-2s in its stocks.
BAE Systems, Hunting Engineering, Marconi, GEC Avionics and Hughes Microelectronics are all part of a European consortium that developed the MLRS artillery launcher that can dispense AT-2 mines.
‘At the time the Ottawa Treaty was signed it was recognized that all landmines which could be set off by a person should be banned,’ says Richard Lloyd, director of Landmine Action.
‘But what has happened since is that more countries are producing anti-tank mines with sensitive fuses to replace anti-personnel mines. It is a devious way to circumvent the treaty.’ The Ottawa Treaty defines anti-personnel landmines by their design, not by their effect. This means that manufacturers can escape liability by arguing that a weapon was designed for another purpose – the fact that it has an anti-personnel effect then becomes immaterial. It is this loophole that is allowing companies to build bigger and more lethal landmines than ever before.
Research and development funds are also pouring into ever-more-lethal anti-personnel devices. The Taser Area Denial Device shoots electrical darts carrying up to 50,000 volts. Victims remain conscious but are unable to control their muscles. The Taser has already been identified as one of the US Army’s favoured alternatives to anti-personnel mines, says the Landmine Action report.
Other methods of ‘area denial’ under development include microwave devices which create fields with graduated layers of pain for the victims, and tranquillizing chemicals that can cause temporary blindness and extreme anxiety. Acoustic weapons vibrate inside the human body to stun, nauseate and – in the words of a Pentagon official – liquefy their bowels.
Rather than act in the spirit of the Ottawa Treaty to clear the world of anti-personnel landmines, governments and arms companies have busied themselves finding ways to profit from new, ever-more lethal technology. Effective campaigning evidently demands more than signatures on pieces of paper.
by Garrincha of Juventud Rebelde, Havana, Cuba