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Argentina: Sparks Around Alleged 'New Year's Celebration' at Former Torture Center

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Scandal broke a recently in Argentina, when Justice Minister Alak was accused of having hosted an "end-of-the-year" barbecue at the premises of the former clandestine detention center Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) -- currently the Museum of the Memory. Part of the opposition and several human rights organizations condemned the celebration: some did it with a high degree of opportunism, while others took the opportunity to make more substantial complaints about the current government.

The ESMA is a former navy school that turned into the biggest clandestine detention centre during the military dictatorship (1976-1983), in which it is estimated that more than 5,000 people were arbitrarily detained, tortured and 'disappeared' at this facility. Fewer than 200 of these are believed to have survived. Many of those detained at these premises were thrown into the nearby Río de la Plata from airplanes, as a part of the infamous Death Flights. Nowadays, the ESMA serves as a human rights memorial.

More than 600 cases have been brought to federal courts since the Trial of the Juntas in 1985. This process of justice was quickly truncated in 1986 when the National Congress approved the laws of Full Stop and Due Obedience. These laws prevented national courts from investigating mid- and low-level military members for their actions during the dictatorship. Likewise, those who were not included within the standards outlined by these laws benefited from the presidential pardons of Carlos Menem in 1989 and 1990.

Nevertheless, as a part of his clear pursuit of justice and memory, former President Kirchner sent a law to Congress in 2003 that declared the amnesty laws null and provided constitutional status to the Convention on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity. Another breakthrough occurred in 2006 when the Supreme Court declared the laws of Full Stop and Due Obedience unconstitutional. This opened the way for new trials for international crimes and human rights violations, and in this scenario the so-called "ESMA Mega-trial" (divided into three parts) began. The third one has not yet finished.

The spark between the government and the opposition is around a barbecue. Yes: a barbecue. On December 27th, the Justice Minister held a gathering at the ESMA. This was taken as an offence by several victims and their relatives. Even in an off-the-record conversation we held with a relative of a "desaparecido," she argued that "it would be unthinkable to hold a celebration at Auschwitz" and that the "government has accumulated power for running the country for almost 10 years and has taken as theirs the struggle of the human rights movement in the country." She said nobody apologized to her.

Alak denied the celebration and said it was a meeting, in which participants only "ate sandwiches." Then he turned the tables on the opposition: "The barbeque at ESMA did not exist and there is a part of the opposition that is desperate". Nevertheless, President Fernandez said that "many celebrations and festivals were held and will continue to be held at ESMA".

The barbeque does not really matter to us. There is certain grim coincidence in terms of that when those who tortured referred to "barbeque" they were really talking about the people were to be executed.

We are not offended. We are not concerned about music, arts and performances at the ESMA. In fact there have been many over the years and nobody said anything about it. We believe that the future of the ex-ESMA is yet to be defined.

What is really interesting is that this celebration was part of a government activity. And this is why some sectors of the opposition felt offended: the policy towards human rights adopted by the government is to own the human rights movement. Yet, this movement does not belong to any government or political party. The achievements of the human rights movement belong to the organizations and citizens that have fought for justice, memory and truth for many years now, not a president and his or her cabinet. This is why some critics argue that the government is reluctant to acknowledge the work of the local Truth Commission (CONADEP) and the brave and unique Trial against the Military Juntas.

We believe that what the concept of human rights exceeds their ownership. Justice, truth and memory are fundamental for Argentina's recovery from year of dictatorship. The current government has undertaken several efforts toward that regard -- but it is not enough -- and their mandate is much broader. They should also comply with other international human rights obligations and inter American recommendations that have not yet seen the light.

These are as urgent as keeping the memory at ESMA alive.

The coauthor is Matias Bianchi, Director of Asuntos del Sur @matiasfbianchi