03/29/2012 10:43 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

A Quiet Revolution

Overshadowed by the Arab Spring, a quiet revolution is taking place at the bottom of the world. In Argentina, a country whose painful past has been pivotal to the rise of the modern human rights movement, massive trials of perpetrators of atrocities committed three decades ago are setting a historic precedent. Since 2003, when amnesties and pardons were repealed, two hundred and sixty-nine defendants have been convicted of crimes committed during the 1976-1983 miilitary dictatorship. Among those sentenced to life in prison are Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, two of the five heads of the junta who remain alive today, and Father Cristian von Wernich, a Catholic priest implicated in multiple cases of abduction, torture, and murder. Another eight hundred and forty-three defendants await trial.

March 24, a day of remembrance in Argentina, marks the anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the ineffectual government of Isabel Martínez, Perón's widow. In 1976, with every neighboring country already under military rule, Argentines resigned themselves to the latest in a half century of military coups. They hoped for relief from kidnappings, bombings and shootings, the daily toll of violence between left and right. What they got instead was the "Dirty War": nearly eight years that haunt the country to this day.

In the name of Western Christian civilization the Argentine military dissolved Congress, replaced judges and prohibited all political and labor union activity. Wages were frozen and collective bargaining outlawed. Strikes carried a ten-year prison term. Professors were fired and new school curricula included the writings of known anti-Semites. Fear and censorship choked the life out of news media, books, movies and music. Among the banned were Neruda, Vargas Llosa, Saint-Exupéry, The Beatles, the TV series Holocaust. As thousands of people began to "disappear," the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo marched in front of the presidential palace to demand their return.

The full horror of the regime became clear with the restoration of democracy. In its 1984 report titled "Never Again," Argentina's "truth commission" documented thousands of cases of civilians kidnapped, savagely tortured in secret camps throughout the country, then murdered and buried or dropped alive from airplanes into the ocean. Ransom collected from their families often supplemented the booty of homes, businesses and bank accounts that prisoners were forced to sign over. Hundreds of young children and babies born during their mothers' captivity were handed over to be raised by regime loyalists -- often the very murderers of the children's parents.

Within the larger tragedy, the regime murdered some two thousand Jews, the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism had long been endemic to Argentina. In 1938 the government had secretly instructed its consulates abroad to deny visas to Jews fleeing Hitler, and after World War II, Perón and the Vatican organized the ratline for fugitive Nazis -- including Eichmann, Mengele and the Croatian Ustashi regime -- from Europe to safe haven in Argentina. During the "Dirty War," torture rooms were frequently decorated with swastikas; officers played recordings of Hitler's speeches and assigned Nazi literature to their subordinates. The worst tortures and humiliations were reserved for Jews. In the post-war Western world there is no record of an anti-Semitic government policy comparable to what is described in the 1984 Never Again report.

In the thirty-six years since the coup, a wealth of evidence has also surfaced on the regime's enablers and allies. The Ford Administration welcomed the coup and provided aid. Washington helped coordinate Operation Condor, a terrorist alliance of South American military governments that assassinated opponents on three continents. The U.S.-run School of the Americas continued to train torturers and dictators, including two generals who headed the Argentine junta. For its part, the Argentine leadership of the Catholic Church praised and aided the regime even as priests and nuns who spoke up for the victims were murdered or disappeared. Bishops and military chaplains visited the secret death camps, urged prisoners to confess, blessed the death flights.

The mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are now an international symbol of resistance to oppression, and the "Dirty War" has left its indelible imprint on human rights. Its lessons are embedded in conventions against torture, on crimes against humanity, on protecting children. The need to identify victims prompted scientific breakthroughs in DNA analysis, and Argentine forensic anthropologists have performed their grim fieldwork in more than thirty countries. Argentina's truth commission became a model for similar commissions around the world; the 1985 trial of the junta set a new standard of accountability -- later undone by amnesties, and pardons. The current trials themselves are unprecedented worldwide. Held before regular criminal courts rather than international or ad-hoc tribunals, they send the message that perpetrators of crimes against humanity will be held accountable despite the passage of time or the amnesties and pardons they extort from governments whose duty it was to investigate and prosecute.

In a world where regimes continue to massacre their own people with impunity, Argentina's quiet revolution adds another weapon to the arsenal of deterrence and represents a major step forward for human rights.

Edgardo David Holzman, a former attorney and translator, was involved in human rights work in the 1970s. His debut novel Malena, to be published by Nortia Press in April 2012, is set in his native Argentina during the "Dirty War."