Obama, Argentina and human rights

The resumption of relations between the United States and Argentina has a foundation on which to build: human rights. Español Português

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
9 March 2016

General Augusto Pinochet (right), the President of Chile with General Jorge Videla, the President of Argentina in Mendoza, Argentina. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

President Barack Obama will be visiting Argentina on March 24, the day of the 40th anniversary of the cruelest military coup d'etat that the country suffered during the XXth century. In the midst of the Cold War, when stability and anti-communism was always more significant to Washington than democracy and rule of law, the role of the United States in the downfall of the elected government in Argentine was less prominent and active than in the demise of the popularly-voted socialist experience in Chile in 1973. Notwithstanding, US supportive message to the armed forces after their putsch was epitomized by Henry Kissinger “green light” to the military`s “dirty war” plans when, according to declassified State Department documents, he told the Argentine Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti on October 7, 1976, that "the quicker you succeed the better…The human rights problem is a growing one…We want a stable situation. We won't cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better”.

Since the transition to democracy in Latin America in the 80s human rights has been crucial in hemispheric politics, in general, and in terms of Argentina-United States diplomacy, in particular. Even though there have been many ups and downs, as well as intimacy and outburst, in US-Argentine relations over the last three decades there has been more proximity and collaboration between Buenos Aires and Washington on human rights that in other topics of the bilateral and global agenda. Several examples corroborate this assertion: for example, the Argentine international voting patterns on human rights bodies and its level of coincidence with the United States, both at the United Nations and at the Organization of American States grew over the years. The landmark decision to establish the first Truth Commission in the country after the military dictatorship was followed by other similar experiences in Latin America; a phenomenon that, after the 90s, has been praised by Washington. The Argentine support of the inter-American human rights system has been essential at critical junctures even though there have been many challenges from several countries in the region at different times. Successive elected governments display a high profile on the promotion of democracy in Latin America as well as on the reinforcement of the international regime on human rights. Not surprisingly Argentina together with France, were key sponsors of the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Peoples from Enforced Disappearance.

In recent years, legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina and the country`s progressive posture on LGBTQI rights allowed for the improvement on US-Argentine relations in the middle of a series of flare-ups tensions during the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The existence, since 1994, of the White Helmet Initiative by which Argentina has been actively involved worldwide in humanitarian assistance and the country’s significant—more than the respective contribution of Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom--commitment to UN peaceful operations are two additional areas where the interests of Argentina and the United States concur.

There have been questions—the threat and use of force, the understanding over the Responsibility to Protect principles, the policy of extra-juridical executions practices by the United States, the persistence of Guantanamo, among others—where the distance between Buenos Aires and Washington is abysmal. However, and spite of other frictions, in both countries key social and political actors agree about the centrality of human rights and the merits of a legalized world order. In the case of Argentina the society has embraced the defense and advancement of human rights. President Maurico Macri, who is heading a government with an opposing outlook on most issues from his predecessor, and has a different personal style, also located human rights as a major subject in Argentina’s foreign policy. In the end, this shows that a large majority of Argentines believe that human rights are a key “fundamental” of its democracy.

However, there is significant underlying concern among the society: the late and mistaken incorporation of Argentina in the failed “war on drugs”. Pull factors such as the most recent security emergency declaration by which, among others, it proposes the shooting down of airplanes; something quite worrisome because it implies a hawkish attitude vis-à-vis the drug phenomenon and the gradual erosion of boundaries between the roles of the security forces and the military overcoming the drug issue. Pull factors such as the proverbial pressure by US security, intelligence, and military agencies to incorporate the Latin American armed forces in the combat against the allegedly intertwined “new threats”—international drug trafficking, global terrorism, transnational organized crime—is also very problematic. The deterioration and abuse of human rights across the region due to the ill-conceived “drug war” has been dramatic everywhere.   

Thus, in this context President Obama`s visit to Argentina is an excellent opportunity to place the issue of human rights in US-Argentine relations at the center of their shared values. Some actions and attitudes can reinvigorate its significance. In 2014, while visiting Brazil, Vice-President Joseph Biden hand-delivered torture reports from declassified documents to President Dilma Rousseff. President Obama can handle to President Macri additional declassified data—from the CIA and NSC, for example—on the 1976-83 period in Argentina.

President Obama will go Cuba prior to this flight to Argentina: he will be the first US President to visit the isle after President Coolidge did it in 1928. It is very likely that Obama will refer to the blockade and its worthlessness after so any years of its imposition. In Argentina, US President cannot only pay tribute to the victims of the “dirty war” but also recognize the human cost of a Cold War policy based on obsessive anti-communism.

Finally, in the case of Colombia the US administration has understood the value of attaining peace by a negotiated agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and its potential positive impact on drug cultivation, processing and smuggling. Somehow it meant the recognition of an unsuccessful, military-led anti-narcotics crusade in that country. Why would an American president encourage now the Argentine government to pursue such a wrong logic? Barack Obama should not urge in any way the involvement of the armed forces in resolving the drug problem in Argentina.  

To sum up, the enhancement of US-Argentine relations has a foundation to further it: its name is human rights.

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