Argentina: Declassification of Military Records on Human Rights

14 January 2010

By Carlos Osorio

(Disponible en español)

Buenos Aires, Argentina — On January 5, 2010, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner issued Decree 4/2010 lifting the classification of all military records related to activities of the armed forces between 1976 and 1983. The decree was prompted by thousands of requests to the Ministry of Defense coming from hundreds of judges carrying out trials for human rights violations committed under the Argentine dictatorship. It is estimated that 30,000 people were disappeared, many more illegally detained, tortured, and killed by the security forces at the time.

Although according to official accounts thousands of records pertaining to the illegal activities of the security forces were destroyed before the advent of a democratic government in 1985, some were spared. Since 2005, the Ministry of Defense created theDirectorate for Human Rights to identify relevant information and channel it to the increasing number of trials initiated in the past three years after the amnesty laws shielding military officers were reversed. Intelligence staff rolls, career records for military officers, and other documents that could shed light on chain of command and jurisdiction for operations have survived.

For the past year and a half, the Ministry of Defense has received and responded to an increasing number of requests from judges. “We are currently receiving an average of 300 requests a month and with the increasing number of trials sprouting we expect this to go up in the coming two years. The process was getting complicated because the judges were shy to share the secret documents with prosecutors and defense and others involved in the trials and be subject penalization under secrecy laws. Even with judges advancing other human rights cases. The decree lifts at once the veil on these records facilitating their reproduction and dissemination through judiciary channels and to the public” says Ileana Arduino, head of the Human Rights Directorate at the Ministry of Defense in Argentina.

The decree builds on previous regulations passed in Argentina oriented to facilitate the trials for human rights and cements the notion that information pertaining to human rights violations should be exempt from classifications. In 2007, the Presidency passed a decree lifting the secrecy oath by which military officers were bound when these were participating in human rights trials.

The conceptual framework of Decree 4/2010 considers that classification should not trample the current government’s policy of “Memory, Truth, and Justice,” classification should be “restricted by a temporary limit,” after more than 25 years of democratic government, it is unacceptable to classify information “that hampers historical knowledge and the right of society to know their past,” and a democratic state must lift secrecy from “information that could help improve the knowledge of the facts pertaining to human rights violations.”

The decree affects all military activities for the period 1976-83 but exempts from declassification information pertaining to the 1982 Falklands conflict with Great Britain, other “interstate” conflicts and “military strategic intelligence.” On the other hand, it leaves the door open to records before and after the period 1976-83 by including “all other information or documentation, produced in another period, related to those activities.” Documents may be requested through the Ministry of Defense Directorate for Human Rights.

“Human rights advocates think the human rights declassification decree in Argentina should serve as model to countries like Brazil, Chile, and all those who have been subject to violation under military dictatorship,” said Carlos Osorio, Director of the Southern Cone Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

“The Decree is a great leap towards transparency and accountability in Argentina. Ironically, one can have a hard time to find it online. Presidencies come and go. This highlights the need to pass a comprehensive freedom of information law in Argentina,” Osorio added.

* Carlos Osorio is Director of the Southern Cone Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

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