Professor Antonius CGM Robben discusses Argentina's Dirty War and contestation over the categorization of conflicts as genocide

0311992222222.jpgOn November 25, the U of M hosted Professor Antonius Robben, who spoke on the controversial issue of Argentina's so-called "Dirty War," and the implications of attributing the term "genocide" to the tens of thousands of extrajudicial disappearances of political dissidents committed by the Argentine government during that period. His lecture covered the history of the conflict, the political climate regarding national memory today, and the arguments for and against the classification of the conflict as genocide.

In terms of basic facts, Prof. Robben opined that such facts are accepted by all sides--tens of thousands of people were "disappeared" by the government, with these disappearances directed primarily towards Marxist-affiliated guerilla revolutionaries. The disagreement is with regards to the interpretation of this period of time and the differing possible legal consequences, particularly in response to the question of who should be prosecuted for these crimes; and in the dialogue that shapes perception of the events in question, with certain terms being used to convey a certain political context.

The popular term "Dirty War," Robben stated, was first used in 1974 by a right-wing nationalist and has since been adopted by all sides in order to describe the grim nature of their opponent's tactics, or of the conflict in general. This led to what he called the "Two Demon Theory" of mutual and equal responsibility for the conflict between the government and opposition, which persisted until details of the severity and disproportionality of government repression proliferated and led to the coinage of the term "State Terrorism." The 1985 trial solidified the use of this term, but during the mid-2000's, judges and human rights lawyers began to venture towards the term "genocide."

Part of this perception of the disappearances as a genocide was based in the mechanization and normalization of death in Argentina's detainment centers, dehumanizing the victims as simply a "prisoner without a name, cell without a number." Also, Jewish Argentines were said to be targeted by the government, due to their high levels of representation in the opposition. Furthermore, those who argue for the use of the term "genocide" posit that the opposition constituted a nascent national group, which was targeted for extermination by the Argentine government; if accepted as legitimate, this would place the conflict within the UN-designated legal boundaries of the term "genocide."

These factors have led to a reframing of the "Dirty War" in recent years, with many comparing the persecution and destruction of Argentine opposition forces to the institutionalized extermination of Nazi Germany. Notably, the detainment centers--open to the public for visits--have been controversially renamed "concentration camps." Dirty War literature and testimonies, Prof. Robben argued, are often reminiscent of Holocaust literature. He stated that the Holocaust serves as a classic, universal example of genocide and crimes against humanity, and its use as an analogy for the Argentine conflict has become increasingly relevant as national memory has evolved over the years.

Drawing frequently upon the writings of various academics, Prof. Robben explained some of the many diverse viewpoints regarding Argentina's Dirty War and its modern interpretation. He distinguished between the individual guilt of perpetrators and the collective responsibility of the populace, without whom the government's tyranny would not have been possible; this too harkened back to the memories of World War II-era Germany, a nation that has since struggled to come to terms with its past and responsibility for its government's actions. Genocide, Robben pointed out, allows for a much larger scope of responsibility than does "state terrorism," the latter of which implies a fundamental distinction between the state and the population. As a result, those who wish to classify the Dirty War as a genocide are drawing in actors from all sectors of society--compliant newspapers and journalists, political supporters of the regime, and even foreign capitalists who were involved in doing business with the government.

For these and many other reasons, there is substantial resistance to the term "genocide" within Argentina and outside it. On a legal basis, "genocide" requires a specific national, ethnical, racial, or religious group; this strict UN definition--and the contested validity of classifying political dissidents as a "national group"--was a source of concern for several audience members during the question-and-answer session. Some other possibly surprising opponents of the "genocide" moniker, according to Prof. Robben, can be found within the ranks of the guerillas themselves; according to some, it deprives the revolutionaries of their agency and turns them into helpless victims, undermining the heroism of their struggle. On the other side of the debate, many within the political right wing argue that the term "genocide" implies the guilt of one group and the innocence of another, and implicitly negates the violent actions that were taken by Marxist guerillas during the conflict. The war against communism, according to some, was too complicated to categorize it into the quite stark definition of genocide. This contention exposes a paradox--although the definition of genocide implies a rigid set of definitive factors, and may imply a simplified narrative of bad versus good, all civil conflicts are profoundly complex; thus, there has been much contestation over titling many different conflicts as such ever since the term's origination in 1948.

In Argentina, the political consequences of this debate have been enormous, and have unfortunately contributed to an increasing division of Argentine society. Prof. Robben mentioned that political violence has resulted from the ongoing disagreement. A right-wing faction has begun to emerge within the youth population, and these politically motivated individuals have engaged in intimidation tactics such as posting the names of Dirty War witnesses on the Internet, as well as proliferating or sustaining a national fear of communism. These and other social problems are part of what Prof. Robben calls Argentina's "struggle with history," a complex process of reconciliation and re-interpretation that involves all members of society and will probably stretch far into the future.

Written by Erik Randall
Volunteer, The Human Rights Program

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