Thursday, 11 June 2009

Chile: No New Legal Status for Disappeared

The Chilean Senate has not approved a report by the Mixed Commission for Human Rights which would have created a new legal definition of 'absence by forced disappearance'. Although a majority voted for the proposal, the 21 votes was one short of the number required. As usual, the right voted against and thus the initiative failed.

I'm not an expert on Chilean politics, but I can comment a little generally on these issues. Disappearance is a murky legal area: what happens when your relative - very possibly the head of your household - is no longer there but you are not in possession of a death certificate or a body or indeed, any other kind of proof of death? What happens to their estate? What happens to your legal position? Can you receive their pension? Sell your house? Remarry?

After enough time has passed so that many people might consider all hope to have been lost, one option is obviously to have your relative declared dead. Aside from the difficulty of this procedure (I repeat, you've got no body and no other paperwork at all), would you want to do this? What does it mean to say, "Yes, he (or she) is dead"? It's not a simple question. Argentine mental health director Dr Vicente Angel Galli is quoted in Arditti's Searching for Life:
To presume the death of people you have not seen dead, without knowing the condition of their death, implies that one has to kill them oneself. I believe that this is one of the more subtle and complex mechanisms of torture for the relatives and for all the members of the community... To accept their deaths we have to kill them ourselves. [p.15]

Moreover, some Argentine activists regard the acceptance of death as a defeat in their struggle for justice. You won't hear them referring to the disappeared as dead, even though they're not stupid and are not expecting their loved ones to walk in the door after thirty years. Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, said,
We're going to continue in the same way because we still haven't got justice. They've tried to convert us into the mothers of dead children and put an end to the problem of the desaparecidos. We will never accept that they are dead until those reponsible are punished. If we accepted that, we would be accepting that murderers and torturers can live freely in Argentina. They can't negotiate with the blood of our children.
(cited in Jo Fisher, Mothers of the Disappeared, p.158)

Now, not all relatives are as strident in their demands as Bonafini, as is well known. But I think it's clear that forced disappearance is a legal minefield which leaves much space for flexibility on the part of the state, which, after all, caused the disappearances in the first place, and now, in a cruel twist, presents bureaucratic obstacles to resolving the legal situation of the victims. Refusing to take account of the special cases of desaparecidos' relatives can only continue the legacy of impunity and injustice - what a shame that Chile was not able to show some resolve on this.

El Senado, de espalda a los familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos
(El Blog de la Republica)

Sin solucion patrimonial quedaron los familiares de detenidos desaparecidos (Republica de Chile, Senado)

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