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Kaleck: Dealing with Argentina’s past is the ‘prime objective’

Human rights activist Wolfgang Kaleck tells DW prosecuting members of the military junta is imperative. He expects Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to broach the subject while in Argentina.

Human rights activist Wolfgang Kaleck tells DW prosecuting members of the military junta is imperative. He expects Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to broach the subject while in Argentina.
During the Cold War, military regimes have “disappeared” tens of thousands of people in Latin American countries. Roughly 30,000 men and women are supposed to have been kidnapped, tortured and killed between 1976 and 1983 in Argentina alone, among them around 100 Germans.

Now Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to Buenos Aires. There, he said that Germany and Argentina should use the “new momentum” to re-strengthen their ties, referring to President Mauricio Macri’s success in settling Argentina’s debt crisis.

Before meeting Steinmeier, Macri had called Germany one of the “most important partners with whom the relationship should be significantly” deepened.

During his stay in Argentina, the German foreign minister will also meet with families of the victims of the military junta. Human rights activist Wolfgang Kaleck says it’s important for Steinmeier to focus on this non-economic issue as well.

DW: Mr. Kaleck, while he was in Chile, Foreign Minister Steinmeier announced that the role German diplomats played in the “Colonia Dignidad” cult settlement would be looked into. What do you expect from his visit to Argentina?

Wolfgang Kaleck: Over the last ten years, Argentina has developed into a model country when it comes to the national prosecution of crimes against humanity. This position mustn’t be questioned by the change in government at the end of 2015. Steinmeier’s visit is a good occasion to demand that this process continues – especially since the issue isn’t a purely Argentine one, given the international victims.

Just recently, high-ranking military officers were served with long jail sentences. Are there any signs that Mauricio Macri could stop the process of dealing with Argentina’s past?

It was only in the mid-2000s that then-president Nestor Kirchner got rid of the amnesty law for members of the military regime and made dealing with the past dictatorship the government’s business. He did that because international organizations like our “Coalition against Impunity” pressured him into it. Since then, around 600 people, some of them high-ranking military and secret service officers, have been convicted.

President Macri won’t question the process openly, but in his circles, they’re already “flirting” with it. That’s why it could be necessary to make clear from the outside as well that there’s a big interest in continuing down this path – also, but not solely, because there are Germans among the victims.

You were one of the founders of the “Coalition against Impunity” in 1998. It’s a private initiatve. Why has nothing happened on the political level for so long?

The prime objective for us has always been to legally deal with the past in Argentina. The role played by German authorities and transnational companies like Mercedes Benz and Ford, which were involved in repressing the union- and workers movement, is secondary to us.

But we also see that the foreign ministry under Hans-Dietrich Genscher did too little, especially in the cases of Elisabeth Käsemann and Klaus Zieschank. Authorities were aware of their kidnappings before the two were murdered. The US and France, by the way, did manage to get some of their captured citizens back alive.

Why did the Argentine military regime even “disappear” foreign citizens?

Practically all of the victims were involved in Argentina’s Leftist social and political movements in some way. There was no evidence for membership in armed groups; those were already beaten when the military coup happened in March 1976.

So it wasn’t about fighting down a rebellion, which was the explanation used later. The military regime wanted to change Argentina’s societal structure and weaken social movements. And they said that openly.

Today it seems unthinkable that a German government just stands by and watches while a foreign military junta tortures and kills German citizens. How much did the position back then have to do with the Zeitgeist?

It was the time of the Cold War, and the reigning ideology was anti-Communism. It wasn’t just the Department of Foreign Affairs – parts of the German media and economic policy makers embraced the military regime and its neoliberal economic model.

So, pacts were made with governments that grossly violated human rights like the ones in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, even if they killed unionists in German companies.

Could you imagine something like that still happening today?

The Foreign Affairs Office does not ignore human rights arguments to this extent anymore. But human rights still sometimes take a backseat today when military or economic interests come into play. To point out these instances is our responsibility in civil society.

Wolfgang Kaleck is co-founder and general secretary of the “European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights” (ECCHR) in Berlin. With the “Coalition against Impunity,” he’s been advocating legal proceedings concerning the murder of German citizens during the Argentine military dictatorship since 1998.

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