Transition, History and Human Rights; 'A Country without Justice or Memory Does Not Have a Destiny.'

By Evans, Martin | History Today, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Transition, History and Human Rights; 'A Country without Justice or Memory Does Not Have a Destiny.'


Evans, Martin, History Today


SPEAKING SHORTLY AFTER HIS VICTORY in the May 2003 Argentine elections, the new President Nestor Kirchner's forthright manner struck a chord with his compatriots. During the military dictatorship of the 1970s, some 30,000 people died--the so-called 'Disappeared'--and in recognising the need to face up to this bitter past Kirchner was acknowledging the incomplete nature of Argentina's political transition. Formally the country bad become a democracy again in 1983, after the end of General Galtieri's regime, but the system had never completely won over the trust of its citizens. The ease with which military leaders escaped justice made large numbers of Argentinians cynical about politics, a cynicism that was brought to breaking point by the economic collapse at the end of December 2001.

So, by reopening the possibility of prosecution for members of the military accused of human rights abuses; by annulling the decree blocking the extradition of members of the military to other countries; and by announcing his desire for the Supreme Court to declare as unconstitutional the laws which amnestied known human rights violators, laws passed in 1987 under the threat of a military rebellion, Kirchner was making a statement about the need to bring the military under civilian control. Such political courage won large scale public sympathy--whereas he had only won 22 per cent of the vote in May, just three months later opinion polls showed that 80 per cent of the electorate supported his leadership.

In identifying so clearly the dynamic between history and political change, the Argentinian example pinpoints the key themes that will be addressed in this series, of which the first article follows. We hope to highlight the complicated connections between history, political transition and human rights, exploring the impact and meaning of history beyond academia. So what is the relationship between professional historians and the wider historical consciousness which is expressed by politicians, novelists, television producers and newspapers, as well as politically engaged pressure groups such as the 'Mothers of the Disappeared' in Latin America or Amnesty International? What, equally, has been the impact of the globalisation of the media, in particular the Internet, in undermining the ability of any regime to monopolise the way in which a country's past is represented?

In this sense the series shall visit countries where history is more then just entertainment, and more than just simple curiosity about the past. By posing questions about the role of history today and tomorrow, it will address the relationship between the historical, and the wider issues of memory and loss, truth and reconciliation, justice and human rights.

Algeria: Islam, Democracy and Violence

ON OCTOBER 5TH, 1988, thousands of youths, for most part secondary school students and the unemployed, ransacked central Algiers. They were resentful at the absence of many basic foodstuffs in the shops, frustrated by the lack of a regular water supply, and fearful of mass redundancies. The atmosphere on the streets of the capital had been tense for several weeks. In this sense the violence was the expression of pent-up anger against a system which many people, but particularly the young, felt was humiliating them.

Starting with the chic boutiques that lined Rue Didouche Mourad--the main street of Algiers that winds down past the university on the way to the central post office--the rioters targeted the symbols of authority and wealth with relentless determination. Department stores, cafes, restaurants, discotheques--indeed any place frequented by the chichis, the sons and daughters of the privileged elite--were attacked, along with government offices and the property of the ruling National Liberation Front. By early evening Algiers was devastated. It was the worst day of violence since the end of the war against the French in 1962. …

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Transition, History and Human Rights; 'A Country without Justice or Memory Does Not Have a Destiny.'
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