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Monday, November 25, 2013

A Failure to Respect Human Rights Obligations

In tents on the kerb of El Prado, the main thoroughfare of La Paz, live a group of elderly Bolivians. At night, they endure freezing altiplano temperatures and risk of violent attack from drunks and thieves. By day, cars and antiquated buses belch choking pollution into their home. Young Paceños hurry past on their way to work, to market, or to school, listening to the latest American chart music on headphones. Each morning, ministers and officials enter the Ministry of Justice opposite, willfully ignoring the plea of those camped at their door; the plea for information, and for justice.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, numerous Central and South American countries experienced repressive military dictatorships. The regime of General Pinochet in Chile is perhaps the most infamous, but Bolivia also had numerous general-led dictatorships. Those of Hugo Banzer Suárez and Luis García Meza were notorious for their brutality.

Military Governance in Bolivia

In August 1971, General Hugo Banzer Suárez led a coup d’état and established a tyrannical military dictatorship. In implementing a regime of repression, the Department for Political Order (Dirección de Orden Político) was established to quash political opponents. This department controlled numerous detention centres, including concentration camps at Achocalla near La Paz, at El Pari in Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz, and on the Isla de la Luna, Lake Titicaca. These centres were used to indefinitely deprive individuals of their liberty, conduct torturous interrogations, and to extrajudicially execute political opponents.

The types of torture inflicted upon victims included; closed fist beatings; cigarette burns; the placement of needles and wooden splinters under prisoners’ fingernails; beatings with belts and planks; electric shocks; hot iron branding; and simulated execution by firing squad. After an individual had been detained and extensively tortured, his or her next of kin were commonly forced to visit the centre: witnessing the condition of detainees was intended to act as a deterrent to any continued opposition to military rule.

Furthermore, the military regime controlled all media outlets. It could therefore inflict propaganda upon citizens and publish fabricated press releases which “justified” killings. For example, daily newspapers would report that inmates of detention centres were killed by guards following an attempted breakout, but in fact those persons had been extrajudicially executed by the military.

The approximate number of victims under the Suárez regime remains unclear, but the Association of Relatives of the Detainees, Disappeared Persons and Martyrs for National Liberation (Asociacíon de Familiares de Detenidos, Desaparecidos y Mártires por la Liberación) reports that at least 68 persons were forcibly disappeared and 78 were subjected to extrajudicial executions. This is in addition to the mass exile of political opponents and innumerable victims of torture.

The Suárez policy of systematic disappearances during the 1970s mirrors that of General Pinochet in neighbouring Chile; between 1974 and 1977 hundreds of Chilean political activists were forcibly disappeared under a planned and coordinated government strategy.

In 1980, the democratic process being instituted in Bolivia was again interrupted by a coup d’état led by General Luis García Meza. The Presidential Palace was occupied by military forces on 17 July 1980 and acting Constitutional President, Mrs Lidia Gueiler, was forced to resign. The presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Mr Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, was executed by government agents and other leftist political leaders were imprisoned.

During the García Meza dictatorship, a policy of intimidation, harassment and extermination was implemented against members of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement and other groups considered as opposition to the military junta. Thousands were imprisoned and subject to torture in centres controlled by the military, including at facilities of the Army Intelligence Services in central La Paz. Forced disappearances were common.

Restoration of Democracy

In 1982, democracy was restored to Bolivia. In October of that year, the National Commission for the Investigation of Citizens Forcibly Disappeared was established to analyse, investigate, and determine the situation of persons forcibly disappeared. The law establishing the Commission provides that any citizen affected by the circumstances under which next of kin or close friends disappeared may file a complaint, which the Commission is under an obligation to investigate. However, in reality, where remains have been discovered, they have often been simply relocated and reburied without any investigation or notification of relatives.

Additionally, despite victims’ demands for justice, there has been little prosecution of perpetrators. In 1995, García Meza was extradited from Brazil and remains imprisoned following a conviction for gross human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Banzer Suárez was elected as President in 1997. He resigned in 2001 and died the following year. He was never formally tried for abuses conducted during his earlier military dictatorship.

Campaign for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The protest group, “Plataforma de Luchadores Sociales Contra la Impunidad por la Justicia y la Memoria Histórica del Pueblo Boliviano” (“Los Luchadores”), have been occupying El Prado for over six hundred days. All are victims of repression and many bear the scars of brutal treatment by the military. The president of the association, Sr. Don Julio, lost his finger during a torturous interrogation. They are relentlessly campaigning for a series of reparations to be made by the government, including the initiation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the recording of individual stories.

Tents occupied by "Los Luchadores" protest group on
El Prado, La Paz
Such a commission was established in Chile following the restoration of democracy. The Chilean National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisíon Nacional Verdad y Reconciliación) documented 3,428 cases of disappearance, killing, torture and kidnapping during the Pinochet regime. The final report, the “Rettig Report”, was published in 1991 and formally publicised short accounts of victims stories heard by the Commission.

However, such commissions generally require amnesties for perpetrators of human rights abuses: without them, those responsible are unlikely to testify. Nevertheless, Chileans found that the Commission, whilst overlooking a victim’s interest in retributive justice, brought peace and national reconciliation. It was the public acknowledgement of individual experiences which mattered most to victims.

However, it is doubtful such a commission would be successful in modern Bolivia. Such undertakings require determination in the national psyche to uncover the truth and enthusiasm from all sides to publicly share their stories. The public sentiment is that Bolivia should look forward in fostering economic and social development; there is a general unwillingness to revisit the past. Additionally, truth commissions in other countries have been initiated immediately after the restoration of peace; it may now be too late to revive the memories of pre-1982 Bolivia on a national scale.

The forced disappearance of persons has been internationally condemned as a gross violation of human rights not only for victims, but also for the families of victims. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has asserted that the Bolivian government has a duty to investigate the forced disappearance of persons; release information on the fate of victims and whereabouts of their remains; and make reparations to the families of victims. Additionally, there is an obligation to publicly acknowledge the plight of victims.

In its final report, the Chilean Commission recommended that a National Corporation for Reparations and Reconciliation be established to provide assistance to victims. It suggested that reparations should include symbolic measures as well as significant legal, financial, medical and administrative assistance.

Los Luchadores are calling for similar reparations to be made in Bolivia, and for the government to release information. However, the government has thus far been unwilling to uphold its human rights obligations to victims.

Every day, a continuous commotion of cars and buses trundle along El Prado, occupants eager to reach their destination. Teenagers and market hawkers meander, absently ignoring the protestors. Ministers and businessmen hurriedly dash past on their way to lunch meetings. Modern Bolivia marches forward in search of economic growth and in establishing itself as a modern, democratic Latin American state.

Meanwhile, it is ignoring those who suffered terribly in their relentless fight for democracy and for fundamental freedoms. But their fight for acknowledgment, for their rights, and for justice, shall continue. 

Written by Jamie Hislop

A version of this article was also published in the Glasgow University Law Review:

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