Impacting human rights: Students’ research affect trials in South America

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April 21, 2011

10:57 PM

When Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman criticized human rights violations during the military regime’s dirty war, he was arrested and eventually exiled to Israel. Now, students from the College of William and Mary are assisting with the trials of human rights violators through their historical research with the Southern Cone Archive Project.

Since it began in 2008 as a week-long research trip to Washington, D.C., the College’s Southern Cone Archive Project has grown very quickly. With relevant research from primary source documents from the Southern Cone — countries in the southern region of South America — the project’s findings have had far-reaching effects.

Under the direction of history professor Betsey Konefal and Hispanic studies professor Silvia Tandeciarz, students work as interns at the National Security Archives in D.C. examine declassified Paraguayan and Argentinean documents from the dictatorship era, which lasted from 1976 to 1983. The students and professors involved have the chance to delve deeper into the past and use the information to make a difference in the present.

“It’s an educational project to help students understand the history of state repression in Latin America, the U.S. role in that repression, [and] the knowledge of that repression,” Konefal said. “At the same time, it has a very real purpose in that some of the research that the students are doing is actually used in human rights trials in Argentina. It makes it very real for the students.”

The National Security Archive is a nonprofit research institute and library at George Washington University. The students and professors at the College have a personal, long-distance collaboration with Carlos Osorio, the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone specialist. They access the Archives in D.C. online, have weekly Skype meetings with Osorio, and share information through Google Docs.

One of their projects examined documents concerning the famous disappearance of Timerman. Students searched for relevant information from declassified military and police documents. They wrote short summaries on the sources and then collaborated with the National Security Archives to compile them into a briefing that was available on the National Security Archives website. Konefal said Osorio uses such briefings to testify on cases incriminating past military abusers.

“We respond to requests from prosecuting judges in Argentina when they’re looking for information on specific cases,” Konefal said. “At the same time, the work we do informs [Osorio’s] testimony when he is asked.”

Both the students and the professors say that while the work is rewarding, it can be tedious at times. One of the challenges of this project for students is evaluating perspectives and motivations in addition to the content. Libby Hennemuth ’13 found this difficult while analyzing declassified cables between the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires.

“We have to take into account that these are not a mere retelling of events, but rather documents that were written with U.S. foreign policy in mind,” Hennemuth said. “In developing the chronology that will accompany these documents, we strive to include verifiable facts from these documents, while leaving their commentaries more to in-class discussion.”

Konefal said thousands of people “disappeared” during the dictatorship era, meaning they were detained without public record and surreptitiously executed. Now almost 30 years later, the once-prominent legal barriers have been broken down, and legislation has been passed relatively recently in Argentina that makes it possible to try to sentence military officers who are guilty of abuse.

“Argentina is the place that used that technique more than anywhere else; some 30,000 people were illegally detained and eliminated that way,” Konefal said. “Trying military officers for human rights abuses is very tricky business. Most regimes pass amnesties for themselves on their way out of power and it sort of takes a lot of time and legal maneuvering to get past those amnesties.”

Tandeciarz believes involvement with this project is often the start of a lifelong dedication to working with human rights. The project has led many students to seek careers and internships in related fields.

“I find that many students involved in the project have gone on to pursue law degrees with a focus on international human rights, to work in [Non-Governmental Organizations] also addressing an array of human rights and social justice issues and in one case, to secure a full-time research position at the [National Security Archives],” Tandeciarz said.

But even before students can tackle their future endeavors, those involved get a more immediate benefit from being involved — a personal connection to history and an invaluable learning experience.

“I think what [students] get is a connection to individuals in this kind of history,” Konefal said. “The narrative of what happened is so horrible. It’s numbing. You can’t quite absorb it until you start connecting that narrative to individual people and their cases.”

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