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ADOLFO PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] We face, for instance, in Argentina today, a very serious situation with respect to police brutality, to police violence, a situation of trigger-happiness on the part of police officers, which leads to many violent deaths.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, human rights in Argentina. And later, United Nations reform.
BILL PACE: The United Nations was set up in a way where the victors of World War II have special powers, that 54 years later ought to be rethought about.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Adolfo PEREZ ESQUIVEL won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end human rights abuses in Argentina. In particular he called attention to the plight of the so-called “disappeared.” In the 1970s between five and fifteen thousand people vanished as a result of their opposition to Argentina’s military government. Today, PEREZ ESQUIVEL continues to promote peace and nonviolence. He says the democratically-elected governments of Argentina are doing a better, but still not perfect job, of protecting human rights.
PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] In Argentina today there really are—there are no political prisoners who remain from the period of military dictatorship. We do, however, have prisoners. For instance there are military who were engaged in uprisings against the democratic governments, the constitutional governments, that followed after the end of the military dictatorship. One of those who was perhaps best known internationally is Colonel Simon Dean??, who carried out a rebellion against government authority. And there are also a number of trade unionists and popular organization, or leaders from the popular community, who have been imprisoned for their protests primarily against economic policies carried out by the government. When we speak of “disappeared” in Argentina we are talking about 30,000 people who were disappeared, who were detained by the military during the dictatorship and remain disappeared to this day, even though their remains have never been found and they have never been identified. We don’t know what has happened to them.
With respect to the disappeared the search goes on, primarily for the children who were kidnapped and disappeared during the dictatorship, or the children who were born in captivity. These are children who are now in, many of them, in their early 20’s. Many of them according to the information we have—and those who have been identified and located—were adopted or they were appropriated by members of the military themselves, by members of the police and their families and friends. The human rights organization called “The Grandmothers of the May Square” has as its fundamental purpose that of searching and finding and helping to restore identity to these young men and women now who has been disappeared. Up until now there are about 60 young men and women who have been recovered, who have been identified, and in some cases have been restored to their rightful families.
PORTER: Argentina is going through an election cycle right now. Is this an issue? Do people, is this something that’s discussed in the context of the election campaign?
PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] No. Unfortunately, if we look at the electoral campaign, if we look in fact at political leadership in Argentina, there are two issues, two themes that are really absent. They are absolutely taboo as far as the political leadership in the country is concerned. One of those issues is the matter of human rights; and the second issue is the question of the foreign debt. But there is a tremendous amount of popular pressure to deal with these issues. Popular pressure particularly that is focused on overcoming the situation of impunity, of juridical impunity, which means the lack of sanction for these very serious human rights violations during the dictatorship. And in fact what continues today to be human rights abuses and other kinds of crimes. We face, for instance, in Argentina today, a very serious situation with respect to police brutality, to police violence, a situation of trigger-happiness on the part of police officers, which leads to many violent deaths. And there are also a series of very serious crimes that have yet to go, yet to be punished. We have yet to see any real movement or success in both, either the investigation, to know what happened and what are the consequences; or to see those who are responsible for these crimes and human rights violations sanctioned. So this struggle against impunity is very important. Popularly it’s very important to the social movements within the country. But as I said it’s something that the political leadership tries to avoid.
Because of the importance of this struggle against impunity, something that we see as really vital to being able to build a democratic society and the possibility of a democratic government, the human rights organizations have taken our struggle outside the country, to foreign countries, because we haven’t been able to achieve what we need to within our own country. We’ve gone to Spain, we’ve gone to Italy, we’ve gone to Germany, France, Sweden, other countries, and have opened legal action against those who are responsible in Argentina for the disappearances and for the human rights violations. We are seeking in this way to apply international human rights law that has been developing over the recent years, to confront and to overcome, to help us overcome the consequences of impunity in our own country. This is something that’s happening not only in my own country, in Argentina; it’s happening also throughout the region, in other countries such as Chile. We have Pinochet, who today is under at least house arrest in Great Britain.
PORTER: That brings up a broader question I was going to ask. And that is that today we seem to have lots of different ways or perhaps new ways of dealing with post-conflict justice. Truth commissions; we have ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; we have the possibility of a permanent international criminal court. What do you think is the best way to deal with justice in a post-conflict situation?
PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] There are many ways to begin to deal with these post-conflict situations. One of them is really that of strengthening civil society and of strengthening the institutions of society in ways in which they deal with conflict in those societies. For instance, we need to be able to insure the independence of the judiciary powers from the political power. This is something; this kind of independence in most of our countries does not exist. And it is important that it do exist. And another path is really to enforce the international human rights law. That the pacts, the treaties, the protocols, that almost all of our nation-states have signed and have ratified over the last decades, and yet when it comes to the day-to-day, don’t put them into practice. It’s important for us to go back on this and insure that there is compliance of these treaties and protocols.
And another step is for the creation for this international tribunal for a penal court to really come into being. There is now a proposal and what has to happen now is for the appropriate number of states to sign it and to ratify it. We need this to happen, as this would be an important means of helping to deal with these kinds of conflicts and the gross violation of human rights.
But I think it’s also important to mention a key step in trying to avoid these kinds of conflict situations. And this is where we need to focus on the significance of popular organization. Because as peoples come together, as they organize themselves, as they stop being spectators of their own lives and really become protagonists of their own lives, that’s how we will begin to see the kinds of transformations that we need in society and how we will be able to avoid many of these conflict situations.
If we look at some present day conflict situations—East Timor, Rwanda, Columbia—how different the situation would be if rather than waiting until it was too late to send in troops, how different the situation could be if the international community mobilized itself early on to support the popular organization in those countries, in their demands, and in a way that they are trying to take control over their own lives. We have to bear in mind that these military dictatorships that the situations in which atrocities are committed, those who are responsible for them are never alone. They always have support. And these are things that we have to focus on, that the international community has to focus on: where are, who are, what are the sources of support and how can we act together internationally to stop that support, so that the atrocities don’t happen.
The kinds of support I’m talking about could be economic support; it can be military support; political support. But what we need to focus on is really how to strengthen the means, how to find and strengthen the instruments that will enable these kinds of support structures to be stopped and therefore to prevent totalitarian situations from arising. The kinds of atrocities that we have seen far too often committed against peoples throughout the world brought to an end.
PORTER: So often these international standards that we’re talking about, or the levers of power, are controlled by states. That when it comes to drafting international standards that they are states talking to other states. How can popular organizations, how can nongovernmental organizations, or civil society, play a role in that? I’m wondering if through your experience you maybe have some words of wisdom for how those popular organizations, those people’s organizations, can have an impact when it’s states talking to states?
PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] If we think back 25 or 30 years ago we have to recognize that to think about or to talk about human rights was sort of like talking about outer space and people from outer space. Over recent years there has been a process, a kind of collective consciousness-raising with respect to the value to the importance of human rights. And as a result there are organizations that have come into being all over the world that are joining together and finding ways of joining together, to defend and to promote human rights. But the popular organizations, the human rights organizations, as they work for human rights compliance or fulfillment, they do come up with or encounter very serious difficulties. For instance, in the inter-American system, in the Organization of American States, the OAS, human rights organizations do not have status as they do within the United Nations system. So it’s more difficult within the inter-American system for popular organizations to have a voice.
PORTER: There are in South America tensions between Argentina and Brazil, between Argentina and Chile; military tensions between a number of countries. Are you concerned at all about the possibility of a growing arms race in South America?
PEREZ ESQUIVEL: [via a translator] I was active on two occasions in the face of the conflict, in the war situation created between Ecuador and Peru, both in ‘91 and in ’95. And we see in these kinds of situations, as in other conflicts that could be mentioned throughout the continent, how millions and millions of dollars are spent on arms purchases, on military supplies, which really just go to preparing fellow peoples to kill each other. And this is a situation which we have to work together internationally to revert, to make impossible, in order to transform those resources which are now being channeled for aggression and for death and transform them really into instruments of life, into instruments of cooperation and development and being able to meet and deal with the people’s basic needs and rights throughout the region.
But if we look at the region we have to see that most of the serious, the most serious conflict areas and areas of potential conflict, are really due to internal situations in those countries. Columbia today. If we looked at Mexico, the situation in Chiapas. In Brazil the situation of the landless movement in that country. These are all reflections of the growing marginalization of peoples, the growing exclusion of vast sectors of Latin American population from the possibility of a dignified life. And as these conflict situations we have to join hands together around the world in order to transform into opportunities for life and human dignity.
PORTER: That is Adolfo PEREZ ESQUIVEL, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize.
MC HUGH: Coming up, the World Federalist Movement’s reform plan for the United Nations
BILL PACE: Until the world community is investing the kind of resources, limited resources, in the United Nations, it won’t be able to do this work.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: When the 26 founding countries of the United Nations combined forces in 1945, the goal was to continue the fight against the Axis powers. But 54 years later many argue the role of the United Nations no longer represents its original mission. Bill Pace is the Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement Institute for Global Policy. He says United Nations reform is necessary to make the world body more representative and accountable.
PACE: The World Federalists is an old peace organization formed in 1947, right after the founding of the United Nations, when it was clear that the charter and organization that was created in San Francisco was not going to be able to achieve that goal of ridding the world of the scourge of war. And we knew at that time a fundamental strengthening and democratization of the international legal order would still be required. So our original mandate and goal was for trying to outlaw war, to strengthen the legal structures and the laws between nation-states to make war increasingly impossible.
MC HUGH: And you advocate federalism?
PACE: The World Federalist Movement is largely inspired by the United States experiment in federalism. It was an idea of government, it wasn’t brand new but certainly the United States constitutional convention and the federal constitution adopted was unique in itself and in history. And it basically says that there are certain rights that the nation-state will have, there are rights that the individual states or provinces will remain to have. And then when our constitution was adopted it was adopted with the agreement that ten amendments on individual rights would be included. So it’s a, it’s a kind of democratic constitutional form of government with guaranteed individual rights but with a separation of those rights. And also a principle of subsidiarity in the federalism. So that you try and deal with a problem at the most local level or the closest level to those affected. So, for example, in Africa where you have I forget, maybe 40-50 different countries, 50 different currencies, 50 different states, over time our guess is that federalism will be one of the ways in which Africa will unify itself. The same way what the European continent has done, is a weak federal or federative European Union.
MC HUGH: Now your Web site indicates that UN reform is really your organization’s biggest project right now. What type of reform are we talking about?
PACE: The United Nations was set up in a way where the victors of World War II have special powers, that 54 years later ought to be rethought about. The United Nations was set up in which one nation, one vote, was where a country with 270 million people, like the United States, in the General Assembly has the same vote as a small city-state country like San Marino or Malta or something. That the, there is no ability of the General Assembly to adopt laws that are binding on those nation-states unless those nation-states just implement the treaties themselves. So there’s no authority for enforcement except in the Security Council. But again the Security Council exists with these five vetoes and in recent years for example; China has used the veto to stop peacekeeping operations in countries that have agreed to do business with Taiwan. Nothing to do with China’s responsibility in the Security Council, nothing to do with how they should exercise their veto. It is a punitive exercise of the veto. So one of the reforms is to try and restrict the use of the veto in nationalist, selfish ways, and make sure that the veto is only used when it is, there’s a genuine disagreement on how it’s best to deal with a problem of protecting international peace and security. Trying to make the General Assembly more democratic, more representative; try and invest it with the kinds of authority that, a very limited authority, but nevertheless authority to harmonize policy between the different organs of the United Nations systems. Until the world community is investing the kind of resources, limited resources, in the United Nations, it won’t be able to do this work. So one of the reforms we’d like to see is giving more resources and giving more independence to the UN in developing resources.
Again, if we could channel some of these resources to the United Nations so that we could prevent disease, prevent conflicts, try and regulate some of the destructive arms trade, try and be able to enforce the disarmament agreements. These are the kinds of reforms that we’re looking for.
MC HUGH: But is reform even possible, especially considering Security Council countries like the US and the fact that we can’t even pay our dues?
PACE: Well, but reform is happening. The, there’s been incredible achievements and successes, even in the last ten years since the Cold War, since the United States has had, unfortunately, its Senate and House of Representatives has adopted a policy of financially strangling and blackmailing the UN. Nevertheless, as you and are talking, the United Nations in this year has assumed responsibility for trying to restore a civil society in Kosovo; it’s just gone into East Timor and is through a three-year mandate to try and provide order so that a new, independent nation can come into being there, and try and hopefully repair as much as possible the terrible devastation that they’ve experienced. We have seen a creation of a chemical weapons treaty recently. We’ve had the adoption, which was a General Assembly process, of a treaty to create a permanent international criminal court.
We’ve begun to see the United Nations and the, what we would hope would ultimately be the finance and trade ministries, but which currently now serve out there as much larger, bigger institutions, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. But we’ve begun to see a closer working relationship between the United Nations and the World Bank, and I think we’ll see a closer working relationship between the UN and the trade organization over time. So, even with the opposition of major powers—and the US isn’t the only one—but China, Russia, India, almost all of the dictatorships are opposed to serious United Nations reform etc. Nevertheless, major progress is still occurring. And in part it is a response to the kind of globalization, globalized world that we live in, that is not being torn or kept under a Cold War between the East and the West that existed for forty years at the end of World War II.
MC HUGH: Is the United States the only country that is withholding dues?
PACE: No, it’s not. It’s unfortunately, the $1.6 billion the United States is withheld of its, of it’s regular dues and its peacekeeping dues, are I think sixty, seventy percent of the outstanding dues. Other countries: Ukraine, and of course countries like Sierra Leone, Somalia; countries that have just been devastated by civil wars are also in arrears. But the United States is the only country who’s in essentially good financial—it’s most prosperous in some ways in its entire history—that is withholding its dues. And so the United Nations is not able to borrow money. And so, ironically, the way the UN is staying open is that the United States allies, who are not getting repaid for peacekeeping operations, are floating the UN. But this is about to end and if the United States doesn’t pay its dues properly before the end of 1999, it risks losing its vote in the General Assembly. And I think this would be a disaster for this country, which is the host country, which was the country probably more responsible than any other country in the world for the establishment of the UN, to 50 years later be responsible of, for its own, almost pulling out of the organization.
MC HUGH: But there are some Americans that would argue that they don’t know much about the UN, so why should I care?
PACE: Oh, I think this is a real serious problem and it’s a reflection of the failure of groups like mine, as a matter of fact, that the education—you can go through school in the United States, you can go all the way through elementary school, secondary school, college—you can become a lawyer or a doctor or a professor, and never once have an instruction about international law or international cooperation or international organizations. So it’s a fundamental failure of education. And what happened in the old days, if you wish now, is that the terrible experiences of war occurred in a way that during the ’50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, the senators and the congressman at least all understood the importance of having the United Nations there, where all nations came; countries that we were enemies with, countries that we were in a tremendous ideological battle with over communism vs. democracy and capitalism, etc. But we, they understood the value of this. Those people have basically either died or retired and we have instead a group of political leaders in the Senate and House who are dedicated to a renewed isolationism, combined—contradictorily—with a unilateralism, with another giant rebuilding of a defense budget which is already spectacularly high. And it’s worrisome. At the same time I am an optimist and I think that forces of democracy, of rule of law, of justice, of humanitarian concerns, will prevail over these other forces.
MC HUGH: That is Bill Pace, the Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement Institute for Global Policy. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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