A scar that stretches across continents
By Stephanie Wildes
GWANGJU, South Korea - As news of the death of former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in a prison cell spread around the world, Julia Parodi, who was in this South Korean city to receive the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights on behalf of HIJOS, said he died in the right place.
HIJOS, the acronym for "Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence", is an Argentine rights group founded in 1995 when children of people "disappeared" by that country's 1976-1983 military regime came together to hold escraches, or outings, of human-rights violators.
An estimated 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship's systematic suppression of dissent. In
1976, then army chief Videla led the junta made up of the commanders of the three military forces after the coup d'etat that overthrew the democratic government of Isabel Peron.
Videla, who died on May 17, may be physically no more, the 25-year-old Parodi told the audience in her acceptance speech, but Argentina is still trying to correct the historical wrongs of the regime he led for most of its seven years in power. Parodi was with her colleague Marcos Kary in Gwangju to share the human-rights experiences of Argentina and South Korea.
The Gwangju Prize is awarded in South Korea by the May 18 Memorial Foundation, which like HIJOS was established by the families of those subjected to the brutal excesses of a dictatorship. Protests against the rule of South Korean military commander and strongman Chun Doo-hwan (1979-1988) had culminated in the May 18-27, 1980, uprising in Gwangju, also known as 518, an allusion to the date the bloody crackdown began.
In spring 1980, there was a wave of demonstrations across South Korea. In Gwangju, in the southwest, the military responded with brute force, firing indiscriminately into crowds. Even passers-by were killed. The final death toll is still uncertain, but up to 2,000 people may have died. The uprising is seen as a pivotal moment in the struggle for South Korean democracy.
The May 18 Memorial Foundation was established in 1994, and the Gwangju Prize was created in 2000. Xanana Gusmao, who fought for the freedom of East Timor in Southeast Asia and was elected as its first president when it became a new country in 2002, was the first recipient of the prize.
The award has since gone to other leaders in South Asia, notably Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon for democracy in Myanmar, in 2004; Manipur's Irom Sharmila, fighting the excesses of the military in northeastern India, in 2007; and Dr Binayak Sen, a civil rights activist working for the rights of tribal populations in India, in 2011.
For the first time, the prize has gone this year to an organization so many miles and whole continents away from the parent country. HIJOS was chosen for its dedication to get justice for victims of human-rights abuses during Argentina's dictatorship.
Parodi and Kary, both students who work for and represent HIJOS, are not the children of any of those who fell prey to the atrocities of the regime but are willing to carry on the job that the daughters and sons of the victims began nearly two decades ago.
Like other workers with human-rights groups in their country, their aim is to help restore truth and bring justice to Argentine society. The organization has helped collect evidence, arranged legal assistance for those wishing to prosecute human-rights violators, and offered psychological support.
Videla's sentencing was a part of this effort. Tried and sentenced to life for human-rights abuses soon after democracy was restored, he served only a few years in prison before he was released under a broad presidential pardon from Carlos Menem (1989-1999). But the sustained efforts of organizations like HIJOS ensured that this impunity would not be permanent.
In the mid-2000s, the Argentine Supreme Court struck down the presidential pardon for the former members of the junta, as well as the two late 1980s amnesty laws, ruling that they were unconstitutional.
"In the period that no trials took place," Parodi told IPS, "we undertook social action by identifying the perpetrators of atrocities and distributing leaflets to their neighbors indicating that the people next door were responsible for the brutal abuses that happened in the 1970s and 1980s".
The human-rights trials resumed after the pardons and amnesty laws were thrown out. In the central city of Cordoba, where Parodi and Kary work, there have already been four trials involving 400 victims and 43 accused, said Parodi. A fifth trial began in December 2012 and will last another two years, the two activists told IPS.
However, helping to bring the perpetrators to court is not the end of HIJOS's job, Parodi said, adding that there is still a lot to be done for human rights in their country.
"Human rights continue to be suppressed in Argentina," Kary told IPS. "The military may no longer be in power, but the police continue to wield power, and their mindset has never really changed. Torture in jails continues."
Meanwhile, the Gwangju Prize - and its US$50,000 cash award - has given the organization an opportunity to share its human rights experience with rights groups and democratic movements in Asia. It is the first international recognition that HIJOS has received, and one it hopes to build on in its fight for human rights.