Zero Dark Thirty may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but human rights groups are still up in arms about the film and the role waterboarding may have played in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the day after the Academy Awards, Amnesty International cited the film's nomination in calling on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to make public its report about the CIA's treatment of detainees. Amnesty and others are frustrated that years after the U.S. use of torture became public no high-level Bush administration officials have been held accountable.
President Obama seemed to close out that possibility when he called for "turning the page" shortly after winning election in 2008. That "forgive and forget" approach, coupled with the failure to close Guantanamo and the recent white paper laying out a drone policy asserting the right to kill Americans abroad, has discouraged advocates of civil liberties, who had hoped that a Democratic president -- a constitutional law professor no less -- would have investigated and punished such egregious acts. The fact that they are using one movie's Oscar loss as a call for action suggests how desperate they are.
Those advocates might, however, derive encouragement by looking south -- way south -- to Argentina. That may seem an odd source of inspiration, given that the country has hardly been a model for good governance. Cristina Kirchner is currently president, having succeeded her now-deceased husband Nestor in 2007, and their dual reign has been marked by the expropriation of foreign-owned enterprises, rampant inflation (which the government consistently tries to hide), and a dubious alliance with ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who may have helped fund Kirchner's 2007 campaign.
When it comes to human rights, though, the couple presided over a watershed in Argentine history: They made it possible for members of one of the most brutal military dictatorships in South America to finally be tried and sentenced for kidnapping, murder, and torture. In the late 1980s, those men seemed forever protected by a spate of amnesty laws. Now, hundreds have been convicted. It's a narrative that activists who long for a similar meting out of justice in the United States can take hope from -- and learn from, too.
Obviously, there are enormous differences between the U.S. and Argentine cases. During the so-called Dirty War, the military junta killed as many as 30,000 people, the vast majority of them native Argentines. Their repertoire, moreover, was shockingly grisly: It included kidnapping, rape, electric shock torture, and drugging and dumping prisoners' inert bodies from airplanes into the sea. Perhaps most egregiously, the government took hundreds of babies from sequestered mothers and gave them to members of the military and their supporters. While the war was ostensibly waged against guerrilla fighters, the military's victims expanded well beyond that group to include anyone with suspected leftist sympathies. Students, journalists, and even psychologists were particularly vulnerable to being "disappeared."
While the United States tortured in the so-called war on terrorism, its actions certainly did not reach the depths of the Argentine junta. (No one is accusing senior officials of taking newborns away from their mothers.) But there are not-insignificant parallels between the U.S. war on terrorism and Argentina's Dirty War. Both had a similar incitation: They were launched in response to terrorism. The military junta was able to seize power from Isabel Peron's hapless government in 1976 largely because it was incapable staving off the Marxist Montoneros guerrillas, who were kidnapping high profile targets and setting off bombs in movie theaters and hotels. Some of the hallmarks of the U.S. war on terrorism also echo tactics deployed in the Dirty War, like indefinite detention, "hooding" (placing a hood over the entire face of a prisoner, so he cannot see), and waterboarding. And, as in the United States, for a long time in Argentina it seemed like no one would ever be forced to answer for their actions. For decades, the perpetrators of the Dirty War lived openly, and seemed immune from prosecution.
Yet now many of them are behind bars. How did that turn-around happen? Generally speaking, human rights activists employed three tactics. They documented and disseminated information on the abuses; consistently staged public demonstrations, even when the political climate seemed hopeless; and leveraged international courts to try members of the military brass in absentia when domestic jurists did nothing. "When the doors were closed," says Mirna Goransky, who has prosecuted cases against Dirty War military officials, "we did all we could to leverage the small openings that remained."