Human rights advocates were aided by the fact that, immediately following the fall of junta government in 1983, democratically-elected President Raul Alfonsín put top generals on trial and initiated a truth commission to investigate their legacy of political violence and repression. When the military threatened to take down the government, Alfonsín ended up pushing through what would be only the first round of amnesty laws, but the findings of the truth commission, published under the title Nunca Mas ("Never Again"), stunned the Argentine public. Documenting what happened during the period popularly known as anos de plomo, or "years of lead," became a useful placeholder for justice. In the 1990s, when courts wouldn't jail junta-era torturers, human rights attorneys pursued so-called "truth trials," in which they didn't demand punishment, but rather judicial investigations into the fate of the disappeared.
In addition to all of the legal wrangling, human rights groups consistently staged public demonstrations. The most iconic were, of course, the madres de la plaza de mayo, who took to walking in the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires every Thursday, wearing their signature white handkerchiefs. Most of the women were mothers of desaparecidos. Their consistent presence, and maternal bonafides, made them potent opponents.
The activists looked internationally, as well, to effect change at home. Attorneys proactively took on the cases of European victims, and had officers tried abroad in absentia. In 1999, in part at the prodding of Argentine attorneys, Spanish jurist Baltazar Gaston followed up on his warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by filing charges against members of the Argentine armed forces. The censure put pressure on Argentina to act, and when Kirchner annulled the decree forbidding extradition in 2003, the Dirty War cases started being heard in domestic courts.
To be sure, human rights groups today are using many of the same tactics deployed in Argentina. In 2011, for example, Amnesty International called for Canada to arrest and prosecute George W. Bush for his role in approving torture. This appears to have curbed the former president's international travel, but if he were in fact detained by a foreign government, it would probably backfire. Rather than whip up more U.S. public support for a thorough accounting for what happened post-9/11, most Americans would be outraged that a foreign power had put a former U.S. commander-in-chief in the dock.
The part of the Argentine playbook that could be most effective in the United States is the public documentation of acts of torture. It was almost nine years ago that pictures of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib surprised and sickened the American public. Although news accounts of what happened during the Bush years -- and popular media like 24 and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty -- have no doubt inured the public to the reality of U.S.-sanctioned torture, putting more information out there would have an impact. Government officials implicated in the Bush-era policies know this; that's why the C.I.A. destroyed tapes of its interrogations.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have released reports documenting the role senior officials played in condoning "enhanced interrogation techniques." More powerful than these efforts would be for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify its 6,000-page report on the use of torture post-9/11. It reportedly makes the case that subjecting prisoners to torture did not play a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden and was counterproductive in the broader effort to root out terrorists. Despite persistent demands from human rights activists like Amnesty, the report remains shrouded from public view.
That gets to what is arguably the real lesson of the Argentine experience: Don't give up. By seizing on every opportunity to obtain and disseminate information and keeping the pressure on, activists eventually succeeded in getting trials. In a speech he gave in 2011, ACLU president Anthony Romero said his counterpart in Argentina -- the head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires -- routinely bucks him up when Romero despairs of seeing charges brought in connection to the war on terrorism. "You're thinking too short a time frame," Romero's counterpart purportedly tells him. "It took us 37 years."