The human rights movement in Argentina is primarily associated with the protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo against the mass murder committed by the military dictatorship of 1976-83, and with the subsequent campaigns during the mid-1980s to achieve retribution. The victims of military repression numbered at least 10,000 (although many sources use the figure 30,000); the retribution consisted of the trial and conviction of a handful of the military junta leaders and some largely unfulfilled projects to reform the Argentine military. From this perspective—comparing the magnitude of the crimes committed by the military with the retribution meted out to those responsible—the human rights movement achieved relatively little. The convicted military leaders served about six years of imprisonment until the government of Carlos Menem granted them pardons. The human rights movement, having reached maximum influence during the early 1980s, has slowly declined since that time, and currently appears to play little part in Argentine politics.
Alison Brysk’s well-written and carefully researched book avoids making wildly exaggerated claims for the impact of the human rights movement. For example, Brysk correctly attributes the fall of the military junta in 1983 to a combination of “economic decline, external military defeat, and domestic legitimacy crisis, [which] cannot be directly attributed to the human rights movement” (p. 58). Nevertheless, her analysis of the movement emphasizes its centrality in the transition of 1983 and the subsequent consolidation of Argentine democracy. The movement’s impact was to “delegitimate the regime before the Malvinas defeat [of June 1982] and condition the character of the transition that followed” (p. 58). The evidence for this claim is presented in an account of the movements activities before 1983 (the most famous being the Thursday afternoon processions by the mothers around the Plaza de Mayo), and then its activities after 1983. The latter (summarized on p. 155) included pressure to create the commission of inquiry on the “disappeared” known as CONADEP and to try the junta leaders in 1985, the creation of binding controls on coercive agencies, the transformation of political “discourse” in Argentina to promote notions of democracy and human rights, and the protection of a “collective memory” of the events of the late 1970s. According to Brysk, the human rights groups created an “inclusive sense of citizenship” and helped “the disenfranchised to find their voice.”
Did the human rights movement “delegitimate” the military regime? Did it condition the subsequent transition? Many students of Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s will find even these relatively limited claims overdrawn. On the one hand, the war of 1982 marked the key moment in the delegitimation of the military, and the Alfonsín government became the key agent in the democratic transition of 1983. The government, not the human rights movement, played the more important role in the establishment of CONADEP, the trials, and the efforts to create a democratic political culture. On the other hand, the human rights movement to some extent helped to resurrect the practice of citizen participation and to promote enfranchisement.
The book provides a clear picture of military politics in Argentina during the late 1980s, particularly the uprisings led by authoritarian dissidents like Colonel Aldo Rico. Among its weaknesses is its failure to analyze the internal composition of the human rights groups. Had Brysk looked more closely at the movement’s situation in the broader society, she might have gained a better-balanced understanding of the limitations of its influence, despite the enormous power of its message. The history of this period cannot be written without reference to the human rights movement, but the period also has a much broader, multidimensional context than that presented in this book.