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New research: Business responsibility in crimes against humanity in Argentina

Owners, executives and managers of some prominent companies actively participated in the human rights violations committed against workers during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, according to the report “Business responsibility in crimes against humanity: The repression of workers during state terrorism.” (available in Spanish) The report, laying out evidence of such violations, was recently released by Argentine human rights organization the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS, according to its acronym in Spanish), the Area of Economy and Technology of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Argentina), and the Truth and Justice Program and Human Rights Secretariat – both of which belong to the Argentine Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.

Throughout its two volumes, the report documents how some key economic actors went beyond complicity to help perpetrate the dictatorship’s crimes. Companies often profit in tangible ways from the absence of guarantees and rights. In the case of Argentina, the systematic use of terror was meant to silence dissidence and radicalized political activism, and to discipline the working class as a whole. This occurred while dictatorship officials transformed the economy by prioritizing the financial sector over industry – and favoring their cronies. In fact, the de facto government in 1982 assumed the liabilities of several companies that were involved in abuses, as part of a broad nationalization of private debts, revealing that this collaboration was a two-way street. Identifying the responsibilities of corporate players in crimes against humanity is crucial to understanding the historical context, and economic power relations, that gave rise to these gross human rights violations.

The report is part of the memory, truth and justice process in Argentina, which began with the 1985 trial of the military juntas and the Nunca Más report and included the innovation of Truth Trials when amnesty laws and presidential pardons stymied criminal prosecution. Once the amnesties were definitively scrapped in 2005, hundreds of judicial investigations and trials were reopened or launched. This included probes into the responsibility of civilians – judicial officials, clergy members and company executives, among others – in these crimes against humanity. Nearly 900 victims of state terrorism were identified in the 25 companies researched in the report, 354 of whom were forcibly disappeared and 65 of whom were murdered. The majority of victims were workers and ex-workers of these same companies who participated in processes of conflict and labor organization.

The companies under study cut across sectors and regions of the country and include units of international corporations such as FIAT, Ford Motor Company and Mercedes-Benz and Argentine companies such as Acindar, Dálmine-Siderca, Ingenio Ledesma, Molinos Río de la Plata and La Veloz del Norte. Today almost all of these firms face judicial investigation or proceedings, at varying stages of progress. The most extreme manifestation of the widespread militarization of work spaces during the dictatorship was the installation of clandestine detention and torture centers on company premises. There is also evidence that some company executives were present during the abduction, captivity and torture of workers. More common was the vast deployment of military and security forces on factory grounds; some corporate officials explicitly sought this military intervention and provided logistical and/or financial support. These types of coordination to repress workers, on their own merit and in the context of state terrorism, constitute human rights violations.

The research was presented last December 3 in Buenos Aires, one week after the national Congress created a bicameral commission to investigate economic and financial complicity with the dictatorship – a move backed by five human rights experts from the United Nations, among them the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

Diego Morales is the Director of Litigation and Legal Defense at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). Click here to read the full report (available only in Spanish).

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