Human Rights In Chile: Issues still pending

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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For the last 25 Chile has been ruled by freely elected civilian government, following 17 years of military dictatorship. With respect to the human rights violations committed by the dictatorship measures of truth-telling, memory preservation, acknowledgment, reparations, and criminal justice have been implemented. Progress has been gradual and without drawbacks. Yet, there have been periods of stagnation.

Opinion polls show that the Chilean public does not accord great importance to human rights issues, except when there is a major scandal. The latter is the situation nowadays because of dramatic revelations by a lowly soldier who participated in the 1986 attack against two youngsters who were protesting against the government — Rodrigo Rojas, who died, and Carmen Gloria Quintana, who was severely injured, They are known as the “burnt ones”. The soldier revealed that they did not catch fire accidentally but were doused with gas and set afire by the lieutenant in charge of the platoon. The soldier said he spoke out of a conscientious mandate. A second soldier, also present in the incident, subsequently ratified his version.

These revelations have provoked the following questions:

1. ¿Wouldn’t it be necessary to lift the 50 years embargo imposed on the transcripts of testimonies given by victims of torture before the 2004 Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (nicknamed the Valech Commission)? The response is that such embargo was established to protect the privacy of victims, not to benefit the perpetrators. Victims are free to testify before the courts or wherever they please, as a majority of them has done. Besides, their embargoed statements do not contain much information about wrongdoers. One possible solution to address this concern would be that some authority (a judge, for instance) is given power to examine the embargoed documentation and to send to competent tribunals whatever information about perpetrators might be found.

2. Ought not the military disposable for grave human rights violations be downgraded? Downgrading is a penalty. It may only be applied by a court of law, following a fair trial.

3. How to break what has been termed “a pact of silence” of the military? In my opinion, a pact presupposes an agreement between or among equals. Yet, in this case as in many others, there was a superior order to keep mum or to lie. Further, in 2003 the then president Ricardo Lagos proposed to grant immunity in exchange for the truth to those who had not committed crimes against humanity or war crimes, and to punish them if they didn’t. Such proposal recognized that not every military man who violated human rights committed a crime against humanity, notwithstanding their participation in an act that constitutes a criminal offense. However, this proposal was opposed by some politicians who supported his government.

Anyway, it is important to remember that the standard for how to deal with past human rights violations ought to be to do whatever is humanly possible to investigate them, grant reparations to victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.

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