Gelman Hearing Sheds Light on the State of Uruguay’s Accountability Efforts

By Debbie Sharnak

On February 13, 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) held a private hearing to monitor Uruguay’s compliance with the Gelman v. Uruguay judgment from February 24, 2011. In this important ruling, the IACHR held Uruguay responsible for forced disappearances committed during the 1970s dictatorship for the first time. The case continues to serve as a representation and opportunity for justice, not only for the Gelman family, but also for the thousands of victims who have never had chance to have their claims heard in court. This hearing aimed to uncover the progress Uruguay has made in instituting the directives for accountability that the IACHR judges made in the decision almost two years ago.

In 1976, María Claudia García Iruretagoyena de Gelman was abducted in Buenos Aires while seven months pregnant. As a result of Operation Condor, wherein Southern Cone dictatorships coordinated their repressive activities to eliminate dissidents, María Claudia was transferred soon thereafter to Uruguay. In a Montevideo prison, her daughter, Macarena, was born. No one ever heard from or found María Claudia again, but her daughter, Macarena, was adopted by a family associated with the Uruguayan Police Force. Macarena’s experience was not an isolated incident; according to human rights groups, as many as five hundred children in Argentina and Uruguay were taken from their imprisoned parents and given to childless military or police couples who the military regimes favored. After years of searching for his missing granddaughter with the help of the Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, poet Juan Gelman, Maria Claudia’s father, finally found Macarena in 1999, and brought the case of the disappearance and illegal adoption before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The case was presented to the regional court because of Uruguay’s entrenched impunity towards crimes committed during the country’s military regime from 1973-1985. In 1986, during the nation’s transition back to democratic rule, Uruguay passed an amnesty law, which protected all those involved in the military regime from prosecution for human rights violations. That law was then reaffirmed in two subsequent public referendums. In 2011, the IACHR found that, despite public reaffirmation, this amnesty law was inconsistent with international human rights obligations. Human rights protections cannot be subjected to popular vote; instead the nation’s government and judiciary has an obligation to guarantee basic human rights to the citizenry. The IACHR directed Uruguay to begin to comply with instituting accountability efforts in three key areas to reverse the trend of impunity. First, it ordered Uruguay to guarantee that the amnesty law did not present further obstacles to the identification and, if applicable, punishment of the responsible parties for crimes against humanity. Second, it directed Uruguay to institute reparations for violations suffered, and lastly, the ruling stated that the small Southern Cone nation needed to make an official apology .

Uruguay has taken important steps to comply with these duties in the past two years. The nation instituted an economic reparations program and President José Mujica, who himself was a victim of the military government’s repression, made a dramatic public acknowledgement of state responsibility for crimes committed during the dictatorship in March 2012. However, as recently as April 2011, the Uruguayan parliament rejected overturning the amnesty law, despite the fact that the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in 2009. Although the country has taken important steps forward, the refusal to overturn the amnesty law illustrates the continued intransigence within Uruguayan society about fully opening up a culture of truth and accountability. Since the Gelman decision came down, judges have been able to open new cases, but still, no new cases for crimes committed during the period of military rule have moved forward. Although the crimes addressed in the Gelman case occurred over thirty years ago, they remain relevant to thousands of victims who continue to live in the country today.  Victims of torture and rape, and whose families were ripped apart by the dictatorship’s crimes, have never had their justice concerns addressed, and public records from the time of dictatorship remain inaccessible to victims who still do not know their history. The Gelman case is just one example of a woman, who, for the first 36 years of her life, believed she was a Uruguayan and the daughter of a military family, only to find out that, in fact, she was a victim of their regime and an Argentine. The investigation was also the first time that the practice of kidnapping pregnant women and taking their children was acknowledged as a strategy of terror during the war in Uruguay. The possibility of reopening accountability efforts in Uruguay is important for both the nation’s democratic future as well as for these individual victims reckoning with their own personal and traumatic past experiences.

At the private hearing monitoring Uruguay’s compliance with the Court’s ruling this month, the government representative acknowledged that Uruguay still has a ways to go in its quest for truth and justice. He admitted that the investigation clarifying where Maria Claudia’s remains might be located and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance and daughter’s adoption is still ongoing. The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), who litigated the case for Gelman, argued at the hearing that Uruguay still needs to remove the final obstacles for prosecution domestically, and that numerous constitutional challenges need to be ruled on by the Supreme Court before human rights trials can resume.

While Uruguay has made great strides in beginning to comply with the Court’s judgment, the country is just beginning to reopen discussions about truth and accountability during the nation’s period of military rule. New opportunities for the long sought after realization of justice are starting to emerge. The IACHR has helped develop and promote robust international law to address important human rights claims, but implementing these decisions remains a fundamental challenge at the societal level. N-Map and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) are innovating how to close the implementation gap of these lofty standards by bringing the case to public attention and building political will. Working together, N-Map and CEJIL have documented the powerful stories of the continued struggles for truth and justice. Next month, CEJIL and N-Map will release a video about these efforts at a public event in Uruguay, and a coordinated follow-up event in the United States as well. Stay tuned!

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