During the 1980s dictatorships gave way, or began to give way, to elected civilian governments. The trend was most wide-spread in Central America and South America, and was most astonishing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It also included such Asian governments as Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Whether all these nations, or indeed any of them, will evolve into genuine democracies in which rights are fully protected is, of course, far from settled. To some degree, this depends on factors beyond the control of any one country, such as international economic developments and whether the current détente between the United States and the Soviet Union continues. But in a number of countries whose future is uncertain, one of the most difficult questions is what to do about the past.
For most of the nations now emerging from dictatorial rule, the past was a period of terrible repression. South America had its worst period during the 1970s, when “disappearances,” extra-judicial killings, and torture were systematically practiced in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, all of which elected civilian governments in the first half of the 1980s; and in Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship is now in its final weeks. In Central America, the worst period was more recent: the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, when death-squad killings, massacres that obliterated entire villages, and disappearances often took place in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Despite the change to what is labelled “democracy” in these countries, many such crimes are still being committed. This is the case in Guatemala, where only traces of a guerrilla war remain, and in El Salvador the most intense military conflict in the hemisphere continues. The murder on November 16 of six Jesuit priests, their cook, and the cook’s daughter was only the most visible reminder of the savagery that has marked those conflicts. In the Philippines, the most egregious abuses—including death-squad killings and torture in prisons—took place under Marcos during the first half of the 1980s, though they started earlier during his rule and have continued in significant measure during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. In South Korea, the ascent to power of the nation’s last dictator, General Chun Doo Hwan, was particularly marked by brutality, especially in the southwestern city of Kwangju, where a massacre by the army in 1980 may have killed more people than were killed in the massacre by the Chinese army in Beijing this past June. (The actual numbers of people who died in both episodes will probably never be known.)
In the Soviet Union, the repression that is most often mentioned in official pronouncements about the past is the murder and starvation of many millions under Stalin. But vast suffering caused by abuses of human rights began before Stalin and continued during the more than three-and-a-half decades since his death. According to current official pronouncements, virtually all the evils of the past can be attributed to a single villain in much the same way that Stalin was once credited with every achievement in the Soviet Union. The effect is to promote a cult of personality in reverse. In Poland and Hungary the most severe abuses took place during Stalin’s time and for several years after his death, especially following the “bread and freedom” riots in Poznan, Poland, in June 1956 and the much larger revolt in Hungary later that year, which was partly inspired by the events in Poznan. As the revolutions now underway in East Germany and Czechoslovakia proceed, some of the terrible crimes committed in those countries during the past four decades are also being explored.
It is likely that the question of accountability for the repression of the past will loom especially large in Romania, both because the upheaval that overthrew the Ceausescu dictatorship was itself so bloody and because of the severity of the repression by that dictatorship up to the very end. Indeed, of the many countries where accountability for the crimes of the past is a major issue, Romania is the one where there seems a risk of a period of what might be called “Robespierre justice,” as suggested by the summary trial and execution of Ceausescu and his wife. As the new government in Romania confronts mounting international criticism of that episode, however, the chances of avoiding a new reign of terror seem to be rising.
Among the nations undergoing a “transition to democracy,” the most ambitious government effort to deal with the abuses of the past took place in Argentina. Immediately upon assuming office in December 1983, the government of President Raúl Alfonsin established a civilian commission, under the direction of the well-known novelist Ernesto Sabato, to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the disappearances during the preceding seven-and-a-half years, when thousands of people were abducted, tortured, and murdered, and their bodies disposed of clandestinely, while the military government refused to provide any information about the fate of those who had vanished. These crimes, which claimed more than 9,000 victims in Argentina, were committed under the military regime that took power in 1976, when a coup overthrew the presidency of Isabel Perón, and lasted until civilian government was restored in 1983, after the armed forces were discredited following their humiliating defeat in the Falklands war the previous year.
Alfonsin ordered prosecutions for gross abuses of human rights of the nine military commanders who made up the first three juntas that ruled Argentina during the years following the coup. The prosecutions were carried out by lawyers who were known for their professional competence, some of whom had no political connections with Alfonsin’s party. The nature and extent of the crimes that were committed and the identities of the victims were meticulously investigated and documented; the rights of those accused of crimes were scrupulously protected; the guilt of the junta members was carefully assessed, and five were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from four-and-a-half years to life imprisonment. The Argentine public was provided with enough information for the entire nation to grasp what had taken place. The trials were carried out in a dignified manner, which inculcated respect for the rule of law.
Nevertheless, something went seriously wrong. Some lower-ranking military officers who were also facing prosecution conspired to mount small military revolts during Alfonsin’s final years in office. Several army posts were briefly taken over, and indicted officers were protected from arrest and trial. As a consequence of such actions, much of what was accomplished by Alfonsin was rescinded or reversed before he left office. That reversal has now proceeded much further under his successor Carlos Saúl Menem, who assumed office several months before Alfonsin’s term was due to expire in the midst of an economic crisis in mid-1989.
No such prosecutions have occurred in the Soviet Union. Despite Gorbachev and glasnost, there has been as yet no formal government investigation and disclosure of the crimes of the past. Nor is there much prospect that the Soviet government will officially face up to its past. The most it has been willing to do so far is to tolerate the publication of excerpts from such works as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and memoirs of other victims. These are beginning to appear in various periodicals, in which some Soviet historians are demanding that the archives be opened and the truth about the past be made known.
An important part of the effort to deal with the past in the Soviet Union can be seen in the work of an organization known as “Memorial.” This group was formed just over a year ago, and although it is not yet officially recognized—and therefore is unable to obtain an office or to pay out funds from its bank account—by early November it already had some 226 chapters throughout the Soviet Union. (Some local chapters, such as the one in Leningrad, have been officially registered by the soviets, or town councils, of their own communities.) Initially, Memorial’s purpose was to build a monument to the victims of Stalin and to establish a research institute to gather information on the victims, and on manifestations of Stalinism. By now, however, as I learned from a visit with Memorial’s leaders in November on behalf of Helsinki Watch (I was accompanied by Helsinki Watch’s Soviet specialist, Cathy Fitzpatrick), its concerns have broadened so that it also deals with many current human rights issues.
Indeed, Memorial is now by far the largest organization in the Soviet Union that could be called a human rights group. Still, the heart of its program is assembling documents, testimony, and certain artifacts, such as carvings from the labor camps, that would contribute to a history of repression in the Soviet Union. Founded by such persons as the late Andrei Sakharov and by Yuri Afanasyev (a prominent historian and an outspoken critic of Soviet government policies who lately seemed to irritate President Gorbachev), Memorial’s board of directors is largely made up of historians and archivists.
Memorial is increasingly bold, to judge by an unprecedented demonstration that I observed in Moscow on October 30. Some 1,500 to 2,000 people, many of them carrying candles, formed a human chain around the massive headquarters building of the KGB in central Moscow, which also houses the dreaded Lubyanka prison, where some of Stalin’s most prominent victims are believed to have been executed. A demonstration at any KGB office would have been virtually unthinkable until recently. Yet simultaneously—October 30 is “political prisoners day” in the Soviet Union, commemorating a hunger strike in the labor camps that began on that date fifteen years ago—similar demonstrations were held by Memorial in many other cities at prisons and other sites chosen because they symbolized repression.
Memorial does not demand that anyone be punished. In view of the time that has passed since the Stalinist abuses that are their main concern, this is hardly surprising. Nor do the leaders of Memorial call for punishment of more recent abuses. Sergei Kovalyov, a biologist who was imprisoned between 1974 and 1981 and then spent three years in internal exile for his human rights activities, and who has again become a leader of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, told me a year ago that so many people had taken part in Soviet repression that it would be impossible to single out particular officials for prosecution.
Kovalyov is particularly concerned these days with rehabilitating thousands of political prisoners who were kept in camps during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and have since been released. Only a handful have succeeded in obtaining an official statement that they are now citizens in good standing by conducting determined campaigns in their own behalf. The rest continue to suffer from various restrictions in their daily lives; they have trouble obtaining residence permits, for example, because they were convicted of such crimes as anti-Soviet agitation. Some officials who now agree that the laws penalizing such offenses should be revised say they are unwilling to support rehabilitation, since the convictions were justifiable under the conditions that prevailed at the time—a vague and indefensible bureaucratic formula. The Soviet government itself has taken no steps to wipe out the criminal records, either on a case-by-case basis or by legislation.