Guest Post: A “Right to Truth” in Grand Corruption Cases?

Lucas E. Gómez and Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria of the Latin American Center for Human Rights (Centro Latinoamericano de Derechos Humanos, CLADH) in Argentina contribute the following guest post:

Argentina, 1978. In the midst of terror, a group of parents searching for their children finds no answer in domestic justice. Thousands of habeas corpus petitions are rejected by judges. The military dictatorship denies having any clue about them: Videla, the leader of the government, declares: “they are neither dead, nor alive; they are disappeared.” These parents respond with innovative strategies (maybe without being aware of the innovation): They start sending letters of complaint (over a thousand) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR). The result: the IACHR visits Argentina and issues a 1980 report recognizing widespread human rights violations; the report has an enormous impact both inside and outside of Argentina. Yet by 1990, these parents still don’t know what happened to their children. Despite the return to democracy in 1983, and some trials of military officers and terrorists shortly thereafter, in 1986 and 1987 Congress passes two acts restricting the criminal prosecution of military officers, and a few years later, President Menem pardons both military hierarchies and terrorists, releasing them from jail.

Argentina, 1995. Some of these parents devise a new strategy: Even if criminal prosecution is forbidden, they assert that there is still a “right to the truth”—a right to know what happened to the disappeared. Though Argentina’s Supreme Court rejects the claim, the parents again take the case to the IACHR. Finally, in 1999, Argentina settles the IACHR case, recognizing the existence of the right to truth. This development ultimately led to the re-opening of the criminal prosecutions against military officers: Once information about the atrocities came out, society started mobilizing for justice. The right to truth put in front of people’s eyes the extent and gravity of the crimes, and the identities of both the victims and the perpetrators.

Although this story is one about (traditional) human rights abuses rather than corruption, as Liz Loftus pointed out in an earlier post, the anticorruption movement can draw valuable lessons from the human rights movement to the anticorruption field. Indeed, as UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay has observed, over time the “right to the truth” has extended beyond its initial links to missing and disappeared persons to encompass other gross violations of human rights such as extra judicial executions and torture. Why not encompassing corruption as well? Fighting for a “right to truth” in the case of egregious “grand” corruption may likewise prove a worthwhile endeavor in countries like Argentina, where legal accountability for corruption is minimal. (In Argentina, between 1983 and 2007, 750 prosecutions related to corruption were launched and only 10 individuals were found guilty.) Perhaps anticorruption activists, following in the footsteps of the courageous Argentinian citizens who pushed the government to acknowledge a right to truth in cases involving disappearances, could launch cases to compel the government to reveal the facts, names, and details involved in grand corruption cases, without (directly) seeking criminal punishment for those responsible.

Of course, asserting a “right to truth” in corruption cases presents some distinct challenges. Often the allegations will concern individuals who are still in power, rather than events that took place in the past. And in contrast to more traditional human rights violations, in cases involving grand corruption it may be harder to identify concrete victims, comparable to the parents of the disappeared, who could assert their right to truth. While recognizing those challenges, the right to truth cases in Latin America demonstrate how it is possible to use transnational legal process (involving both domestic and international courts) in innovative ways, and how the right to truth can be the alarm that wakes societies that are sleeping while being robbed.

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