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ARGENTINA | 19-12-2023 17:07

Milei's human rights secretary on future of ex-ESMA memory site

New head of Human Rights Secretariat, Alberto Baños, offers Milei government’s first definitions regarding future of ex-ESMA memory site questioned by Vice-President Victoria Villarruel.

Former judge Alberto Baños, recently chosen by President Javier Milei to take charge of the National Human Rights Secretariat, has given the first indications about the new government’s intentions regarding the site of the ex-ESMA Navy Mechanics School.

Currently functioning as a space of remembrance, what was formerly known as Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (or ESMA) was the most notorious clandestine detention centre of the hundreds operated by Argentina's brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

Established in 1928 to instruct naval officers and sailors, it was the largest and most active torture and extermination centre operated by former genocidal soldiers being tried by civil courts to this day.  It was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO just last year, but during the presidential campaign, Milei’s running-mate Victoria Villarruel had suggested its terrain could be used for other purposes.

Baños, in his first public remarks about the former clandestine detention centre, said Monday that the site is untouchable.

“UNESCO declared it a world heritage site for the memory of what was the detention, torture and death of political adversaries, and there is also a judicial measure of non-innovation on the entire property by the federal justice system; therefore, it cannot be touched," said Baños in his first public remarks about the former clandestine detention centre.

Baños said the Secretariat had no current plans to modify the activities currently taking place at the site. "What works there and the various activities that are carried out cannot be modified," he explained.

A number of museums and cultural spaces are located on the grounds of the ex-ESMA. In addition to the Museo Sitio de la Memoria, which details the site’s dark past, there is the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti, for art and memory, and the Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur, where the Argentine sovereignty claim over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands occupied by Britain is vindicated.

In the centre of the location is the Human Rights Secretariat, though Baños revealed on Monday that he will be assigned an office in the headquarters of the Justice Ministry to symbolically represent a paradigm shift in the functions covered by his portfolio.


Human rights questions

The new government’s approach to human rights came under the spotlight during the election campaign. Both Milei and Villarruel have questioned estimates from rights groups as to the number of individuals disappeared by the military junta during the era of state terrorism.

Villarruel said during the presidential campaign that the use of the ex-ESMA – which was last year recognised by the United Nations – as a site of memory should be reviewed. She said that the site’s 17 hectares, located on Avenida Libertador in Núñez, could be put to better use.

"It could be enjoyed by all the Argentine people, especially because at the time it had been earmarked to create schools, which is what we need most," said Villarruel, who calls for a “complete memory” of the dictatorship era, a few months ago.

"I think we have to think about having a broad vision of human rights that includes us all and that allows us – with the passage of time and with much respect – to close the situations that hurt us as a society," said the then-vice-presidential candidate, who comes from a military family.

Villarruel, 48, has dedicated much of her career to combatting the generalised consensus regarding the political violence of the 1970s and the crimes against humanity committed under the military junta. Her track record extends from visiting former generals in prison (including former junta chief Jorge Videla) and retaining very close ties to many other military ex-officers currently on trial. 

Approximately 800 clandestine detention centres in total operated in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, serving as concentration camps during the campaign of state terrorism. Human rights organisations estimate that as many as 30,000 individuals were disappeared by the military junta. 

Around 5,000 people passed through the doors of the ex-ESMA during the dictatorship era. Rights groups estimate that around 200 survived. Detainees were tortured, raped and murdered in its wards, while those who were pregnant and gave birth in captivity had their babies stolen and given new identities.

Since the beginning of the dictatorship, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo human rights groups have been searching for their disappeared children and grandchildren born in captivity, setting a precedent in the history of rights movements on a global scale.

The Malvinas sovereignty cause also strikes a chord with Argentines because it was precisely during the last stretch of the dictatorship’s reign of terror that the military embarked on war against the British. 


Paradigm shift

Baños said Argentina's human rights policy is set to undergo a “change of paradigm” with the entrance of a new government. He implied that the Secretariat will not only intervene in cases against humanity, but will also aim at vindicating people's essential rights, such as food, education and housing in sustainable environments. 

"We are going to focus on the victims of crimes, whatever they may be," said Baños during an interview with journalist Eduardo Feinmann broadcast on Radio Mitre.

The Secretariat will continue to participate in trials for crimes committed during the military dictatorship by virtue of international commitments and laws enacted by Argentina. But the range of action will be extended to support victims of other crimes with psychological and physical support, which does not necessarily mean that it will participate as a plaintiff in all proceedings, said Baños.


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