Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation
Following extremely closely contested elections, Salvador ALLENDE became President of Chile in 1970. His government began immediately to implement an ambitious program of reforms (expropriation from major land-owners, nationalisation of banks, insurance companies and some large industrial conglomerates) with the main aim being a redistribution of national wealth in favour of the poor.
Whereas this policy was undeniably an overall success in providing benefits to the working class (redistribution of two million hectares of land, reduced unemployment, increased wages, better housing), it provoked strong resentment from the middle classes who were the first to lose out on these reforms.
It was also very badly perceived by the United States, which feared a rapprochement of Santiago with Havana and Moscow.
On 11 September 1973, right in the middle of a serious economic, social and political crisis, General Augusto PINOCHET overthrew the government of President Salvador Allende. This coup d’état was followed by a period of extreme violence. During the first three months of the dictatorship, the death or disappearance of 1200 people was attributed to Pinochet’s forces. All public protest was forbidden, Congress was dissolved and fierce censorship was imposed.
With the help of the intelligence services, the Pinochet government severely clamped down on all opposition by means of persecution, torture, executions, forced disappearances and exile. It has been estimated that during the Pinochet era, 150’000 people were imprisoned for political reasons, 100’000 were tortured and one million went or were forced into exile.
Pinochet remained in power until 1990, the year in which Patricio AYLWIN became President of Chile following a general election in 1989. Pinochet, however, continued to play a central role in the Chilean political landscape.
For instance, he remained Commander in Chief of the army until 1997. Furthermore during this period, the majority of the governing magistrates had already been chosen by him and the Senate was dominated by his military followers.
In this extremely turbulent climate, the promise by Aylwin in his investiture speech to tackle the problem of the human rights violations which occurred under the military regime seemed rather unrealistic. It was even more so considering that the Pinochet government had passed an amnesty law which forbade taking proceedings against perpetrators of human rights violations from the time of the coup d’état until the beginning of that year, the years in which the most violent abuses occurred.
Nevertheless, on 25 April 1990, the government set up the “Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation”, also known by the name of the “Rettig Commission” from the name of its President.
The mandate of La Comisión was “ to help the nation come to a clear overall understanding of the most serious human rights violations committed in recent years in Chile (or elsewhere, if they were linked to the Chilean government or the national policies) in order to aid in the reconciliation of all Chileans….” (Presidential Decree No. 355 dated 25 April 1990.).
In order to achieve this objective the Commission was charged with four tasks:
- To establish as complete a picture as possible of those grave events, as well as their antecedents and circumstances;
- To gather evidence that might make it possible to identify the victims by name and determine their fate or whereabouts;
- To recommend such measures of reparation and the restoration of people's good name as it regarded as just; and
- To recommend the legal and administrative measures which in its judgement should be adopted in order to prevent further grave human rights violations from being committed.
In fulfilling its mandate, the Commission did not have the power to grant amnesty.
The Commission was presided over by the former senator Raúl Rettig and consisted in total of eight trustworthy and respected individuals.(Jaime Castillo Velasco, José Luis Cea Egaña, Mónica Jiménez de la Jara, Laura Novoa Vásquez, José Zalaquett Daher, Ricardo Martin Díaz, and Gonzalo Vial Correa).
The work of the Commission was spread out over a period of around 8 months. It gathered testimony from more than 4000 plaintiffs, from a few army members who came forward voluntarily as well as information furnished by human rights organisations and the Catholic Church. Serious and solemn are the key words to describe the atmosphere in which the testimonies were heard. The Commission was well aware that this was necessary to help the victims recover confidence in the State. The victims were courteously received in the administrative offices which had formerly been the scene of violence and with the Chilean flag notably visible on the bench, the committee listened to their accounts with kindly respect A certain number of factors was to limit the possibilities of taking action on the part of the Commission. Most of them were due to the fact that the Aylwin government was still in a weak position. Certain compromises therefore became necessary under the ever present influence of Pinochet which was wielded just as much over the ranks of the army as over the political apparatus and down through to the Chilean middle classes.
The first factor was that, the Commission being only a “quasi-judicial” body, it could neither summon witnesses to appear, nor compel them to give evidence. This restriction stemmed principally from the promise made by Aylwin to Pinochet that the report would not lead to any derogation from the 1978 amnesty law.
According to Article 2 of the Act creating the CVR (Supreme decree 355):
“In no case is the Commission to assume jurisdictional functions proper to the courts nor to interfere in cases already before the courts. Hence it will not have the power to take a position on whether particular individuals are legally responsible for the events that it is considering.
If while it is carrying out its functions the Commission receives evidence about actions that appear to be criminal, it will immediately submit it to the appropriate court.”
Knowing the allegiance of the Chilean courts to Pinochet and in particular that of the Supreme Court at the beginning of the nineties, it was easy to imagine that this article reduced to zero any hope of Chilean army officers being convicted, even for the atrocities committed after 1978.
Secondly, the Commission was not allowed to make public the name of any army or police officer implicated in the abuses. Outside the whole question of individual criminal responsibility, this restriction in effect bestowed total impunity, from both a moral and social point of view. At all events, naming perpetrators is critically important for two reasons. From the point of view of the families of the victims, having a name on which to hang responsibility, allows them to know towards which person their hatred can be channelled, or perhaps, even, whom to forgive, rather than bearing a grudge against Chilean society as a whole, which, although understandable in the circumstances, does not make reconciliation any easier. From the perspective of the perpetrators, the fact of not being named allows them to get away without the slightest punishment, or only to endure only some form of mild rebuke on the part of their community or direct circle of acquaintances. In South Africa, advocates of the CVR affirmed that by making public the names of the perpetrators, the Commission contributed to the fight against impunity in a larger sense. Numerous individuals as a result lost their wives, jobs, family etc, whenever their names became associated with certain horrendous events. This aspect was undeniably missing in Chile.
Thirdly, by concentrating exclusively on those who had disappeared or had died, the Commission, put aside all the other victims of human rights violations. The number of such victims is nevertheless estimated at around 200’000 people. This was considered to be a major failing of the Commission in the sense that these “other” victims in cases where they were still alive, had the need, more than anyone else, for their situation to be recognised and be to rehabilitated. Without both of these elements, which ought to be essential components of any CVR, the reconciliation of the Chilean people can only be incomplete. Furthermore these victims had no right to receive compensation or reparations granted by the Commission to the families of those who had disappeared or had died. This “void” could be explained by the commitment mentioned above, not to reveal the names of any army or police officers implicated in the abuses. By concentrating on the victims who were no longer alive, the Commission, in a sense, guaranteed the “anonymity of the executioners”.
Fourthly, since the Commission had no access to military archives and could not, in any way, compel military personnel to give testimony, it discovered only very few new elements concerning the fate of those who had disappeared.
Despite all of these obstacles, the Commission succeeded, after eight month’s effort, in tabling a list of some 2279 deaths, principally of civilians (of which 49 were less than 16 years old). The name and forename of each of the victims was listed in the report.
The report also provided an overall insight into the nature of the violence perpetrated during the Pinochet regime and brought to light the means and methods used to torture the victims. Although it was derided by a good part of the political establishment which had remained faithful to the former regime, the report was in such detail that no one ventured to deny categorically the information it provided. The Commission in its report also provided a series of measures concerning compensation or reparations for the families. The mechanisms for such could be split into three categories. Cultural and symbolic ceremonies ( paying respects to the victims, funeral ceremony for Allende, setting up the campaign “para creer en Chile” aimed at creating educational projects, putting up memorial tablets, etc), material compensation (pensions, student grants, free health care, optional military service for the families of victims mentioned in the report) and thirdly redress through the legal system. This last aspect was perhaps the most important in order to signal a break with the former regime since the Commission in its report suggested both the abolition of any law impeding investigations and above all a radical reform of the judicial system.
In general, the report was received very positively by the Chilean people, above all for its informational value. The Chilean population was made aware of the true magnitude of the military repression. The result was to be a growing national recognition of and a certain solidarity with the families of the victims. Aylwin also sent a letter of excuse together with a copy of the report to all of these families.
Although the result was somewhat more moderate from the point of view of the fight against impunity, the overall impact nevertheless remained positive. By awakening consciences, by identifying victims and their families and providing them official recognition, the report provided the necessary framework to galvanise a certain resistance. Through the intermediary of organisations involved in the protection of human rights, these families no longer had to continue perseveringly, to put pressure on the political and judicial authorities in order to have the perpetrators of the abuses identified and brought to trial. Results did not come immediately, but in 1999, five superior officers were prosecuted for their role in the disappearance and probable death of 75 political prisoners. One year later it was Pinochet’s turn to be indicted, first of all for his presumed role in the caravans of death, then for three other affairs. The Chilean courts had finally found a way to get around the 1978 amnesty law, by judging, justly so, that the crime of “disappearance” constituted a ongoing crime which could not be amnestied and was therefore not subject to a statute of limitation (Supreme Court Decision dated 20 July 1999) A new page had been turned.
These resolutions represented a major step forward in the fight against impunity in Chile and would probably not have been achieved without the hard work of providing information on the part of the Rettig Commission.
By way of conclusion, it is possible to say that, even though all of the problems with respect to impunity were not solved, the report of the Commission probably constituted nevertheless “the best justice possible in very imperfect circumstances”, according to the expression close to Michael Rosenfeld.
- James McAdams ed., Transitional Justice and the Rule of Law in New Democracies, University de Notre-Dame press,1997.
- Laura TEDESCO et Jonathan BARTON,The State of Democracy in Latin America: Post-Transitional Conflicts in Argentina and Chile, Routledge, New-York, 2005.
- Priscilla HAYNER, Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenges of Truth Commissions, Routledge, New-York, 2002.