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ARGENTINA: Single Woman, Atheist, Heads to Seat on High Court

By Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Jan 21 2004 (IPS) - (Latin America Desk) – “Saying up front who one is or what one thinks is an indication of honesty, which is the first step towards impartiality,” says respected criminal judge Carmen Argibay, a candidate for the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice, in response to those who criticise her for being a leftist and a “militant atheist”.

The Argentine justice system is in recovery, and to the extent that the Supreme Court changes, justice will have the independence it needs, Argibay said in an IPS interview from her office at The Hague, where she serves as ad litem judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Argibay’s nomination to the bench follows the designation of Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni as the Néstor Kirchner government’s second step in renovating the high court, which had fallen into disgrace as a result of the decisions it handed down in the 1990s.

Several of its members, denounced for issuing rulings that benefited the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), have been impeached for corruption or have opted to resign in order to avoid a showdown with the Argentine Senate.

Argibay is the first woman to be nominated by a democratic government to serve on the Argentine Supreme Court.

But Kirchner would like to designate another woman to the court, and would look for someone more from the political centre, he told Clarín newspaper on Wednesday. Observers note that a centrist would contribute to ideological balance on the court, after the controversy caused by the nominations of the left-leaning Zaffaroni and Argibay.

The make-up of the Court “has to reflect the plurality of ideas that exist in society,” said the president, who has yet to announce the name of the second woman nominee.

The nomination process, which in Argibay’s case the Executive Branch began on Jan. 14, includes publishing her record and setting a 15-day period in which citizens and organisations can pronounce in her favour or against.

After that, Kirchner is to decide whether he will pass the nominations on to the Senate. If all of the periods for public input have been completed, the Senate is to consider the nominations beginning Feb. 25.

Argibay’s candidacy has already received strong support, especially from organisations of human rights defenders and attorneys. But spokespersons from the Roman Catholic Church and from Pro Vida, a group opposed to certain reproductive health rights and to the legalisation of abortion, have filed objections to her nomination.

Pro Vida president Roberto Castellano criticises the fact that Argibay is single, childless and that she did not consider creating a family. This means she is not representative of Argentine women, he told the Argentine daily Página/12, because most are not “abortionist or against God.”

Argibay told IPS she thinks that being up front about one’s identity and beliefs is an indication of honesty and fairness. “My beliefs, or lack thereof, should not interfere in the judicial decisions I take,” she said in the e-mail interview.

She joined the Judicial Branch in 1959 and worked there until the beginning of the most recent Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983). The regime held her in prison for nine months without cause. After being released, she settled into the refuge of a private law practice.

She returned to the public sphere when democracy returned to Argentina, in 1983. She founded the Argentine Association of Women Judges and served as president of the International Association of Women Judges.

Since 2001 she has been a member of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, created to try crimes committed during the wars of secession in the 1990s.


– What is relevant about the nomination of a woman like you to the Supreme Court of Justice in a country like Argentina?

– I want to believe that Argentina is beginning to wake up from its ‘machista’ lethargy and routine, and that this nomination is a symptom that things can be changed, that women can be recognised as valuable in all areas. I hope it’s not just my innate optimism that makes me see things this way.

– They say that Kirchner will nominate yet another woman to the Supreme Court. How much of this is merely symbolic and how much is true change?

– I met with President Kirchner for about a half-hour. That is very little time to really determine his way of thinking, but I believe that this could be the first step towards true change, especially if he continues to follow these same lines.

– After a decade of strong criticisms of the Supreme Court’s actions, and against some judges in particular, what is the state of justice in Argentina today? Is it gravely ill or is there a chance for recovery?

– I think it is recovering. There were always responsible, hardworking and serious people, the ones we never hear about, who have been caught up in the disaster caused by the infamy of the Court and by the so-called “media judges” (for their great willingness to talk to reporters). To the extent that the Court changes, the justice system will have the independence it needs.

– What are the biggest obstacles for the exercise of justice in Argentina and Latin America?

– One of the main obstacles – and not only for justice – is our authoritarian culture. Also the practice of interference in other branches of government or institutions, which traditionally assumed the right of intervening or exercising influence over the Judiciary. But that has begun to change with the creation of the Magistrate Councils (in 1994) and the new system for designating judges (enacted by Kirchner).

– In interviews you have described yourself as “more left than right” and “a militant atheist” in a country that is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and where the political left continues to be a minority. Don’t you think that most of the public might take your statements as a sign that you might be biased on certain issues?

– On the contrary – if one reads my declarations correctly. I believe that saying up front who one is or what one thinks is an indication of honesty, which is the first step towards impartiality. My beliefs, or lack thereof, should not interfere in the judicial decisions I take.

– Your career is marked by your defence of human rights and by the recognition of gender issues. How do you see these questions today in Argentina and in the region?

– One shouldn’t generalise on these matters because each country has a different problematic. In Argentina, there seems to be a drive to give these issues priority, after many years of work by many, many people. I find this very gratifying, and I hope that it isn’t just a fad.

– In the last two years Argentine society has made strong demands for holding politicians accountable, transparency, an end to impunity and changes in the national economic policy. Do you think gender issues are among the public’s priorities, or do they remain relegated to the activists’ agenda?

– Quite a bit of progress has been made, but I think gender issues are still not among the public’s priorities. I would love it if they were.

– In one of your interviews in the Argentine media, you were asked why you never married. Do you think they would have asked the same question of a man in your position?

– I don’t think so, but I believe the question was the result of the questioning to which they subjected doctor Zaffaroni for the same reason (for being nominated to the Supreme Court).

– If the nomination process ends up with your designation to the Court, as is expected, you will have to step down from the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia. What is your overview of that experience? Do you feel your work there is left unfinished?

– I hope to complete the trial I am on in the time it takes to finalise the Supreme Court designation. Once this trial ends, my work here is done, so I won’t leave things unfinished. The experience has been incredibly valuable and enriching, and not only in the professional sense.

– The mood inside the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice must be quite tense, since several of its members have been subjected to political trials, to impeachment. How are you preparing yourself to handle this?

– I haven’t yet considered preparing myself in any special way. I’ll wait until I am back in Argentina.

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