Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Human Rights Institute to Keep the Past from Coming Back

Pamela Sepúlveda

SANTIAGO, Sep 15 2009 (IPS) - The Chilean parliament has approved the creation of a national institute for human rights, another step towards fulfilling the human rights agenda of the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet.

The new National Human Rights Institute (INDH) will keep a constant watch to make sure that torture, political killings, executions or exile never happen again in Chile, minister of the presidency José Antonio Viera Gallo told the press.

The announcement was made the same week that Chile commemorated the 36th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1973 military coup d’état which ushered in a 17-year dictatorship.

The INDH will be an autonomous public-law corporation, charged with drawing up an annual report on the state of human rights in the country and making recommendations to guarantee that they are universally enforced and respected.

It will also propose measures for the protection and promotion of human rights, while working to bring national laws, regulations and practices into line with international treaties that Chile has ratified.

In addition, it will promote actions to locate and identify the remains of the 1973-1990 dictatorship’s victims of forced disappearance. Some 3,000 people were killed and disappeared, 35,000 were tortured, and thousands went into exile during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

The new Institute will be run by a nine-member board, two of whose members will be appointed by the president, two by the Senate, two by the lower house of Congress, one by the deans of university law schools and two by non-governmental human rights organisations.

“We can say that the human rights agenda has been practically completed during the Bachelet administration. Today Chile is a state party to all the international mechanisms for respecting and safeguarding human rights,” Viera Gallo said.

Civil society organisations welcomed the creation of the INDH, but warned that some of its regulations fail to ensure the autonomy essential to its work.

Hernán Vergara, a lawyer and head of Amnesty International-Chile, told IPS that the Institute needs to be given functions and powers that guarantee its impartiality and transparency.

Bachelet has promised to exercise a form of veto that empowers her to amend a draft law after it has been approved by Congress. Amendments introduced at this stage must be returned to parliament for ratification.

Bachelet wants to modify four areas of the law, including restoring the Institute’s authority to bring court action for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Although it was included in the original bill, this provision was eliminated in its passage through the Senate.

“We welcome the creation of the Institute, although we will wait and see what amendments the executive branch makes, in terms of greater autonomy and the composition” of the Institute’s authorities, Vergara said.

He said that in the bill as it stands, most of the members of the Institute’s board are to be named by the executive and legislative branches – a questionable arrangement that makes the board both judge and plaintiff, and overly dependent on the government of the day.

“So what guarantees would there be if someone wants to bring a complaint about possible human rights violations or non-compliance occurring within the state?” he asked.

According to Viera Gallo, if the president’s proposed amendments are confirmed by parliament, the government hopes to promulgate the law in November, when the INDH will finally take shape.

Another aspect of the executive amendment to the INDH bill, highlighted by Vergara, is the reinstatement of the independent National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated and pronounced on cases of forced disappearance during the military regime, and of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture.

These commissions were established for specified terms, now expired, after Chile’s return to democracy. The official reports of their findings allowed the state to document the crimes committed by state agents during the dictatorship.

Based on the combined information from both reports, the state recognises that over 30,000 people were victims of crimes against humanity committed during the de facto regime headed by Pinochet, who died in December 2006 without ever having been convicted in a court of law.

But associations of victims’ relatives and human rights organisations claim this figure does not reflect the real magnitude of the persecution and the human rights violations perpetrated by the armed forces.

“We have always believed in the possibility that some people, for different personal or family reasons, did not testify before the commissions. Therefore we think there are still people who do not feel that any reparations have been made to them in relation to violations committed by state agents,” Vergara said.

When the law is finally passed and the new Institute set up, the two commissions will be reinstated for six months to register new complaints.

On Sept. 11, throngs of people participated in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the coup that overthrew former socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973) with floral tributes, banners reading “Allende Lives”, photographs of victims, loud cries for justice, candles, music and poetry.

But as on previous anniversaries of the coup, hooded protesters blocked streets and set fires in poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Santiago, and clashed with the police. One young man, 23-year-old Alexis Rojas García, was shot in the head and died during the disturbances. It is not clear who fired the bullets that killed him or whether he was participating in the roadblocks.

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