NEW YORK, Dec (IPS) The military junta that ran Argentina during the late 1970s and early 1980s thought nothing of keeping its naval officers in close proximity to the thousands of dissidents tortured and executed for opposing the regime.
Just how close became shockingly clear to me last year during a visit to the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. Hooded prisoners were transferred from their holding cells in the attic to the torture chamber in the basement on the same staircases used by the military to go to and from their dorm rooms, the mess hall, their offices, the hospital, and the church.
First Lady Cristina Kirchner related the particularly chilling account of the evidently criminal general who brought a priest in to say Mass with torture victims on Christmas Eve, days before the same general had them drugged and thrown live from airplanes into ocean or a river. A doctor was kept on hand to stop the torture sessions prior to death, and a priest to say last rights in case the doctor made a mistake.
Upon returning to the United States, I tried to explain to my daughters the horrors that had taken place there as a military junta exterminated 5,000 civilians. How do you explain to innocents cruelty on such a scale?
The lessons learned from President and First Lady Kirchner and the survivors of the Mechanics School taught us how their capacity to survive often depended on their faith that they were not alone, that people on the outside cared. We heard the same from the endlessly brave Mothers of the Disappeared.
Despite differences in culture, history, and circumstance, I have heard similar stories from other dissidents around the world. From Chile to South Africa to Indonesia, the bravest people on earth, human rights defenders imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death for their work, say that during their dark moments of despair, news of effective international support lifted their spirits and infused them with determination.
Today, the people of the Southeast Asian country of Burma find themselves in a similar struggle, risking their lives to call for peaceful change and national reconciliation. Their leader is Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient. She leads a political party, the National League for Democracy, which in 1990 won 82 percent of the seats in parliament in Burma's last, ill-fated democratic election. Burma's ruling military junta annulled the results and has ruled by country by brutal force ever since.
Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment, however, is only the most visible aspect of the human rights and humanitarian nightmare in Burma. The abuses of the military junta go far beyond brutal torture, murder, and disappearances.
The regime burned down 3,000 villages in the eastern section of the country in an attempt to ethnically cleanse minorities. It is also destroying food supplies and pressing thousands of ethnic villagers into modern-day slave labour, forcing over one million refugees to flee the country. Worst yet, half a million people are barely surviving as internal refugees, almost completely beyond the reach of international aid. Human Rights Watch reports that the junta has recruited and conscripted more child soldiers than any other country in the world.
Thankfully, there is hope. Last September, the UN Security Council voted to place Burma on its permanent agenda--for the first time in history. South Africa's Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu and former Czech president Vaclav Havel launched the idea for the Security Council to address Burma. Risking their lives, the leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, have strongly endorsed the effort.
This initiative comes after the United Nations has sadly failed Burma for too long. Over the past 14 years, 29 resolutions from the UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have accomplished nothing. The General Assembly authorised Kofi Annan to appoint two special envoys to Burma over 10 years, while the Commission on Human Rights appointed four special rapporteurs since the early 1990s.
With each diplomatic visit, the military junta promised that it was prepared to make changes. And, after each envoy returned to New York, the junta broke those promises. Now, the regime has made more promises.
Don't believe them. It is time for the generals to be held to account.
Thankfully, Argentina is a member of the Security Council and knows the trauma created by a ruling military junta. As a member of the Security Council, Argentina should support the proposal for an immediate, binding UN Security Council resolution on Burma.
Security Council member countries and the rest of the international community should require Burma's generals to cease all human rights violations and hold free elections.
Originally posted on pagina12.com.ar
Kerry Kennedy is the author of "Speak Truth to Power" and the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights. She is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.