Historical memories following mass atrocity are difficult to confront. So when politicians present a simplistic trade-off—between moving on to better days or becoming mired in a turbulent past—survivors and their relatives face an uphill quest for accountability.
Spanish governments of different ideological stripes have paid lip service to truth-telling, but they’ve steered clear of painful investigations. No wonder Judge Baltasar Garzón was suspended when he opened a case into the country’s vicious civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. Investigating similar crimes, on the basis of universal jurisdiction, was fine when it dealt with human rights in Latin America and elsewhere; but in a classic display of exceptionalism, Spanish crimes are themselves off limits.
Into the mix steps Argentina, a country that underwent official truth-telling as part of its democratic transition and has had cases brought against its citizens in European courts. In April 2010, Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory joined a dozen human rights organizations in Argentina (with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo as co-plaintiffs), filing a lawsuit on behalf of the relatives of victims residing in Argentina.
This month, the case has heated up as a federal judge in Argentina asked Spain for specific information about Spanish military officials, including:
The names of military officers involved in the Franco regime; lists of victims of forced disappearance and summary execution; lists of children who were stolen from their parents during the dictatorship; and the names of companies that allegedly benefited from the forced labour of political prisoners.
In democracies, people must be minimally free to demand the truth. Absent this, such demands can become transnationalized and move to other forums. As Argentine lawyer Beinusz Szmukler contends, sometimes truth-telling must simply be done from afar:
We want an in-depth investigation, to determine the truth and establish who was responsible. If Spain does not do it, we will do it here.