International Papers

Amnesty Supernational

On Monday an Argentine judge struck down two immunity laws that protected the warriors in that country’s “dirty war” of 1976-83. Ruling in a case involving 11 servicemen (three of whom are now deceased) allegedly involved in the 1978 disappearance of a couple and the kidnapping of their baby daughter, Judge Gabriel Cavallo said the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws that protected all but the highest officers from prosecution were unconstitutional because national laws cannot supercede international conventions. Although the judgment will be appealed to the Argentine Supreme Court, El Mundo of Spain said that several other similar cases will now move to the courts, and hundreds of soldiers freed from prison after the 1986-87 amnesties are beginning to prepare their defenses. El País of Spain said Raúl Alfonsín’s government enacted the amnesties after hundreds of soldiers were sent to prison, causing unrest in the armed forces. Alfonsín, who last week announced his candidacy for a Senate seat, told the paper, “there was tension in the prisons, and I chose to protect the future of human rights.” Argentina’s La Nación reported that around 1,200 people were spared prosecution by the two amnesty laws.

An editorial in La Nación called the judge’s ruling “a step backward” for “a society that wants to overcome the painful mix-ups of the past and move forward along the path of peaceful coexistence.” It continued, “It would be a shame if an erroneous legal decision revived on our soil the climate of confrontation and rancor that caused so much damage to the spiritual health and morale of Argentine society [in the ‘70s and ‘80s].” Horacio Verbitsky, the journalist whose Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) brought the case, wrote an op-ed for Página/12 headlined “A better future,” in which he declared:

It has been said that it isn’t a good idea to reopen old wounds. This is peculiar logic—the wounds were opened by the sword, not by the judicial pen. CELS didn’t prosecute the case with the past in mind, nor was it done for retribution. It was the present and the future that drove us.

Little Englanders: With Prime Minister Tony Blair expected to call a general election for April or May, British politicians are in stealth election mode. (Former Labor minister Roy Hattersley told Guardian readers: “The sooner we hold a general election the better it will be—not for the Labour party, which will win whatever the date, but for the country, which deserves to be spared the extra weeks of not very covert campaigning.”) In a speech at a party conference Sunday, opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague tried to rally the troops with a “patriotic” speech that even conservative papers felt went too far in its anti-European, perhaps even xenophobic, rhetoric. Referring to both asylum seekers and the European Union, Hague described the coming vote as “the last chance election for Britain.” The Financial Times said the speech was “as disingenuous as it is distasteful. … Short of British withdrawal from the EU, the Tories are making promises that cannot be delivered.” The Independent claimed: “[H]e is wrong to insist that he is ‘articulating the instincts of the British people.’ On the contrary, the once-proud Conservative Party can be seen to be floundering hopelessly.” An op-ed in the Guardian mocked Hague’s claim that the Labor Party will turn Britain into a “foreign land”: “Britain’s genius, and London’s in particular, has been to absorb and ultimately nurture in its rough and ready way, foreigners of every creed, culture and colour. We live on a mixed-race island governed largely from a capital founded by Italians.” In the Tory press, the Daily Telegraph was alone in counseling Hague to “keep at it.” The Times advised him to “watch his language—or lose his honour.” It said:

Hague said on Sunday that “British people are not narrow nationalists. They are not xenophobes.” This is precisely why they will not stampede to politicians who seem to be playing the race card from the bottom of the deck. Losing an election is a serious matter for any political party in a democracy. Losing a reputation for honour and decency is a much more serious one.

Caught by a bend in the river: Britain’s Ordnance Survey, the government-owned cartography agency, used “fingerprinting” techniques to prove that the Automobile Association was plagiarizing its maps, leading to a $30 million out-of-court-settlement. According to the Times, the OS added kinks to rivers, exaggerated curves in roads, and dropped apostrophes from place names. When the same flaws showed up in AA road atlases, the OS called in the copyright lawyers.

Women 1, Men 364: Although it’s barely noted in the United States, much of the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, and many papers marked the occasion with depressing stories. Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that Amnesty International has broadened its definition of torture to include rape, battering, genital mutilation, sex slavery, and the use of intimidatory violence. The Moscow Times noted that between 12,000 and 16,000 Russian women die from domestic abuse each year and that in Russia only 80 percent of women and 63.6 percent of men believe that violence in the family is a crime. Mainichi Shimbun said that the chairman of the Japan Sumo Association gave Osaka’s female governor an “oshi-dashi shove” when he insisted that she will not be permitted to present the trophy for this month’s tournament, even though it is the governor’s traditional role, because women are considered “impure” and cannot enter the sacred dohyo. A Reuters story in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post noted: “Both boys and girls may take part in children’s sumo wrestling in primary school, but women are barred from the rings where national matches are held under the association’s auspices.” (See the last item in this “International Papers” column for coverage of a similar tussle last year.)

A story in Britain’s Independent discussed a new French law requiring that female candidates make up at least half of each party’s election list. Although the gender-parity requirement may seem progressive, the op-ed claimed it “is an admission of just how immovably sexist traditional French politics are. Only just over 10 per cent of deputies in the national assembly are women, making France second from bottom of the EU parliamentary parity league table and 59th in the world, between Tunisia and India.” The piece concluded that the law “will probably have few imitators elsewhere. … But it represents a significant infusion of new blood into French politics; and not before time. Anything that opens the windows of the fetid French political system … can only be healthy.”