Former political prisoner speaks at the U

Juan Mendez, now a special adviser at the U.N., spoke on human rights Tuesday.

by Kathryn Nelson

Once a political prisoner during the 1976 military coup in Argentina, Juan Mendez knows what torture and repression feel like. Thirty years later, he was appointed as the special adviser on the prevention of genocide at the United Nations.

Speaking to a full crowd at Ted Mann Concert Hall on Tuesday, Mendez and University professor Kathryn Sikkink discussed the progression of human rights law since the coup in Argentina, as well as the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court in deterring similar future abuses.

Between 1976 and 1983, more than 30,000 political dissidents vanished from the country and were believed to be killed by the government, according to human rights organizations. This period is called “The Dirty War.”

After being expelled from Argentina, Mendez came to the United States in 1977 and began working on behalf of other political prisoners who were still detained in the country.

Along with urging the Argentine government to release the prisoners, Mendez embarked on a new era in human rights law, preparing to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide.

“Many encouraged me not to ask about the military problem because it could destabilize the country,” he said.

But Mendez continued laying the groundwork to bring justice to the responsible Argentine officials.

“I believe there is room for peace and justice in the same framework,” he said.

During this time, Sikkink was also researching human rights abuses in Argentina and Uruguay. She said the idea of prosecuting abusers was unheard of at that time.

“It’s almost a world we couldn’t imagine,” she said.

In 2004, Mendez received a call from Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, offering him a position as the special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

Mendez said the newly created job is an act of criticism by the United Nations because it is a testimony that the organization has not been able to prevent past ethnic cleansings.

Mendez said he provides suggestions for early warning signs for genocide and monitors certain trouble spots, such as Darfur, but with only three people on staff, there’s more work than one can process.

“You don’t always know if you’re doing all you can or not,” he said.

He visited the Darfur area in southern Sudan twice to assess the situation, which the United States has called genocide.

Since 2004, the situation has greatly deteriorated, Mendez said. At one point, there was a large amount of humanitarian aid workers on the ground and a ceasefire, but Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is defiant in complying with current international laws, he said.

Although the United States has been outspoken about the conflict, Mendez said the government is unwilling to provide much-needed troops and resources, which he partly attributed to the war in Iraq.

Much of the political action toward the people of Darfur comes from the student movement, Mendez said.

“They have demonstrated a commitment to the human rights of men and women who they have never even met,” he said.

Mendez said he is also monitoring the Ivory Coast, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for possible outbreaks of ethnic violence. But, he added, “If I ever prevented genocide, no one would ever know.”

As three decades have passed since the genocide in Argentina, Sikkink said there have been many changes in human rights accountability and deterrence.

Mendez said it is still important to prosecute perpetrators.

“We owe the victims something,” he said.