The bad news from Argentina is that human rights activist and lawyer Emilio Mignone continues to receive death threats and occasionally comes home to find that someone has painted on the wall of his apartment building in downtown Buenos Aires: "Here lives the terrorists' lawyer."
The good news is that he hasn't been jailed in two years and that human rights work is easier to pursue than in 1979, when he and other lawyers founded the Center for Legal and Social Studies. (CELS is its acronym in Spanish.)
"We have more solidarity from the people," says Mignone. "People have less fear." One reason, he says, is that the military, accused by human rights activists of one of the worst human rights records in the world, has lost much of its prestige and power since Argentina's defeat in the Falkland Islands war.
Mignone, who lives calmly with the bad news and the good news, has devoted the past few years to coping with a painful lack of news in Argentina--the whereabouts of the estimated 6,000 to 15,000 people who disappeared in the 1970s during the Argentine military regime's war against leftist guerrillas and other dissidents. There have been few reported disappearances in the past couple of years, but there is still little new information on most of those who vanished before.
Mignone's daughter, Monica, is one of them.
On behalf of CELS--which is trying to document the cases and circumstances of the disappeared and takes on some legal cases--Mignone came to town to receive a Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Memorial Award. It is given in honor of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean ambassador to the United States when Salvador Allende was president of Chile, and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, his colleague.
Letelier and Moffitt, who were working at the Institute for Policy Studies, were killed seven years ago today when the car they were riding in exploded as they rounded Sheridan Circle. The Chilean secret police was implicated in the murders, considered one of the worst acts of terrorism in Washington.
The other recipient of the award is Father J. Bryan Hehir, director of the Office on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference. He is credited with influencing the bishops' pastoral letter, approved in May, denouncing as immoral the use of nuclear weapons.
"I am honored," Hehir wrote in a letter to Isabel Letelier, the widow of Orlando Letelier and a human rights activist and senior fellow at IPS. "My respect for the two people who are commemorated by the awards makes my selection particularly meaningful to me."
Mignone and Hehir received their awards accompanied by standing ovations from 250 guests at the awards dinner last night at the Shoreham Hotel. Among the guests were Patt Derian and Hodding Carter, stalwarts of the Carter administration; author and Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman; the Rev. William Wipfler, director of the Human Rights Office of the National Council of Churches and a past award winner; Mignone's daughter, Isabel, who works here for Human Rights Internet; and Marcus Raskin and Richard Barnet, the founders of the Institute for Policy Studies.
There was one figure from the Reagan administration--State Department official George Lister, who works on human rights. "I'm very close to the human rights movement," he said. "Sometimes I agree with my friends in it . Sometimes I disagree with my friends."
Seated at the head table were Isabel Letelier and Coretta Scott King, whom Isabel Letelier called her "new friend."
"We've shared common experiences," said keynote speaker King, "as women, mothers, wives of assassinated leaders . . ."
IPS board chairman Peter Weiss proclaimed there could be a new spirit of optimism. "In Argentina, the disappearers are themselves about to disappear . . ." he said to applause, referring to the upcoming elections next month for a civilian government.
Mignone echoed Weiss' optimism but noted that "the transition to a stable constitutional democracy is going to be very difficult." Human rights organizations can help, he said.
"They have the function of reifying the ethical conscience of the Argentine people by making known the human rights violations that have taken place and by demanding that the violators be held responsible for their acts," Mignone said. "Only in this way can it be assured that these atrocities will never again occur in my country."
The champions of human rights movements have been steadfastly recognized through the Letelier-Moffitt award--Jacobo Timerman, the author and former Argentine political prisoner, is a past recipient. So is Socorro Juridico, a legal aid group in El Salvador. Father Hehir is a choice symbolic of a particular need felt by the selection committee (composed of 12 activists from various organizations), according to Marcus Raskin, a member of that committee.
"Modern life is a story of being inured to outrage and losing the capacity for outrage," says Raskin. "When it's the case that we can speak of hundreds of millions of people dying in nuclear war and speak about it in casual terms, you know we're in trouble."
Hehir spoke last night about the issue of the use of nuclear weapons, noting that it was a political and a moral issue which must be addressed on both those levels.
"In an age in which technology has given us the ability to do anything," he said, "how do you decide what you ought to do? How do you decide what you ought never to do?"
Many of last night's guests at the dinner also were present at the annual memorial service for Letelier and Moffitt held Sunday morning at Sheridan Circle. It is a time when people bring roses and carnations and irises as a gentle memorial at the site of a violent event. As Isabel Letelier placed her flowers on the ground, she could recount a year of bad news and bittersweet good news.
On the bad side, she is upset that Michael Townley, convicted of plotting the murder of Orlando Letelier, was not extradited to Argentina to face another murder charge there. In the Letelier case, Townley testified against other defendents and was paroled from prison after serving 62 months of a 10-year sentence. He now will probably go into the federal witness protection program.
On the good side, the Chilean government agreed to let Isabel Letelier, who is an exile, return to her country. She returned for a visit. "I was happy to see friends, my country, the mountains," she says, " . . . but I will feel like an exile until this government that put me in exile is gone."