Truth, Justice and Memory for Dictatorship-Era Human Rights Violations, 40 Years after Chile's Military Coup

39 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2015

See all articles by Cath Collins

Cath Collins

Ulster University - Transitional Justice Institute; Universidad Diego Portales

Date Written: September 11, 2013


The year 2013 saw a series of events and anniversaries in Chile that were particularly charged because of their association with historical memory. The main event was undoubtedly the 40th anniversary of the military coup of 11 September 1973. However, another significant anniversary, in mid October, marked 15 years since former dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish warrant for human rights crimes. The fact that both dates were presided over by a right wing government, whose successor was due to be chosen in presidential elections due just a few weeks later, is one of those peculiar ironies that history occasionally produces. The sensation of the repetition of an inexorable cycle uniting past, present and future was accentuated by the late emergence of Evelyn Matthei as the presidential candidate for the right-wing Alianza alliance, competing against Michelle Bachelet for the centre-left Concertación. This pairing means that the future political direction of the country will be decided between two daughters of Air Force generals, one of whom has moreover been repeatedly accused of moral or command responsibility in the death of the other, a constitutionalist officer loyal to Allende who died in prison from wounds sustained under torture. 2013 therefore offered a unique opportunity for Chile to take a long and candid look at its recent past, drawing the necessary lessons that would allow advances in truth and justice through honest dialogue. Nonetheless, the events of the year as analysed here lead us to conclude that the heavily charged symbolism of the 2013 anniversaries will go down in history as, at best, a missed opportunity. It is evident that some sectors on the political right are still uncomfortable with the concept of human rights in general, and human rights issues in relation to the dictatorship, in particular. This manifests itself in some cases as a lack of clarity or consistency in repudiating both the authoritarian nature of the dictatorship and the state terror policies that were an integral part of it. In other cases, it shows up as a permanent desire to renegotiate the parameters of acknowledgement of particular truths, as was illustrated in June 2013 by the comments of the general secretary of the right-wing UDI party over the degollados case. A similar phenomenon can be detected in military circles. In July 2013, outgoing army commander in chief Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba added his voice to the repeated calls made by his successors for ‘compassionate treatment’ of former military personnel guilty of crimes that national and international law define as the gravest possible. Fuente-Alba expressed the “sorrow and sadness” that he feels on seeing the law applied. He also referred to “these things that happened 40 years ago”, thereby rendering invisible the persistent commission of grave crimes of repression throughout the subsequent 17 years, including and beyond the September 1989 assassination of Jecar Neghme.

The immediate runup to 11 September itself produced a veritable wave of requests for forgiveness (perdón) from a range of social and political actors. Presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei rejected the need for a mea culpa. The National Magistrates’ Association however declared that the judicial branch, and in particular the Supreme Court, had in its view “failed to fulfil its essential duties” during the dictatorship, erring both “by action and omission”. In response the Supreme Court recognised, for the first time, the “abandonment of its jurisdictional responsibilities”. Nonetheless, judge Hugo Dolmestch, Supreme Court spokesman and coordinator for human rights cases, affirmed that the Supreme Court of the time had been “right” to support the coup, and recognised that he was “in favour of low sentences”. It is clear, then, that the systematicity and political nature of repressive crimes and crimes against humanity, elements that serve to aggravate the offence, are nonetheless taken by some sectors as mitigation.

Keywords: Chile, transitional justice, dictatorship, amnesty law

Suggested Citation

Collins, Cath and Collins, Cath, Truth, Justice and Memory for Dictatorship-Era Human Rights Violations, 40 Years after Chile's Military Coup (September 11, 2013). Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper No. 14-05, Available at SSRN:

Cath Collins (Contact Author)

Universidad Diego Portales ( email )

Republica 112
Santiago, Santiago

Ulster University - Transitional Justice Institute ( email )

Shore Road
Newtownabbey, Belfast BT37 OQB
Northern Ireland

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