How did the Falklands War change history?

Background current

In 1976, the military in Argentina overthrew the Perón government. As a result, a dictatorial regime ruled for seven years, to which many people fell victim. The processing of the crimes continues to this day.

Members of the human rights organization "Grandmothers of May Revolution Square" and "Mothers of May Revolution Square" hold a banner with pictures of those who disappeared. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

On March 24, 1976, a group of military personnel led by General Jorge Rafael Videlas arrested the Argentine President Isabel Martinez de Perón. The time for a coup was right: the population was tired of political violence, the terror of left-wing guerrilla forces and paramilitary groups affiliated with the government. Then there was the ailing state of the economy. Many Argentines therefore hoped that when the military came to power, the country's situation would change for the better.

State terror and resistance

This hope was soon dashed. The military junta led by Videla took over the state apparatus and set up a system of surveillance with which it controlled the population and institutions. After the coup, the junta unleashed a "dirty war" and systematically persecuted opponents of the regime. Mobile task forces hunted down alleged left oppositionists: trade unionists, students, intellectuals, journalists and supporters of Perón. They were mostly taken to secret camps, of which there were several hundred across the country. They were held and tortured without trial for months, sometimes years. Many of these "disappeared" (Desaparecidos) were murdered.

Security forces buried the bodies of the victims in secret locations in anonymous mass graves or threw them from airplanes into the Rio de la Plata. Half a million Argentinians fled abroad during this time.

Falklands War and the end of the dictatorship

In an attempt to conquer the Falkland Islands, the regime began its own decline in April 1982. It had underestimated Britain's determination to defend its overseas territory in the South Atlantic. The United Kingdom deployed a 28,000-strong "Task Force" made up of naval and air forces. After just 72 days, Britain had defeated the Argentine forces.

March 30, 1982: Police guard a group of Protestants they picked up during the largest anti-government demonstration since the coup. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)
Due to the defeat in the Falklands War, the military lost political authority and the persistently poor economic situation also increased discontent. The population protests against the government increased: as early as April 30, 1977, mothers had been gathering weekly in the central square in the capital Buenos Aires to protest the disappearance of their daughters and sons. The movement of the "Mothers of the Square of the May Revolution" (Madres de Plaza de Mayo) also attracted international attention. The growing pressure from the population finally forced the rulers to initiate the path to democratization.

The first free elections in more than ten years took place on October 30, 1983. The Argentine people elected Raúl Alfonsín from the social democratically oriented "Radical Citizens Union" (Unión Cívica Radical) as the new president.

The legal processing of the military dictatorship

Even today, more than 30 years after the end of the junta, the coming to terms with the dictatorship and its crimes continues. As one of his first acts, Raúl Alfonsín convened the "National Commission on Enforced Disappearances" (CONADEP). In the final report, later known under the title Never Again (Nunca Más), she documented 8,963 cases of violent "disappearances". Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International put the number even higher at 15,000, while other human rights groups and media reports speak of up to 30,000.

In addition, the new president lifted the amnesty ordered by the military, thus opening the way for trials against the perpetrators. In 1985, the leading members of the military junta were sentenced to long prison terms.

Against Alfonsin's will, the criminal proceedings were extended to include lower military ranks. However, under pressure from the regaining strength of the military, Congress passed the Ley de Punto Final law in December 1986, according to which members of the military government could only be indicted within 60 days. With the "Emergency Orders Act" (Ley de Obediencia Debida) passed a little later, the number of indictments at hand was reduced from 370 to around 40. The successor President Carlos Menem continued this policy of closing the line and in 1989/90 pardoned all military personnel who were already in prison or were on trial for human rights crimes from the time of the military dictatorship. The pardon also applied to ex-dictator Videla.

It was only when Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003 that a U-turn occurred: on his initiative, the Argentine Congress repealed the amnesty laws. In June 2005, the Supreme Court of Argentina also declared Menem's 1990 amnesty decree unconstitutional.

In 2010, a court in Cordoba sentenced former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. In another trial, Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, the last head of the military junta, and four other former high-ranking officers were sentenced to long prison terms in July 2012. On May 17, 2013, Videla died in a prison near Buenos Aires at the age of 87. To this day, the fate of many of the victims of his regime remains unclear.

More on the subject:

  • Hart, Klaus: On dealing with the dictatorship past
  • Hankel, Gerd: The Past That Must Not Rest - Essay
  • Berger, Timo: Truth and Justice - Human Rights Movements in Argentina