Since its creation in 1979, CELS has worked to preserve historical memory in seeking prosecution and increasing public awareness of human rights abuses committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War” – the period of military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. These abuses included political executions, detentions, torture and about 30,000 disappearances. Beginning in 1983 with the return of democracy to Argentina, CELS litigated several cases and participated in the trial of the military junta. When presidential pardons and amnesty laws in the 1980s and 1990s subsequently undid much of what had been accomplished, CELS brought a lawsuit to oppose government measures to block the accountability process. As a result, the impunity laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005 and the trials of 1,700 officials from the period of the dictatorship were reopened. CELS joined with other organizations, including several international human rights bodies, in advocating the “right of truth” and compelling the government to disclose to petitioners the fate of family members who had disappeared. The reopening of the trials, however, revealed systemic issues that resulted in procedural delays and risks to witnesses, among other obstacles to justice. CELS succeeded in helping to overcome some of these obstacles with a proposal that resulted in the formation of three governmental units designed to coordinate the efforts of public prosecutors working on cases of human rights violations committed by the state, manage a national Witness Protection Program and analyze the risks of the trial process, and publicize the oral hearing phase of each trial and gather news about it.
CELS has also played a major role in the democratization of Argentina’s military. The organization’s challenge to the Code of Military Justice resulted in its complete elimination and, in its place, a new disciplinary code that incorporates human rights guarantees, among them the right of military personnel accused of crimes to be tried in civilian courts. The success of CELS in this area has led to other military systems in the region coming under similar scrutiny for not complying with accepted democratic principles. In 2008, CELS sponsored the Kimel case, which alleged and successfully proved violations of freedom of expression and due process committed by the Argentine state. That case was a significant contributing factor in the decriminalization of cases of slander related to public interest, in both Argentina and the entire region. CELS succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to establish minimum standards for detention conditions and the immediate cessation of systematic human rights violations against prisoners. CELS has won important victories in the area of economic and social rights. It was able to have the state declared legally responsible for providing free medicine to approximately 30,000 persons with HIV/AIDS who do not have health insurance. It also succeeded in forcing the state to produce a vaccine against Argentine Hemorrhagic Fever for the benefit of the 3.5 million people at risk of contracting the disease. CELS successfully sued the city of Buenos Aires for the unlawful eviction of more than 300 people, who received new homes and titles as restitution. It was also one of the human rights organizations that helped to write a new migration law that was passed in December 2003 and abolished the oppressive “Videla Law” from the military dictatorship.
CELS has made it a priority to share with other bodies engaged in national transitional justice its own knowledge and experience. Today, Argentina is one of three countries (Chile and Peru being the other two) that hold domestic trials involving the atrocities of authoritarian regimes. The comparative data produced by the three countries, which identify common patterns of human rights violations, have been useful in investigations and as a resource for advocacy. Argentine courts routinely apply international standards in these cases, ensuring a higher level of human rights protection. Through research, advocacy, and strategic litigation of important cases, CELS has succeeded in exposing patterns of human rights violations, challenging the content and implementation of public policies, and demanding protection under law for vulnerable people and groups. CELS has also helped design strategies for gaining publicity for trials and increasing public awareness as a means for stimulating discussion about the country’s authoritarian past.