Retroactive justice in South Africa, Argentina and the Czech Republic
By Rosendo Fraga

Venue: Embassy of South Africa in Prague. Event: a reception gathering Czechs, South Africans and Argentinians who had come to Prague to participate in the Forum convened by President Václav Havel with the purpose of ‘bridging global gaps’.

Former President of South Africa Frederick Willem De Klerk -planner along with Nelson Mandela of the bloodless end to Apartheid- raised the issue of how to solve the growing exodus of the most skilled young professionals from his country in search for better horizons in the developed world. I took the chance to note that Argentina is experiencing the same phenomenon driven by a similar cause: after Macedonia with 34% of unemployment -former Republic of Yugoslavia which endures a civil war- South Africa (25%), Morocco (22%) and Argentina (21.5%) are the countries experiencing more job-related problems in the world.

If we add an uncertain future to the scene, then we would understand why both countries are suffering from a similar scourge which also affects Morocco, a situation that has led Spain to tighten its migration policy.

However, a Czech lawyer and constitutional expert raised a new issue, ‘the three countries around this table share the same problem: retroactive justice’.

He elaborated on the fact that the three cases have experienced the judicial revision of the excessive repression committed by the authoritarian rules of the past: communism in the Czech Republic, Apartheid in South Africa and the last military regime in Argentina.

Opinions began to heat up the debate. Pavel Bratinka, former Under Secretary of Foreign Relations for President Havel, pointed that most of the crimes committed by the communist repression have gone unpunished, that hundreds of people were killed and ten thousand more died in detention camps. Political advisor to Czech president Ivo Silhavy stated that while reviewing the past is openly debated in the Czech society, Václav Havel highlights we should not allow history to block our way to the future.

The former President of South Africa stated that throughout his country’s complex and delicate transition his motto had always been ‘don’t be hard on the past’, preventing old conflicts from affecting the path to the future.

South African Ambassador in Prague Dr. Noel N. Lehoko -a South African who studied in the communist Checoslovakia and now acknowledges the advantages of capitalism in the country where he is now serving as Ambassador- supported Frederik Willem De Klerck’s views on the need to reach compromise, acknowledging the major role Nelson Mandela played in his country in this respect.

For his part, Marc S. Ellenbogen -a German who lived in Canada and obtained the US citizenship after having served in the American Armed Forces- Chairman of the Prague Society, which hosted the meeting, insisted on the risks derived from not punishing the crimes both of communism and fascism.

I took the chance to express that in the case of Argentina two phases can be identified. First, in the ‘80s President Alfosín attempted to conduct a controlled revision of the past which derived in over one thousand prosecutions to military and police personnel, which in turn triggered three military crises forcing the approval of laws restricting revisions of past events. Later, on the outset of the ‘90s President Menem closed these processes and subjected the military to civil power.

I pointed to the apparent coincidence that Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Václav Havel in the Czech Republic and Carlos Menem in Argentina had the political power to avert a thorough excercise of the ‘retroactive justice’ as the three of them had been victims of repression. The first had been in jail for decades, the second had been deprived of his freedom for five years and Hável had also been arrested for opposing the communist regime.

We spoke about the possibility to host a meeting in 2004 to analyze the transitions to democracy in Latin American, Central European, African and Asian countries.

Argentine Ambassador in Prague Juan Eduardo Fleming emphasized the importance of deepening this kind of exchange to get the countries closer.

An American woman attended the meeting enthused by the debate among South Africans, Czechs and Argentinians. She was the renowned ‘futurist’ Hazel Henderson, who made a brief comment about her electric car featuring a speed of 140 miles, recharged by sun energy and if it wasn’t for the oil interests everyone could perfectly use the same vehicle.

She had been probably invited to the meeting to speak about the world of the future but the current issues faced by the countries seeking to consolidate democracy and fully join capitalism in the globalized world, focusing on issues such as retroactive justice or how to avoid the brain drain, prevented us from taking advantage of her relevant presence to assess the great possibilities of the world of the future.

This is a good example of Václav Havel’s warning about the risk of letting history block out path to the future.

Rosendo Fraga
Director of Centro de Estudios Nueva Mayoría

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