The desire for truth and a commitment to people and service compels Baltasar Garzón to seek justice for victims of human rights violations. A controversial figure, Garzón is a Spanish judge on La Audiencia Nacional, the top Spanish court that handles cases of international law. He rose to prominence in 1998 when he called for the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, a former Chilean dictator (1973-1990), for his human rights violations.
On April 25, Garzón came to the University of Minnesota Law School to give a talk titled, Truth, Justice, and Reparation. The room was packed, mostly with students, but also present were a few older adults with neon-colored signs declaring their support for the judge: “Le Amamos” and “Gracias Juez Garzón” (translation: “we love you” and “thank you Judge Garzón”). The rally feeling in the room ended as Garzón began to speak. The signs came down and those who did not know Spanish turned their eyes to the large projector screen to read the English translation.
According to Lisa Hilbink, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Garzón is at “the head of efforts to bring human rights violators to justice in Spain and elsewhere, such as Chile and Argentina. He proactively goes after some of the worst criminals at the international level.” She described him as someone who inspires others. “He mobilizes people and makes them think it’s possible to achieve some accountability or justice for these crimes where before people were too afraid or thought it impossible.”
Hilbink explained that judges in Spain have functions very different from U.S. judges. In Spain, judges have prosecutorial, judicial, and even some police powers. These functions allow Spanish judges to take a very active role in administering the justice process, particularly when combined with the principle of universal jurisdiction.
A personal view
Why did you decide to be a judge?
What do you enjoy about your job?
What is difficult about your job?
Why do you think it’s important that human rights violators be brought to justice?
What is your response to those who criticize you?
During his talk, Garzón described universal jurisdiction as a provision that allows judges in Spain to “investigate mass human rights abuses when they are not investigated in the country in which they took place.” He continued, “Victims have a universal right to truth, justice, and reconciliation.”
Garzón has applied universal jurisdiction to his investigations of Osama Bin Laden, the ETA (a terrorist group in Spain), and cases related to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
However, it was his investigation in 2008 into his own country’s past – the mass human rights violations committed during the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1939-1975)- that stirred recent controversy, including lawsuits against him. In 2010, he was suspended from La Audiencia Nacional over concerns that he overstepped his powers in investigating the Franco regime abuses. Although he still bears the title of judge on La Audiencia Nacional, he currently works as external consultant for the International Criminal Court.
Garzón provided more details of his investigation of Franco’s regime during his talk. He explained that, “Victims filed criminal charges, so I began to investigate. We found 114,000 victims as a consequence of actions explicitly against the civilian population. Latest figures surpass 200,000.”
Faced with such numbers, Garzón declared that the case against him was not an issue. More important to him was that the investigation continued and the truth of what happened during Franco’s rule came to light. “Some say this is re-opening wounds of the past,” he said, “but wounds have never healed. Official forgetting does not coincide with people. Memory can be selective, but not imposed on us.” By “official forgetting” Garzón referred to the 1977 amnesty law which covers crimes committed during Franco’s regime.
Spain’s 1977 amnesty law is an example of what Garzón called the “history of impunity” throughout the 20th century. According to Garzón, these were instances when governments denied human rights abuses occurred or refused to investigate or prosecute such cases. Other examples he gave included “the Armenian genocide (1915) and the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950).” He pointed to such denial of human rights abuses as the main obstacle to reaching truth.
“But it would be unfair to end this narrative without mentioning the many achievements that we did see in the 20th century,” Garzón said. He cited the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Rome Treaty that started the International Criminal Court, and 100 convictions of human rights violators in Argentina. And of course, he mentioned Pinochet’s arrest and subsequent indictment in Chile.
“My role was merely to request [the arrest],” Garzón said, but “the arrest started a revolution in the realm of investigation of human rights crimes.” He was careful to add that “human rights activists and victims have a fundamental role in the story,” for they provided the pressure to local authorities. He also highlighted the important role the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a court with headquarters in Costa Rica, has taken in the areas of obtaining truth and justice.
In the search for truth, the responsibility is not solely in the hands of judges, according to Garzón. “The judge is the last guarantor of justice,” he stated in an interview, but he also sent out a call for greater civic participation. “In the search for truth, everyone should be proactive. Often we show that we don’t care enough about what we see on TV. Responsibility lies on citizens. There must come a point when we take action.”