Posts Tagged ‘Leandro Despouy’

In memoriam Leandro Despouy: Argentinean human rights defender at the global level

March 16, 2020

When a good friend and soul mate dies, it is sometimes difficult to write something meaningful. So it was when I learned that Argentine human rights lawyer Leandro Despouy – whom I have known since 1976  – had died on 18 December 2019 in Buenos Aires, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was born on 4 April 1947 in San Luis.

The Argentine media paid quite a bit of attention to his passing but (understandably?) focused on his place in Argentinean politics (in the Radical Party) and his institutional role as Head of the Auditoría General de la Nación from 2002 – 2016.  But Leandro Despouy was of great importance to the international human rights movement as it developed in the last quarter of the 20th century. I hope that this ‘obituary’ does some justice:

He started as a lawyer and university teacher before state terrorism (in the form of the far-right death squad Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, known as Triple A) pushed him into exile in 1975 to France. He stayed a refugee until 1983 when he was able to return to his beloved country where he was appointed Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador for Human Rights by President Alfonsin. More about what he was able to do in that capacity follows below but I wanted to give special attention how remarkably active Leandro was during his exile. He did not succumb to porosity and made the best of his chances. Always upbeat and entrepreneurial he had great social skills.

Friends helped him with a part-time job (between 1975-1977) as professor of Political Economy at the Université de Paris VIII. In order to make ends meet he accepted many different part-time jobs, including (his favorite!) driving around fashion models and their clothes. The models were quickly enamored of this elegant Latino and sometimes donated suits making him the best dressed refugee in Paris. His own work situation improved when he became one of the assistants of well-known parliamentarian Nicole Questiaux for the 13th arrondissement in Paris and as from July 1981 for her replacement, Louis Moulinet.

Interestingly enough his first activist attention while in exile went to the repressive situation in Uruguay (he told me it was easier to keep politics out of it than in the case of his own country) and it was in that context that we set up SIJAU (Secretariat Internationale des Juristes pour l’Amnestie en Uruguay). Leandro – with the help of French lawyers like Joinet and Weil – managed to organise in December 1978 in the French Senate (!) an international conference that helped the opposition to unite and put pressure on Uruguay.

He undertook a similar effort on Paraguay with the creation of SIJADEP (Secretariat Internationale des Juristes pour l’Amnestie et Democratie en Paraguay).

Leandro was regularly in Geneva to follow up with the UN (and sleeping on my couch) and when the first UN mandate for disappearances was created he was briefly hired as a consultant by the then Director Theo van Boven. The Argentine Ambassador got wind of it and with ‘terrorist’ accusations this had to be terminated quickly.  In the summer of 1982 he did a short stint as Professor of Human Rights at the Centre International des Droits de l`Homme, in Strasburg, France.

Then comes the return to Argentina with the slow process of normalisation and the question of how to deal with the crimes of the recent past. From 1984-1989  he is General Director of Human Rights at the Ministry for Foreign Affaires and with it comes a series of opportunities at the international level. Here some examples:

President of the First International Conference of States Parties on the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987).

In 1983 Leandro becomes a Member of the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (later reduced to an advisory body for the new Human Rights Council). He plays a very active role, as Chairman and as:

  • Special Rapporteur of the Subcommission on disabled persons and human rights to study the connection between human rights, violations of fundamental human freedoms and disability which resulted in his final report, “Human Rights and Disabled Persons.” Which was adopted by ECOSOC resolution 1992/48 of March 1992
  • Special Rapporteur of the same on extreme poverty and human rights. Interim report adopted on 10 June 1994, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/19

In 2000 Leandro heads the Argentine Delegation at the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and from March 2001 to March 2002 he is President of this Commission (currently the United Nations Human Rights Council).

In 2002 in Argentina he becomes the President of the Auditor General’s office (a function reserved for a member of the opposition under the Argentine constitution) but continues to accept assignments of an international nature:

In 2003: he is appointed as Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, United Nations Human Rights Council (until 2009). In that capacity he and four other special rapporteurs asked in 2005 to be admitted to Guantanamo Bay to visit the prisoners held at the US naval base. He and one other was refused permission (see: https://newsarchive.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=608&LangID=E}

He remained a sought-after speaker at courses and conferences, such as those organized by the International Institute of Humanitarian Law of San Remo, the Committee of the International Red Cross, FLACSO Argentina ,Harvard University, the European Society of International Law, and the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.

In 1993 he becomes the Assistant Special Representative of the Secretary Generals of the United Nations and Organization of American States, in the context of the UN and OAS joint mission to Haiti.  Between 1999 and 2006 he regularly carried out Expert tasks mandated by a variety of UN agencies for short jobs in e.g.: Brazil, Paraguay, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia, Russia and Ecuador.

This is of course not a complete biography and any additional information would be most welcome. Leandro certainly deserves a lot more recognition at the international level. When Ben Whitaker died in 2014. Leandro was one of the first to honor his contribution [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/07/16/ben-whitaker-died-one-of-the-early-human-rights-defenders-at-the-international-scene/]. I hope this does the same for Leandro.

Ben Whitaker died: one of the early human rights defenders at the international scene

July 16, 2014

Ben (Benjamin) Whitaker died on 8 June 2014. The memory of the human rights world being notoriously short, there will be many who do not recognize the name of one of the early human rights defenders in the international arena. A UK citizen, in 1965 he spoke out forcefully against detention camps in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), became one of the most activist members of the UN SubCommission in the mid seventies and lead the struggle to have the Armenian Genocide recognised. His 1985 final report on the question of genocide – which only had a brief but controversial mention of the Armenia – was for that reason blocked at the Commission level by Turkey and could not be distributed as such. I was at that time Director of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM) and we agreed to publish a few thousand copies of the complete text under his own name.

As his link with the Armenian community was and remained strong, it should not surprise that one of the obituaries was published in DIARIO ARMENIA in Argentina. It was written by Leandro Despouy, President of the Argentine Audit Office and Former president of the SubCommission as well as the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. Below is the English translation of this piece:

http://www.diarioarmenia.gov.ar:

Benjamin Whitaker, the Argentine dictatorship and the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations

Ben Whitaker died on June 8th. Predictably, an Armenian friend gave me the news. Whitaker’s name will forever be consistently associated to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations. It happened after extensive and difficult sessions, sabotaged by Turkey during fifteen years, which finally materialized in 1985 with the approval of the document that carries his name, the Whitaker Report.

He was a man of remarkable virtues, but two of these: coherence and sense of humour, were present in each and every one of the multiple activities he undertook during his life. Born into an aristocratic family, he made his first political incursions in the north London borough of Hampstead: he won the Hampstead seat for the Labour Party, a seat that had traditionally gone to the Tories for the previous 81 years. He had already graduated from Oxford to the bar, and spoken out vehemently against the local police regime in his book The Police.

Ben remained faithful to his neighbourhood football club throughout his life. An “argumentative idealist” –as he liked to describe himself-, who intensified the campaign for the enforcement of Human Rights worldwide, he battled against discrimination, the death penalty, the criminalization of homosexuality, against the outlawing of adultery and abortion, in favour of environmental care and all the issues that were surfacing with enormous force during the sixties and the seventies of the past century, an era which produced an unprecedented cultural change.

His condemnation, in 1965, of the clandestine detention camps of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) is well-known. He served as consultant for Labour governments and became executive director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, created by an Armenian in Portugal, which is dedicated to the advancement of the arts, sciences and education. There is no doubt, however, that his better known activity took place in the United Nations, where he was appointed Special Rapporteur of the United Nations SubCommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities -a competent area of independent expertise-, by David Owen, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs of the seventies.

During his time at the SubCommission, after multiple attempts at public accusation, Whitaker, the French ambassador Nicole Questiaux and Theo van Boven managed to unfetter the restraints that the diplomacy of the Argentine dictatorship (Gabriel Martínez, Mario Amadeo) had used to muzzle the accusations – presented  before the United Nations since 1976 -, of murders and disappearances in our country. In 1979, Whitaker delivered a clear message to the effect that countries who exercised terrorism within their territories should not try to use the same methods in the United Nations.

In 1983, the SubCommission and the Human Rights Commission (nowadays Council) entrusted Benjamin Whitaker with a study and revision of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and its relation to the Convention of the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, in order to insure that Governments would comply with these directives. Whitaker was chosen for this research because of his intellectual stature and his proven integrity; nevertheless, one of the female experts advised him to add a bullet-proof vest to his wardrobe.

In point of fact, two preliminary studies (1973 and 1975) developed by the Rwandan expert Ruhashiankiko, included a paragraph , number 30, which would become renowned because it labeled the Armenian Massacres of 1915 and 1923 as “the first genocide of the twentieth century”. This paragraph raised a storm of great proportions, conducted by the Turkish diplomacy, and had to be suppressed from the final report in 1979. The Rwandan expert vanished from the international arena.

We met at the SubCommission. We were 26 experts. Alfonsin’s administration was just getting started, as was the revolution of the cause of Human Rights. When I was appointed General Rapporteur of the SubCommission in 1984, the project of Whitaker’s excellent Report was being debated. It contained the definition of the Armenian Genocide. I agreed entirely with its contents, but found it difficult, from a political standpoint, to show signs of support and proximity to an Englishman, when the wounds of the Malvinas War were still so fresh. Concurrently, the investigation of the Argentine dictatorship’s crimes and the legal summons issued to the Juntas drew us closer, so we established an undercurrent of mutual sympathy in an almost clandestine fashion, sometimes mediated by the French judge Louis Joinet who was also an expert in the SubCommission. I told him I supported him. By 1985 we already enjoyed a fluid relationship and though the context was not simple, we were able to overcome that contingency; we shared a profound dialogue, and we both had knowledge of the world of the United Nations and Human Rights.

The situation was also very complicated for Whitaker; Margaret Thatcher ruled in Great Britain, her government did not endorse his condition of Rapporteur, and he had to receive the backing of a British NGO in order to finish his mandate at the United Nations. A committed socialist, Whitaker did not support the policies of Thatcher’s administration, and although these circumstances weakened him personally, the forcefulness of his Report made him stronger. That situation was taken advantage of by the Turkish diplomacy, who tried to erase from his Report the paragraph about the Armenian Genocide. During the debate of this issue, I brought up the changes which had taken place in Argentina, our solidarity with the victims of genocides and openly declared that the controversial paragraph must be kept.

In 1985, Whitaker reported to the SubCommission the theft of documents which he was never to recover. In that same session, as General Rapporteur, I pointed out that the expression “genocide” had been replaced by “Armenian question”. In those days, Whitaker received the visit of two Turkish diplomats who tried to dissuade him from continuing with his investigation. But Whitaker was a man of principles, not easily swayed by political pressure. The final approval in 1985 of the historical Report, which has become part of the patrimony of the United Nations, is the culmination of an unprecedented diplomatic battle that produced an important judicial and political impact throughout the world.

Whitaker ended his Report stating that it was necessary to close that chapter of History in an honourable way, and that if the experts did not have the courage to tell the truth, then participating in the SubCommission’s work would be useless, since it was the duty of the SubCommission to protect the victims from the governments and not the other way round.  For ethical reasons and in an act of chivalry, Whitaker abstained from voting for his own Report. When we met again in 1986, during his visit to Buenos Aires, he declared that the approval of the Report had been a good example of Anglo Argentine cooperation. Unknown to the media, he met with Dante Caputo and president Raúl Alfonsín.

He dedicated his last years to painting, and he campaigned to have a statue of George Orwell installed in front of the BBC, where it stands today.

 

 

Louis Joinet (“Luis le Juste”) finally and rightly honored in France

March 26, 2014

It is with great pleasure that I am able to announce that a great human rights defender from France, Louis Joinet, is honored with a colloque on the topic “Is sovereignty still the basis of international law?”. It coincides with the publication of his book: “Mes raisons d’Etat” [‘My reasons of state’ or better ‘How I saw the national interest].

Had he been fluent in English (he picked it up too late in life) he would have been probably one of the most famous human rights experts in the world. His nicknames range from “Louis le Juste” to “the Obstinate”. He played a major role within the French state apparatus as from the 1960s. One of the founders of the ‘Syndicat de la magistrature‘ in 1968 (sometimes called the ‘red judges’), he became the first director of the National Commission on Informatics and Freedoms [Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés]. He served five different Prime Ministers during the 1980s as advisor. It was during those days that I met him regularly to set up and run a number of Committees dealing with the military regimes in the Southern Cone of Latin America (e.g. SIJAU, SIJADEP). We travelled often to the region and on many occasions I saw returned refugees come up to Louis to embrace and thank him for the support he gave them in exile.

In the meantime during 33 years he was an expert in various UN bodies, travelling all over the world. Most pronounced was his leading role in the Sub-commission for Human Rights and the Protection of Minorities (now renamed and relegated to a research role for the new Council), where he spearheaded a great many and daring innovations, concerning many  issue including disappearances, torture, international crimes and amnesty. His popularity with (certain) States suffered, but most NGOs considered him to be a hero.

Together with his late and much-beloved wife Germaine he had a less-known but rewarding social life that includes assisting young street criminals and a passion for circus and street theater. His musical talent is illustrated in the picture below from my private collection, where he is seen playing the accordion with Argentinian Leandro Despouy watching (August 1988).

1988 Aug Subcommission party in Prevessin Louis Joinet Leandro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The colloque in Louis honor is taking place on 27  Mars  2014, 18h30, at  Université  Panthéon-‐Assas, Centre  Panthéon,  Salle  des  Conseils, in the series of lectures under Professor Olivier de Frouville.

The book “Mes raisons d’Etat. Mémoires d’un épris de justice” is published by La Découverte: http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Mes_raisons_d_etat-9782707178459.html