Irene Victoria Massimino, Co-President of the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, at an international conference in Paris on 3 July 2023 marking the 35th anniversary of the 1988 massacre in Iran and seeking accountability for this ongoing crime against humanity

Irene Massimino: The Enforced Disappearances of 1988 in Iran are an ongoing crime

International Conference on Accountability in Iran 2023

Remarks by Irene Victoria Massimino Kjarsgaard, Co-President of the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and former Rapporteur of the High Criminal Court of Buenos Aires, at the international conference in Paris on 3 July 2023 marking the 35th anniversary of the 1988 massacre in Iran and seeking accountability for this ongoing crime against humanity:

Good afternoon distinguished guests, organizers, colleagues, panellists and viewers in Iran. Thank you very much to all the organizers of this relevant International Conference, especially to the NGO Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran. It is an honour for me to be here and have the opportunity to speak about the pressing issue of accountability.

I would like to first express my solidarity with the victims and relatives of the victims of Iran’s past and current regimes. I also want to express my most profound admiration for the courage and strength of the men, but especially of the women, who publicly opposed and continue to oppose to Iran’s autocratic government and claim for a better future of freedom and peace. The barbaric acts of today’s repressive regime towards political dissidents have concerning similarities with the 1988 massacre which started with Ayatollah Khomeini’s order in July of that year to mass execute an estimated 30.000 political prisoners in Iranian jails. The 1988 massacre was carried out by current President Ebrahim Raisi, one of the four members of the “Death Committee for Tehran” at that time. The lack of accountability for the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre, and of justice and recognition for the victims is directly linked to the institutional crimes committed today. Impunity is a crime by itself.

A few years earlier, between 1976 and 1983, in my country, Argentina, a civil-military dictatorship unfoldedinto the bloodiest one of a total of six dictatorships we went through in the XX century. The links between the crimes committed by the Military Juntas throughout the 7 years long regime and the 1988 massacre of Iranian political prisoners have, unfortunately, common characteristics. In both cases, laws were passed as a form to legitimize institutional violence: in Argentina, the military juntas officially called for a “National Reorganization Process;” in Iran, a fatwa was passed ordering the execution of imprisoned opposition. In both cases the number of victims of the authoritarian regimes rose to approximately 30.000 persons and, in both cases, enforced disappearances became a widespread atrocity.

The crime of enforced disappearance became a common practice not only in Argentina, but in many South American dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the intelligence agencies of the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, which formed the sadly worldwide known Plan Cóndor, enhanced the crime of enforced disappearances. The Plan Condor became an illicit association which coordinated its efforts for the enforced disappearance of political dissidents.

The category of “enforces disappearance” is not the simple result of laws and agreements. Rather, it emerges from a complex historical and social discourse, constructed by an immense network of state and international institutions, formal and informal pedagogy, academics, the media, and national and transnational NGOs which fought against institutionalized murder, kidnapping, illegal detention, and deprivation of liberty, among other serious crimes.

There are two main characteristics I would like to highlight about the complex historical and legal concept of enforced disappearance.

From a humanitarian perspective, this crime constitutes a permanent longing for the victim’s family. The crime of enforced disappearance has no closure, allows for no closure.  The sufferings of the relatives exist for as long as the disappearance persists. Malathi de Alwis, a Sri-Lankan anthropologist, defined the enforced disappearance as a mode of displacement “where the disappearance is often the ultimate goal. Indeed, the ‘disappearance’ is one of the most insidious forms of violence since it seeks the obliteration of the body and does not allow concluding the process of psychological closure.”

From a legal perspective, the crime of enforced disappearance has a unique characteristic. It is an on-going crime. It produces effects for as long as the disappearance exists. A permanent or on-going crime is constituted by an unlawful prolonged action, without interruption in time. In Iran, this crime started in 1988. Moreover, unlike other crimes or human rights violations, the crime of enforced disappearance is not defined as a particular action, but as the continuous absence of documents and bodies (dead or alive) related to the victims. The crime of enforced disappearance creates an overwhelming absence, and it is precisely this overwhelming and constant absence that defines it.

The disappeared is a forensic concept, defined by and for the legal sphere. Thus, the key aspect of the legal definition of disappeared lies in the permanent or continuous absence of the body, dead or alive, and of the documentation on its whereabouts. This permanence allows the triggering of jurisdictions and laws than otherwise would not be possible to apply to finally end the vicious cycle of impunity that is once again feeding violence in Iran.

For 35 years families and friends of the Iranian disappeared have been longing for the bodies of their loved ones, for documentation or information that would allow them to know exactly what happened to them and where they are. The psychological trauma provoked by the permanent presence of the absent body is overwhelming. We must stop this cycle by supporting any process of judicial accountability.

I have often reiterated that judicial accountability, as a form of justice, represents the beginning of the healing process; it gives victims a formal voice and empowers them to speak out; it helps reconstruct the truth and build the historical individual and collective memory; it is an important form of reparation; it is an essential part or element of a mechanism for prevention and triggers other forms of reparation, memory and truth. Moreover, accountability also identifies perpetrators helping to destroy frameworks of criminal power. Unfortunately, perpetrators are not always available for punishment; however, this should not be a deterrent in any justice seeking process.

Justice is essential for victims, besides being a fundamental right. Without justice, we live in a permanent state of denial.

The international community as a whole and countries which accepted its fundamental principles and values, such as my own, Argentina, are obliged to support, encourage, and facilitate any type of justice process for the victims of Iran’s 1988 massacre. In the absence of justice, the threat to peace and security is latent, impunity reigns and the risk of new human rights violations and atrocity crimes is perpetuated. Reports and statements by international governmental organizations and countries, are insufficient. True judicial accountability is the only way forward to providing help in the construction of a free, peaceful and democratic Iran.