The ethics commission of the Constitutional Convention was right to stipulate denialism as an expression of cruelty and hatred towards the victims of crimes against humanity and their relatives. As in several European countries that suffered from policies of extermination of categories of people, it should similarly be criminalised in Chile to deny the existence of crimes against humanity committed under the Pinochet dictatorship.
It has been claimed, effectively but without solid grounds, that such legislation would violate the right to freedom of expression. Those who argue this do not seem to realise that through an abusive exercise of freedom of expression, the fundamental rights of others, particularly the right to honour, may also be affected. This is the basis for the criminalisation of libel and slander in all legislations around the world. And it is certainly a grave injury to the honour of the relatives of the detained-disappeared and executed persons, their lawyers, and the activists of human rights NGOs who have fought for years in the denunciations and trials against the perpetrators of these atrocious crimes, to publicly maintain that all of this has been untrue. Moreover, this has very often been complemented – almost always in private – with the attribution that the relatives and lawyers of the perpetrators have essentially sought to make a “business” out of it.
On the other hand, these defamations have affected public faith in documents of great importance, such as the Report of the Truth Commission in Chile (Rettig Report) and the subsequent work of the courts of justice, which has succeeded in trying and convicting several of the worst criminals against humanity of that time. What is more, any consensual ethical basis for future respect for fundamental human rights is rendered impossible.
Moreover, these criminalisations do not in any way affect the possibility of a favourable political judgement of the dictatorship. It is almost unbelievable the confusion generated in this respect: even the leadership of the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (a coalition, nominally centre-left, which has governed in almost all the post-dictatorship period, and which has experienced a Copernican turn to the right since the end of the 1980s) has had a positive opinion of the economic-social model bequeathed by the dictatorship; legitimising, consolidating and perfecting it in its 20 years of government; and, of course, nobody could legitimately insinuate sanctioning them for this.
Thus, even leaders of that conglomerate have expressed themselves very positively about the economic, social and cultural work of the dictatorship and of Pinochet himself, despite the fact that this work was built at a “cost” of hundreds of thousands of people murdered, tortured, detained, exiled, exonerated or unemployed. Thus, for example, Patricio Aylwin’s finance minister (1990-1994) and later senator and president of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and later Michelle Bachelet’s foreign minister (2006-2009), Alejandro Foxley, has pointed out that “Pinochet (…) carried out a transformation, above all in the Chilean economy, the most important that there has been in this century. He had the merit of anticipating the process of globalisation that took place a decade later (…) We must recognise his visionary capacity (…) that the economy had to be opened up to the world, decentralised, deregulated, etc. This is a historical contribution that will last for many decades in Chile (…) Furthermore, he has passed the test of what it means to make history, as he ended up changing the way of life of all Chileans, for the better, not for the worse. That is what I believe and that places Pinochet in Chilean history in a high place” (Cosas; 5-5-2000).
In turn, the prominent intellectual of the Party for Democracy (PPD), Eugenio Tironi, has said that “the society of individuals, where people understand that the collective interest is nothing more than the result of the maximisation of individual interests, has already taken shape in the daily behaviour of Chileans of all social classes and ideologies. None of this is going to be reversed in the short term by any government, leader or party (…) The transformations that have taken place in Chilean society in the 1990s could not be explained without the liberalising reforms of the 1970s and 1980s (…) Chile learned a few decades ago that it could no longer try to imitate an economic model that left it on the margins of world trends. The change was painful, but it was inevitable. Those who designed and undertook it showed vision and leadership” (La irrupción de las masas y el malestar de las elites. Chile at the turn of the century; Grijalbo, 1999; pp. 36, 62 and 162).
Moreover, some have said that it only makes sense to criminalise and condemn incitement to cruelty or hatred, but not to deny the existence of obvious realities. Of course, for example, publicly denying that the earth is round, or that dinosaurs are extinct, or that Carlos Ibáñez was president of Chile between 1952 and 1958; or that humans have not reached the moon; could not be criminalised and sanctioned… It does not harm anyone’s honour; only the credibility of the person who makes such absurd claims. It is quite different to deny the existence of the atrocious method of the DINA-CNI (Pinochet’s secret police) of making people disappear forever. In this case, denial of the criminal act has been one of the major aggravating factors in such atrocities. It sought to add – for the rest of their lives – the ordeal of not even knowing for sure if and how their relatives have died and where their remains are so that they can at least be honoured. Indeed, it must be very difficult to generate more heinous crimes than the forced disappearance of persons.
Therefore, to continue to deny this reality to this day, when it has been fully confirmed by the Chilean state, is to endorse the cruelty and hatred intended by those who designed such crimes, and to continue contributing to the effectiveness of those crimes and the damage caused to the relatives, and, of course, it has not the slightest impact on the possibility of exercising the right to continue expressing positive opinions on the economic and social legacy of the dictatorship, as has been done to this day by well-known leaders of the Chilean right and “centre-left”.
For all these reasons, the sanctioning of denialism is a very positive step taken by the Convention’s ethics committee. This step should later be complemented by the criminalisation of denialism, as several European countries have done for their victims of Nazism. In our case, it would be with regard to the crimes against humanity committed by the Pinochet dictatorship.