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1Throughout the literature on the history of political ideas concerned with human rights, we find a certain segment of the Left—sometimes labeled “radical,” “revolutionary,” “extreme,” or even “left of the Left,” with the boundaries shifting depending on the perspective of the author  [1]—that is commonly linked to an “anti-human rights” critique.  [2] These authors tend to point to certain essays written by a young Karl Marx, in which he casts a double opprobrium upon the very foundations of the human rights project: firstly, based on a logic of individual emancipation, it is liable to disregard the collective dimension of capitalist exploitation; secondly, based on a logic of (illusory) political emancipation, it serves to obstruct (real) social emancipation, keeping the masses from realizing its necessity. Within Marxist thought, human rights are viewed with a suspicion that has to do with both a critique of “egoistic man separated from his fellow men and the community”  [3] and the classic opposition between economic base (the real relations of production) and ideological superstructure (formal rights and freedoms) engrained in the most orthodox forms of communism.  [4] Within the diverse traditions making up what we will call the “revolutionary Left,”  [5] the weight given to Marx’s arguments on this topic varies considerably. Nevertheless, a mistrust of the human rights agenda is often highlighted by scholars with very little discussion, as a generally accepted and self-evident fact, and is sometimes presented as an intrinsic quality of the Left as a whole.  [6] The implications of this are problematic and deserve a more nuanced analysis. In fact, as Éric Agrikoliansky observes, “the leftist discourse on rights cannot be described through any simple, linear model; it is a twisting, zigzagging, and sometimes contradictory course that must be traced.”  [7] Marxism itself is neither theoretically unified nor historically consistent on this point. Underlying Marx’s own work is a critique that is less trenchant than it might at first appear  [8] and that has been interpreted in wildly different ways throughout the twentieth century.  [9] Indeed, there have been cases where the language of human rights has been adopted by activists within the revolutionary Left who claim affiliation to some form of Marxism. This paper examines one such case from Argentina, starting from the premise that the history of political ideas would benefit from an exploration of the more microsocial interactions of activist groups. It will demonstrate that this nexus between human rights and the revolutionary Left is not necessarily antithetical but can in fact give rise to forms of activism that are temporally simultaneous and overlapping from a subjective and organizational point of view, as well as logics of discursive refraction in which positions are mediated by both the political arena and the space of human rights activism.

2The aim of this article is to contribute to a social science literature that has been developing rapidly since the end of the 1990s. This literature is structured around two main axes, each concerned with exploring the relations between human rights and dissent/affirmation vis-à-vis the social and political order. The first, a historical sociological analysis of the international scene, offers a critical reading of movements in support of human rights—the new lingua franca of global politics  [10]—by situating them within the broader processes through which imperial power structures have been reconfigured since the 1970s.  [11] The second is an intellectual history (emanating primarily from English-speaking countries), which will be the core focus of this article.  [12] One of the fundamental assumptions of this second category of work is the existence of a particular conceptualization of human rights, unique to our time, as a relatively autonomous intellectual system defined by the following characteristics: a predominantly moral, rather than political nature; wide currency in civil society that goes beyond official use in international legal settings; and the transnational quality of the social movements that have grown around it. This historiography has been greatly influenced by the work of Samuel Moyn, who traces the emergence of human rights as a fundamentally transnational and metapolitical project back to the 1970s, linking it to the emergence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International in Europe and North America, the consolidation of dissent in Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, and the development of protest movements explicitly invoking the concept of human rights in South America.  [13] The kind of approach adopted by Moyn and his followers tends to rest on a zero-sum logic, a “pattern of political replacement,”  [14] whereby socialist and anti-colonialist utopias were displaced by a new moral utopia epitomized by the human rights agenda. Human rights as a concept is presented as an appropriately minimalist ideology for a skeptical age, come to fill the vacuum left by the radical political and social protest movements of the 1960s. Thus, according to this approach, humanitarian engagement became a substitute for a political engagement that had ended in disillusionment.

3This understanding of human rights is contested by sociologists including Yves Dezalay, Bryant Garth, and Nicolas Guilhot (see footnote 11), for whom the emergence of a “field” of human rights in the 1970s was instead a counterpart to the politicization of philanthropy. Its significance can also be discussed from an alternative point of view: the history of the construction of political ideas. The case study put forward in this article builds on this critique, offering a counterexample for challenging the theory of “replacement” in the intellectual history of human rights. Without making any criticism of the development of the NGO model for the defense of human rights, nor the emergence of an ideologico-discursive grammar that claims to exist outside of politics, capable of exerting its own independent effects, this article aims to take a different perspective, one that is both necessary and complementary. Its goal is to demonstrate that this kind of activism is no less steeped in (sometimes very radical) political logics, that these logics are expressed in multiple forms depending on the context studied, and that they must be accounted for if we are to understand this form of activism in all its ideological complexity. The analysis will draw on a case study of the Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos (CADHU) (Argentine Human Rights Commission), founded in Buenos Aires in 1976 and dissolved in 1983. The aim is to resituate this organization within the contested space in which positions on human rights were negotiated by the Argentinian Left at the time. There are several good reasons for focusing on this particular organization based halfway across the globe. First of all, post-1968 Argentina was the setting for the emergence of a particularly formidable type of armed leftist groups critical of both socialism and communism  [15] and embodied by organizations such as Montoneros  [16] or the PRT­ERP.  [17] Revolutionary violence was a basic fact of political life at the time when human rights was taking its first steps as an activist movement.  [18] Second, in Argentina the gap between the tactics of the revolutionary Left, with its heavy reliance on armed resistance, and the peaceable image usually associated with human rights activism was more conspicuous than elsewhere. The distance separating the two appears greater than is typically the case in less violent national contexts. Third, this choice is all the more apposite since, conversely, the contemporary discourse on human rights in Argentina has been strongly influenced by those who seek to lay claim to the revolutionary activism of the 1960s and 1970s. The persistence of this mindset is itself anomalous according to the dominant pattern identified by contemporary historiographers.  [19] Contrary to the image generally associated with humanitarian activism, the majority of Argentinian human rights activists were not “pacifists” in the sense of condemning the country’s history of revolutionary violence. Rather, this history has been the focus of intense debate and serves as an internal dividing line within the Argentinian Left.  [20] Finally, the decision to focus on CADHU is justified by the fact that it was one of the most vocal organizations in exposing the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Argentinian army in the 1970s and 1980s, and because its most prominent leaders, who would eventually take on governmental roles in the 2000s, subsequently distinguished themselves as spokespeople for a vision of human rights that claimed a direct link with the political action of the revolutionary activists of the 1960s and 1970s.  [21] In CADHU, then, we find all of the key elements that make Argentina such a fertile terrain for studying the links between the revolutionary Left (or even politics more generally) and human rights. It provides an instructive point of departure in light of its incongruity with the existing literature, and as we go deeper we discover an interplay of contradictions between actors and the habitual underlying tensions of this intellectual history—one that few authors opt to enrich with a localized analysis that pays close attention to the realities of activist praxis.

4This article is therefore based on an analysis that aims to discover in as much detail as possible the operational logics of an activist organization, in order to examine in a concrete sense the main premises of the intellectual history of human rights, as developed thus far. This microsocial approach allows us to reconstruct the points of convergence and hybridized edges that a top-down historical analysis is all too inclined to overlook. From an exploration of the dynamics behind CADHU’s activities, we will go on to discuss three of the problems raised by the replacement (or zero-sum) model that has been dominant until now:

51. The problem of chronology: the human rights movement is said to have been a successor to revolutionary forms of activism, emerging only after these more militant movements had entered their decline.

62. The problem of organization: human rights activism is presumed to be a distinct, self-contained activist sphere, free from the obligations imposed by traditional political organizations.

73. The problem of depoliticization, stemming from the way the notion of human rights has been taken up in activist discourse: to speak from a human-rights perspective is, supposedly, to renounce the maximalist revolutionary understanding of social and political transformation.

8Adopting this triple-problematic framing opens up three levels for examining and making sense of how political ideas translate into practice: the temporal, the subjective, and the discursive. If the struggle for human rights exists to some extent outside of politics (as Moyn has argued), a more localized study should help demonstrate that this process of secession from the political sphere is not linear, nor complete, nor uncontested. It is these sites of contestation—and how they have been interpreted by intellectual historians interested in the transmutation of ideologies and the emergence of (relatively) autonomous spheres of action—that this article seeks to elucidate from a historical perspective, while also developing a set of methodological tools with more general application. An inquiry into the activist dynamics of CADHU may also contribute to a richer debate, by offering a firmly grounded history of a set of political ideas that encourages us to embed a serious reflection on the activist reality into our approach to the intellectual reality.

Research sources

9The arguments presented in this article were developed in the course of a research program that formed the basis of a doctoral dissertation in political science. This dissertation, defended in 2017, focused on the political uses of human rights by the Argentinian Left from the 1970s to the 2000s. This work centered around a reconstruction of the activist trajectory of CADHU’s most prominent leaders, based on a mixed-method approach that drew on both archival sources and personal interviews. In terms of secondary sources, the data presented in this article were compiled from three distinct documentary categories: internal communications aimed at CADHU activists; individual correspondence between members of the organization; and newsletters and reports aimed at the general public.

10This material is scattered across a diverse array of archives, and so the location of each source is indicated in a footnote upon first mention. They include institutional archives (e.g., the Archivo Nacional de la Memoria [National Memory Archive] in Buenos Aires), NGO archives (e.g., the digital archives of El Topo Blindado [] and Ruinas Digitales []), and certain personal archives to which I was granted access over the course of my research.

The temporal level: Simultaneous commitments

11Contemporary historiographical work on human rights, despite its avowed contextualism,  [22] displays a relationship to temporality that reproduces certain biases typical of classic political history (and, a fortiori, of the traditional history of political ideas), which tends to focus on “important” events and “notable” individuals. Thus, Moyn pinpoints 1977 as the breakthrough year for human rights for two main reasons: Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address in January 1977, and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Amnesty International later in the year.  [23] Moyn’s attentiveness to contextual factors certainly helps him avoid the trap of reducing the intellectual history of human rights to a history of the philosophers who have taken an interest in the concept. Yet, his remains a top-down perspective, focused on the contributions of certain well-known individuals and their profiles in global media coverage. This is all the more problematic given that, according to this same historiography, the 1970s was a decade characterized by the “grassroots” ethos in which the concept of human rights emerged within civil society movements. With the support of organizations working to coordinate grassroots activists, these movements took a concept that had previously been confined to the rarefied world of UN diplomacy and gave it a much wider currency. Yet, despite its emphasis on these grassroots origins, this area of study still tends to skim over the specific motivations driving human rights activism. By constructing our analysis around an activist organization, CADHU, paying close attention to its operational logics, and unearthing the organizational micro-mechanisms surrounding its formation, we hoped to shed light on the preferred tools and approaches in the intellectual history of human rights. In doing so, we discovered that, from a temporal perspective, it was more productive to look at the development of human rights activism through an analysis that accounts for simultaneities in the activist space (mindful of the spectrum of praxis), rather than one that focuses on replacement (or how one set of events gives way to another).

12When we consider how the human rights agenda was mobilized by activists from the Argentinian revolutionary Left in the 1970s, it appears initially to have been a response to the repressive measures introduced by the political regime of the time, while armed organizations were still in an incipient phase. Human rights as an activist cause therefore appears to be a product of the revolutionary dynamic itself, rather than its decline. As far as temporality is concerned, what we find are two simultaneous phenomena. The history of human rights movements should therefore be approached as a chapter in the history of the Left. This view is supported by the way CADHU activists were recruited and by an analysis of the historical context in which the organization was formed.

CADHU in context

13CADHU was founded in Argentina in 1976, amid a rapidly escalating government crackdown on the most radical elements of the opposition. Its membership was composed primarily of lawyers with links to revolutionary groups and a seasoned history of defending political prisoners. This proximity marks CADHU out from other human rights groups operating in Argentina at the time, such as the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH) (Permanent Assembly for Human Rights), closely affiliated with the center-left, and the Liga Argentina por los Derechos del Hombre (LADH) (Argentine League for Human Rights), linked to the Partido Comunista de la Argentina (PCA) (Communist Party of Argentina).

14In the wake of the coup d’état of March 24, 1976, key figures within CADHU went into exile. Scattered across the world, their dispersal allowed them to establish a transnational network for exposing the dictatorship’s crimes. CADHU’s principal branches were run by Eduardo Luis Duhalde in Madrid, Rodolfo Mattarollo in Paris, and Carlos González Gartland in Mexico (see the biographical notes in the appendix). Between 1976 and 1983, CADHU released various reports and statements aimed at the international press and diplomatic circles in order to draw attention to the situation in Argentina.

15In 1983, as soon as the rule of law was restored, CADHU voluntarily dissolved and its activists returned from exile. They made contact with domestic organizations representing victims of government repression, formed under the shadow of the dictatorship (such as Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo). Most went on to pursue careers in journalism, while continuing to work with the small leftist organizations that were reforming.

16At the time when the idea of forming CADHU was beginning to take shape, toward the end of 1975, the main politico-military groups of the new Left were rapidly growing, although they were to be short-lived. Following a brief period of liberalization of political institutions in 1973, which led to a drop in activity among armed revolutionary groups, Argentinian democracy very quickly drifted toward authoritarianism. In response, Montoneros ramped up its armed propaganda campaign and expanded its military capacities, as reflected in the success of the guerrilla attack on an army barracks in the northern province of Formosa in October 1975.  [24] Meanwhile, the PRT­ERP also expanded rapidly after 1973, opening a rural guerrilla foco in Tucumán in 1974 and launching an energetic recruitment drive that would peak in 1975.  [25]

17As state repression intensified, the armed resistance grew. In 1974, a parapolice force was established and tasked with assassinating opponents. In February 1975, a state of siege was declared in Tucumán, rolled out across the entire country in September that year. The army was now in charge of maintaining civil order. The seizure of Argentina’s political institutions by the armed forces was not officially acknowledged until March 24, 1976, when a coup d’état was launched by a junta that brought together all three branches of the military. However, the dictatorship’s counterinsurgency measures, referred to as the “National Reorganization Process” (1976­1983), had already been in place for several months. This institutionalized repression took several forms, including the kidnapping of dissidents, their placement in one of 340 secret detention centers, and the torture and forced disappearance of thousands of people.  [26]

18CADHU’s roots can be traced back to the point of convergence between two dynamics: the rise of revolutionary activism and the escalation of the risks incurred by activists. It was also the product of a parallel but unfinished political project envisaged as a response to this conflicting scenario: the creation of an armed resistance drawn from across the revolutionary spectrum. Plans to join forces through what was dubbed the Organización para la Liberación de Argentina (OLA) (Organization for the Liberation of Argentina) occupied the attention of its various founding groups throughout the first half of 1976, both before and after the military coup.  [27] The momentum was lost in the aftermath of the assassination of the leader of the PRT­ERP on July 19, 1976, while he was traveling to a meeting with the Montoneros leadership in order to move forward with the OLA project.  [28]

19The timeline of CADHU’s creation and the composition of its leadership structures are to be understood in the context of this dynamic of convergence between revolutionary organizations that developed between late 1975 and mid-1976. The first meetings took place in February 1976,  [29] and a constituent assembly was held in July that year, during which the new organization’s statutes were approved.  [30] Its work was divided between a directorate based in Argentina and an international delegation. The make-up of this delegation reflects the spirit of mutual accommodation between revolutionary organizations that led to CADHU’s inception. Represented were members of the PRT­ERP (Martín Federico and Roberto Guevara, a brother of Che, who was swiftly replaced by Rodolfo Mattarollo), Montoneros (Lidia Massaferro), the Partido Revolucionario de los Obreros Argentinos (PROA, a small armed Marxist group) (Eduardo Luis Duhalde and Carlos González Gartland), and two independent lawyers, who had close links to revolutionary circles but who were unaffiliated with any particular group (Gustavo Roca and Lucio Garzón Maceda).  [31]

20CADHU’s connection with revolutionary groups was all the more inevitable since it was formed at a time when defending human rights was an activity steeped in political overtones. In his account of the foundation of CADHU, Carlos María Duhalde (brother of Eduardo Luis Duhalde) suggests that meetings with the leaders of two other bodies, the APDH and the LADH, had taken place some time previously. As an alliance agreement between the two could not be reached, the stage was set for the talks that gave rise to CADHU.  [32] It would have been surprising if it were otherwise: each of these organizations had close ties with rival parties within the opposition. The LADH was effectively an offshoot of the PCA, traditionally hostile to the new Left and keen to promote a very moderate form of opposition to the regime.  [33] The APDH, on the other hand, which brought together representatives from different religious denominations and legally authorized political parties at the time (primarily socialists, radicals, intransigents, communists, and Christian democrats), was known for its rejection of terrorism “of all stripes,” including “ultra-left-wing terrorism”  [34]—a catchall term for various armed revolutionary groups. From the very outset, then, the sympathizers of the new armed Left found themselves excluded from these two human rights groups. A new organization of their own, forged in this atmosphere of political division, was both a means of protecting revolutionary activists from state repression and a new vehicle for action that transposed the historical political rivalry between the center-left (close to the APDH), the communist Left (primarily affiliated with the LADH), and the new armed Left (linked to CADHU) into a new setting. These human rights groups worked in association with the party or parties instrumental to their formation: they were offshoots or even front organizations.

21The accounts gathered in the course of our research into CADHU contain many inconsistencies, but they all support the conclusion that the link with armed revolutionary groups was fundamental to the new organization. According to Manuel Gaggero, a member of the international delegation and CADHU’s representative in Nicaragua from 1979, “CADHU grew out of an agreement between Montoneros and the PRT, of which I had been an active member since 1974. We decided to include a number of ‘independents,’ like Gustavo Roca, Eduardo Luis Duhalde, and Carlos González Gartland, but it was led from inside those two organizations.”  [35] Other former CADHU members, such as Carlos González Gartland and Marcelo Duhalde, dispute this account, stating that the initiative originated within a small armed party, PROA, of which they were also members at that time. Thus, for Marcelo Duhalde, brother of Eduardo Luis, “CADHU was essentially PROA’s project.”  [36] According to Carlos González Gartland, from July 1976 onward, the point when CADHU’s senior leaders began to opt for exile, “most of those who stayed [in Argentina] were the same people behind PROA.”  [37] Although contradictory, these statements would appear to validate the hypothesis that CADHU was the product of a drive led from within revolutionary groups themselves, which incorporated a “human rights” dimension as part of their strategy of armed resistance. In fact, it was PROA members (Ignacio Ikonicoff, Liliana Galetti, and Haroldo Logiurato) who between mid-1976 and mid-1977 coordinated the domestic aspects of CADHU’s campaign to expose the dictatorship’s crimes. Together, they gathered information from other revolutionary organizations operating in Argentina and disseminated it around the globe.  [38] CADHU, therefore, was an offshoot of these armed groups; its foundation predated their physical eradication.

22In 1977, a report entitled Argentina. Proceso al genocidio was published first in Spain  [39] and then in several other European countries.  [40] It marked the end of this first phase, during which CADHU appeared to be a front organization for Argentina’s armed groups, designed to coordinate international condemnation of the repression visited on revolutionary activists. At the same time, these revolutionary organizations were dismantled and their activists hunted down and killed. By mid-1977, the largest of Argentina’s armed political groups, Montoneros and the PRT­ERP, were drawing up plans to get their most prominent leaders out of Argentina and focusing on building up their networks of exiles.  [41] As for PROA, the backbone of CADHU’s work in Argentina, almost all of its activists were assassinated in June 1977 following an army ambush.  [42] Thus, PROA was dissolved, and while both Montoneros and the PRT­ERP continued to operate through exile networks, the collapse of the revolutionary organizations was final. There then followed a restructuring of the channels used to expose the human rights abuses committed by the military regime.

23In January 1978, members of CADHU’s international delegation gathered to discuss the implications of the new set of power relations that had emerged in recent months. The minutes from this meeting reveal a desire on the part of its leaders that the organization should break away from armed political parties and other groups in favor of the use of force:


CADHU, despite its depleted state, despite the incontrovertible origins of its members, and despite the attacks of the military junta on the organization itself and on each and every one of its members, whom it deems to be “subversive agents,” has nonetheless managed to preserve, for the most part, a non-partisan and representative image that has allowed it to avoid being “labeled.”  [43]

25Here, CADHU’s non-partisan image is portrayed as a key factor in its effectiveness. Its members would seek to reinforce this image in a context where the support (but also the control) of armed organizations was becoming less helpful to them, given the crisis situation they were now facing. Indeed, the material support they were able to provide for the defense of activists facing persecution had been compromised, and they were suffering ongoing reputational damage due to their association with organizations classed as “terrorist” by the military junta. In response, CADHU members redoubled their efforts to portray a “presentable” image to their international contacts. As well as the effectiveness factor, there was also a partisan factor: with more and more dissidents being massacred in Argentina, some revolutionary groups proved more resilient than others, creating an imbalance. Montoneros, in particular, managed to sustain a disciplined structure in its early years in exile, and attempted to infiltrate the numerous solidarity groups that were springing up around the world (most notably in Spain, France, and Mexico).  [44] Faced with this internal rivalry, CADHU’s leaders, most of whom had once been members of other groups that had fared less well, distanced themselves from the interorganizational spirit of its foundation in favor of a tactical extra-partisan stance. Given the pronounced imbalance of power, this was no doubt perceived as the best option for keeping a lid on Montoneros’ hegemonic aspirations. CADHU’s departisanization was, paradoxically, the outcome of a partisan logic. As the drive for effectiveness and the partisan question converged, the stewardship of political organizations was called into question. It was at this moment that human rights began to take shape as a discrete activist space, a space of encounter not only for those from a partisan background, but also for legal professionals and intellectuals. The defense of human rights became an end in itself for CADHU activists, who were looking for a way to insulate the organization from outsiders who sought to use it to their own advantage:


Although CADHU counts various party representatives among its activists, it should not, and cannot, be a partisan organization. Once its objectives have been set and the limits to its action drawn, it must, never wavering from its defined path of denunciation and solidarity, move forward independently.[45]

27Human rights advocacy, which emerged from the slipstream of revolutionary organizations, thus survived their physical dissolution (but did not stem from it). This process of restructuring, then, was not a sign of the intellectual collapse of the revolutionary project within CADHU, which by asserting its apartisanship was by no means claiming to be apolitical. Thus, in a letter from Eduardo Luis Duhalde to his “Mexican comrades,” written from Madrid at the time when these changes were taking place, he reaffirms his “understanding of the revolution and the struggle for socialism.”  [46] He calls on former PROA activists to “merge with the genuine, natural groups formed in exile, without dissolving as cells” and to “act in a coordinated manner [in keeping with] a revolutionary spirit and a shared ideological and political vision.”  [47] In this same letter, dated March 1978, Duhalde reiterates his avowed rejection of “reformist and social-democratic politics.”  [48] This ideological thread would remain unbroken throughout the organization’s history. Indeed, a few years later, in 1981, an internal CADHU report decried the “pacifism” of certain elements of the opposition, such as the APDH, in the following terms:


Never wavering, CADHU has held firm to its position, establishing a distinction between the terrorist activity of the state and the ruling classes and the legitimate activity of popular resistance to oppression, without being led astray by so-called “pacifists” who regard these two opposing realities as being one and the same, and condemn the people to inaction.  [49]

29The revolutionary tide left its mark on CADHU’s activism, with the organization becoming a kind of successor vehicle for politico-military groups once their inexorable decline became apparent. There was, then, no zero-sum game: the development of human rights as a political project was not necessarily predicated on the decline of the revolutionary Left’s “maximalist utopias” (to borrow Moyn’s term). On the contrary, the human rights project, forged in a primordial soup of militant activism, can be linked directly to the strategy of revolutionary groups. The two are bound together in a relationship of chronological simultaneity; they are the fruit of the same dynamic that human rights activism then helped preserve, at least in some partial form, as armed resistance groups were physically wiped out. The systematic consideration of the partisan affiliations of members of human rights groups is no minor footnote; it allows us to reconsider the temporality of the emergence of this form of activism by demonstrating that it was simultaneously intertwined with other forms of social action that the replacement model tends to overlook.

The subjective level: Overlapping activisms

30To the temporal simultaneity of the human rights project and the revolutionary surge we can add a superimposition of practices. There was no replacement of one form of activism by another; in fact, there was a relatively lengthy spell for which we have no indication that activists were switching allegiance. Instead, we find a dynamic whereby different activist practices came together, resulting in a composite repertoire of actions rather than a more straightforward case of multipositionality.  [50] The internal structures of revolutionary and human rights organizations began to knit together, giving rise to overlapping forms of activism. How were these two forms of resistance reconciled from a subjective point of view? How did actors differentiate between the revolutionary struggle and the struggle for human rights? From this perspective, human rights activism and politics were inextricably linked. Archive sources and interview accounts suggest at least three grounds for this conclusion: first, human rights and politics were interwoven in everyday practice; second, human rights activism was yoked to a political strategy that gave it direction; third, actors in what we might call “the human rights space”  [51] (HRS) were still navigating by the same political coordinates that helped them distinguish one organization from another.

31After considering the example of CADHU, the notion that political activism was replaced by “pure” human rights activism can be discarded. What we are interested in is understanding how the assimilation of human rights as a concept by certain groups of activists came to form part of a world made up of already accepted and habitualized ideas, all the while helping transform how they understood and codified their own political action. This approach helps extricate us from the dominant tendency in the historiography of human rights to seek to identify the moment when “our” vision of human rights first took form, placing it on a completely fresh track and wiping the slate clean of all precursory logics. This tendency would lead us to believe that the history of what we hold to be the “real” human rights agenda cannot possibly have begun while an “external” influence remained perceptible. This is why Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann proposes a point of origin somewhere in the 1990s, based on the following argument:


In the 1970s and 1980s “human rights” coexisted and overlapped with other moral and political idioms like “solidarity” and included competing notions of rights, which were in many ways still indebted to the legacies of socialism and anti-colonialism.  [52]

33Even if we accept Hoffmann’s argument, the promise of this “impure” space as an object of inquiry is by no means impoverished; it should be approached, not from an assumption of incompleteness and inhibition, but from an assumption of hybridization, in recognition that the confluence of these diverse and partial logics may have been a fertile resource for the HRS itself. Of course, setting up an opposition between an “era” of revolution and a succeeding “era” of human rights has certain didactic advantages, but it nonetheless fails to account for, and perhaps even conceals, the process of co-construction at work in subjective understandings of the purpose of mobilization. The activist framing presented by the concept of human rights did not simply replace the pre-existing political framing, nor did it erase it. Rather, the two were superimposed.

34The first notable dimension of this mechanism arises from the fact that the practical activities carried out by PROA (in support of revolution) and CADHU (in support of human rights) cannot be separated out, but were intimately intertwined. An analysis of letters written by Ignacio Ikonicoff, the representative of both CADHU and PROA in Buenos Aires at the time (see biographical notes in the appendix), allows us to see this more clearly. The first thing this correspondence tells us is that a set of unified communication channels, serving both PROA and CADHU, had been established between Argentina and the various countries of refuge of their exiled leaders. Connections were made with foreign diplomats and dignitaries with contacts in embassy circles, so that documents could be transported via diplomatic pouch, circumventing the censorship to which regular mail was liable. One of Ikonicoff’s closest go-betweens was Saverio Tutino, an Italian journalist who worked for the left-wing daily newspaper La Repubblica. Tutino would take delivery of information in Rome and send it on to its final addressees: CADHU representatives exiled in Europe. Most of the letters Ikonicoff entrusted to him were addressed to “Julieta,” almost certainly a pseudonym. They ended up in the possession of Eduardo Luis Duhalde, the PROA leader and a central figure in CADHU.  [53]

35The repression forced activism underground, thus raising the stakes for any operation, including the exchange of information. There was therefore a need to disguise what was being conveyed and to limit its circulation to the fewest possible hands. Keeping the flow of letters as light as possible was one way to reduce the risk of arousing suspicion in the event that letters were intercepted by agents of the repression.


Given that letters sent by general post must be disguised as business correspondence, we will adopt the following code: when you say “Company” you mean “CADHU,” and [when you say] “enterprise” you mean “PROA.” You will keep people’s first names (translated into European languages, especially Italian), and you will retain the first letter of their surnames (for instance, Gustavo [Roca] might become Gustave Renoir). As a general rule, we will hide our correspondence in financial reports addressed to groups of investors (for example, in the Italian financial sector), using every variation that this allows.  [54]

37Since there were so few spaces where matters could be discussed, there was a need to make the fullest possible use of every medium, a situation that lent itself to the overlapping of activist practices. The same letter could contain information referring to theoretically distinct spheres of action, which in practice tended to meld into one. Ikonicoff’s correspondence with his contacts in Europe was an equal reflection of the strategies adopted by both PROA and CADHU: the medium was the same, as were the individuals involved.

38This overlap could introduce a degree of confusion, resolved with varying degrees of success by the different actors tasked with disseminating the information. Ikonicoff expressed his exasperation at times when impetus was lost and documentation “wasted” as a result:


The newsletters [bimonthly updates that I send out] are practically unusable, given the writing style of certain comrades who believe we should be dealing in hero worship and prophesies about our future triumph over history in their denunciations of human rights [issues]. ... Perhaps these accounts might come in useful for a certain segment of the activist press, you’ll see.  [55]

40The interconnections between the organizations required a new kind of discourse, but not all activists were fully aligned with this—particularly because two parallel discourses were already being produced by this time, each tailored to a distinct audience. The most militant factions of the revolutionary Left were indulged with epic narratives in praise of heroic struggles, whereas a more consensual discourse on the repression and the protection of political freedoms was offered for more general consumption. Ikonicoff’s comments seem to suggest that these discursive gymnastics were not practiced particularly rigorously—it is possible that there was some kind of internal debate, but, if so, we have no trace of it.

41The second problematic dimension of this overlapping of practices has to do with the scope for reconciling multiple objectives within a coherent framework for political action when these objectives were, a priori, quite distinct—both from an ideological point of view and in terms of the slogans and concepts mobilized by activists. From Ikonicoff’s account, it seems that the adoption of a human rights discourse, as part of an overall political strategy, posed no threat whatsoever to a “maximalist” worldview. Ultimately, the political enemies and end goals of the revolutionary Left remained the same:


The milicos  [56] are in charge—as they themselves admit—because there is no other way to protect the capitalist system. ... Rebuilding what they destroyed—happiness, work, trust—will only be possible if we fight them, them and the system they stand for, until we win, until the socialist revolution. That is what we intend to do.  [57]

43There is no contradiction here between the fight against capitalism and the fight for respect for human rights. In early 1977, it was perfectly consistent for an activist like Ikonicoff to support both at the same time.

44The fact that there was no inherent opposition between these two levels of activism does not mean that one was completely subsumed by the other: revolutionary activism and human rights activism were, at this point, interrelated rather than interfused. What was the nature of these interrelations?


As long as we are able to provide an effective channel for exposing what is happening, there is every indication that international pressure (and this country is sensitive to that, both economically and culturally) will help keep the forces of repression in check. That is all the incentive we need to keep up the core fight being waged by our forces here [in Argentina], alongside the working class.  [58]

46In this extract, we can detect a form of instrumental reasoning being invoked to make sense of human rights activism and to reconcile it with a larger cause. The reports of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Argentinian regime, brought before the international community through CADHU’s network, were intended to provoke indignation and to prompt foreign diplomats to intervene. The economic and cultural pressure that the latter bought to bear on the military junta was supposed to help quell the repression, essential if political and social activism was to return to Argentina. The human rights agenda, therefore, was presented as a vehicle for supporting the action of revolutionary organizations. This was no “minimalist utopia,” quite the contrary; human rights were bound up with a maximalist logic of which the ultimate goal was political and social revolution. As a practice, defending human rights was therefore both intertwined with and yoked to politics.

47A third dimension of this interaction reveals that politics provided a vital set of coordinates that allowed actors to orient themselves within the HRS. Perceptions about how this space worked remained indelibly tinted by actors’ political positioning and strategy. Asked about his relationship with the APDH on his return from exile in 1983, many years after the armed organizations were dissolved, a former CADHU activist identified two points of tension:


CGG: When we returned to Argentina ... we got a very warm welcome from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, but a much more lukewarm welcome from the APDH.
– Author: Why?
– CGG: Because, for them, what they were interested in was finding out what jobs they would get in government. ... For them, armed struggle was out of the question. As for us, we were all for it. Ultimately, it was one way of continuing the struggle. That’s not to say that we took pleasure in weapons.  [59]

49These comments from Carlos González Gartland tell us that even many years after the politico-military groups were dissolved, the subjective framings that allowed activists to navigate the HRS were still dominated by a fundamentally political logic. This space was perceived as being split between a politically dominant axis, closely linked to the government of the time and whose adherents may have aspired to governmental roles, and a politically subordinate, less institutionalized axis, with which CADHU members identified. Another ideological divide existed between those who were systematically opposed to armed resistance and those who supported it. Political stance was therefore a crucial marker, used by actors to find their bearings within the HRS and to differentiate between its different axes.

50Therefore, it seems clear that, from a subjective point of view, human rights activism overlapped with revolutionary activism for CADHU members, and in three different ways: through the practical and logistic interconnectedness of the two activist universes; through the perceived links between the condemning of human rights abuses and a larger political strategy; and through the central role of political affiliations as coordinates for navigating the HRS. We can therefore begin to make out a referential world that was not only “impure” but whose impurity appears to have been the fuel it needed to function. This impurity was no mere relic of abandoned logics; it provided an enduring set of markers that, even decades later, actors could spontaneously evoke to make sense of their own activist history. If, then, human rights and revolution appear to have converged at both the temporal and subjective levels, how did this convergence manifest itself in the discourse adopted when reaching out to the general public?

The discursive level: The political landscape refracted

51The dominant theory in the contemporary historiography of human rights, in Argentina as elsewhere, proposes that the form of activism that emerged in the 1970s sought to extricate itself from the formal political sphere and tended to reject traditional political divides. The interference in the activist reality of strands of thought that do not subscribe exclusively to a depoliticized, pure conception of human rights is regarded as a “limit”  [60]: the production of a self-contained discourse, impervious to preceding political traditions, is presented as the rule. The most hybrid forms are portrayed as relics of a past that would soon be left behind. While efforts to inscribe human rights discourse within a post-political matrix may be relatively successful when applied to the analysis of the discursive registers employed by NGOs such as Amnesty International  [61] (which is just as interested in exposing the crimes of socialist dictatorships as those of South American national security agents), attempting to repeat the exercise in a much wider activist universe is problematic. Viewed through the example of CADHU and the space of interconnection where members made sense of their political positionality, the emergence of the human rights cause in the 1970s appears, in fact, to have been a new element founded on multiple continuities and firmly anchored from an ideological point of view. This might well lead us to doubt the portrayal of human rights as an autonomous “utopia”—as a radically distinct language. The HRS may look like a relatively autonomous sphere of action, independent of partisan organizations, but it was nonetheless a product of the political dynamics playing out in Argentina at the time. Political divisions had a fundamental influence on the development of the human rights discourse, giving rise to the formation of multiple opposing languages of resistance within the same discursive space. Thus, human rights activism did not replace revolutionary political activism: it reformulated its lexicon and its codes through a process of ideological hybridization that was directly linked to the practice of resistance. This process can be seen in the symbolic framing put forward by various human rights organizations, and in the lexical productivity and the adoption of new expressions within these same organizations.

52As we have seen, a current of human rights activism had been detectable in Argentina since around 1975­1976, following the more general contours of the existing leftist political landscape. CADHU’s roots were in the new revolutionary Left, whereas the APDH walked a more centrist path (the LADH, which predated both, retained ties to the PCA). The development of a human rights discourse within these different organizations was shaped by how their members positioned themselves within the political arena. We can observe how these positions were refracted in the HRS by comparing the first public newsletters, reports, and statements produced by the APDH and CADHU in the early days of the dictatorship, between 1976 and 1977. This exercise brings to light two diverging modes of appropriation of the concept of “human rights,” each consistent with one of two equally diverging assessments of the political situation in Argentina. The symbolic framing of this struggle varies depending on the political stance of the actors concerned, according to a double heuristic: What line should be drawn between the perpetrators and the victims of human rights violations? What is the scale and the degree of premeditation of these crimes?

53The two organizations took different views on where responsibility for this political violence should lie. The APDH asserted that:


The population of this country [finds itself] living under the permanent threat of terrorist violence of all stripes. Workers, students, entrepreneurs, priests, members of the armed forces and security forces, and ordinary men and women have all fallen victim to this violence.  [62]

55For CADHU, on the other hand, extending the status of victimhood to the army was to minimize its role in the systematic violation of human rights in Argentina. The fact that the military suffered few casualties in the course of so-called “armed clashes” between the army and “subversives” cast doubt on the reality of the altercations reported by the state-controlled media:


These daily recurring incidents are fueling legitimate public suspicion, especially given the government’s persistent refusal to supply a list of those detained (citing « military secrecy »), that the victims were not involved in any kind of altercation at all, but were summarily « shot down » by security forces.  [63]

57While the APDH was anxious to be seen to toe a balanced and moderate line, speaking out against the “terrorism” of the Left as well as the “terrorism” of the right, CADHU repeatedly called into question the existence of these armed clashes between “subversive” groups and the security forces. For CADHU, there was only one form of terrorism in Argentina: the terrorism personified in the dictatorship.

58Furthermore—and here we find another difference of position between the two organizations—CADHU did not include “entrepreneurs” among the victims of human rights abuses. According to the line taken in Argentina. Proceso al genocidio in 1977, the dictatorship in fact sought to “advance the agenda imposed by transnational corporations and big capital,”  [64]?with the support and complicity of the business world: “The proliferation of ‘private factory police,’ usually comprised of police and military retirees, is common knowledge.”  [65] For CADHU, then, “entrepreneurs” were not victims: they were accomplices. In contrast, when, in a letter to the head of the military junta Jorge Rafael Videla, the APDH expressed disquiet over “the deteriorating economic welfare of the most vulnerable groups,”  [66] it seemed barely comfortable with proposing charitable assistance for the very poorest in society. It was certainly not prepared to endorse the kind of sweeping condemnations of “GRAVE, MASS, SYSTEMATIC, AND PERSISTENT VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN, CIVIL, ECONOMIC, AND SOCIAL RIGHTS”  [67] made by CADHU. The question of whether to include entrepreneurs and soldiers among the victims or perpetrators of terrorism was resolved differently by the different human rights organizations, depending on their political affinities.

59A second difference between the APDH and CADHU arose over the question of the systematic nature of these crimes. The APDH expressed dismay at “the apparent impunity enjoyed by certain [armed] groups seemingly determined to mete out ‘illegal repression.’”  [68] To tackle these “parapolice and paramilitary forces,” it called for a return to a “monopoly over the use of force and repression”  [69] as a guarantee of security and civic peace. This sober criticism contrasts with the radical statements issued by CADHU, which believed that it was precisely this state monopoly on violence that gave rise to the systematic violations of human rights, committed not by isolated groups but by the military itself as an institution: “Not abuse, nor excess: a policy.”  [70] This assessment was validated by inquiries conducted after the collapse of the dictatorship in 1983, which found evidence of the institutional and systematic nature of human rights violations perpetrated during this period. Here, CADHU’s revolutionary “maximalism” appears almost like a necessary condition for exposing the true scale of these abuses, whereas the APDH’s moderate line prevented it from grasping the magnitude of the slaughter. This fact, which seems paradoxical when applied to the contemporary historiography of human rights, makes perfect sense when placed in the context of activism in Argentina. Indeed, the political parties behind the APDH remained legal in Argentina throughout the dictatorship and sought to preserve this status by couching any criticism of the government in relatively mild terms. This was not the case for CADHU’s founding groups, which were prohibited and persecuted. As their members found more and more political doors closed to them, their opposition intensified.

60We can therefore see how the political roots of these different human rights organizations had a very decisive influence on their discursive choices. Yet, this raises another question: If the human rights project was both the reflection of a certain political position and its vehicle, should we not be suspicious of the sincerity of those advancing it? Were they not merely using human rights, hypocritically, as a means to further their own agenda? To come to this conclusion would be to ignore the fact that, during this time, new discursive forms were emerging which, defended tooth and nail by their adherents, were more than just devices: they were points of fixation that inspired fierce defense in themselves. Among CADHU activists, the glitter of the revolutionary ideal was restored not by instrumentalizing the existing human rights discourse, but by creating a new one. This discourse of revolutionary human rights became a fertile soil for cultivating activist identity and a political hallmark of an agenda for radical change.

61In this process of ideological hybridization, brought about through the creation of a new militant language, the notion of “state terrorism” quickly emerged as a central theme. This concept had been part of CADHU’s theoretical vocabulary since 1977. Its use was bathed in very strong political connotations that tied it to a Marxist analysis of class relations in Argentina:


State terrorism began life as an attempt to «solve» an existential crisis threatening Argentina’s obsolete model of dependent capitalism that makes preserving the hegemony of monopoly capital impossible, except through the concentration of political power by means of a state founded on systematic repression and the use of force. It appeared as a «remedy» for the crisis, not as a consequence of any uprising on the part of a bourgeoisie that was growing in power, but more as a defense mechanism, given its incapacity to offer any other kind of response to the rise of the Argentinian working class and its demands, which, according to the theory of class struggle, pose a challenge and a threat to the very survival of capitalism in this country.  [71]

63From this point on, the ideology spread by CADHU activists saw human rights and the struggle against state terrorism as the common denominator for the working-class struggle to bring down capitalism. The energy devoted to hammering out these activist concepts belies the idea that the language of human rights was used in a spirit of empty opportunism, devoid of any sincere ideological content. The fact that there were lively internal disagreements, between Eduardo Luis Duhalde and Rodolfo Mattarollo in particular, over the validity of the term “state terrorism” as opposed to “fascism” to describe the situation in Argentina, would appear to support this reading.  [72] In short, the desire to forge a new political language of human rights indicates that the reciprocal relationship with the revolutionary struggle was no marginal concern, and cannot be reduced to mere instrumentalism. Interpretations of the political context, the outlook for revolution, and the definition of the political enemy were themselves altered by the evidence of state terrorism obtained by human rights activists.

64In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the dictatorship, there was still an effort to preserve a certain positional balance. The use of the phrase “state terrorism” seemed inextricably linked to radical political positions and critiques of “capitalism as the sole basis for society” and its “overt alignment with imperialist interests.”  [73] It must be said that, as time went on, the conceptualization of state terrorism once espoused by Eduardo Luis Duhalde and CADHU “was emptied of its critical content and watered down”  [74]; its ubiquity in official discourse and policies on historical memory is plain to see. In CADHU, we can detect hints of a radicalism that has since become thinned down within the HRS. On the other hand, we could interpret this dilution as a reflection of the hegemony that the discourse of revolutionary human rights was able to achieve, and of the success of the process of ideological hybridization set in motion in the mid-1970s by a section of the Argentinian Left.

65In any event, human rights cannot be reduced to a form of post-political activism—an escape route for those seeking to distance themselves from their past lives as revolutionaries. There is a whole swathe of the political spectrum that interests us here for whom this activism seemed more like a continuation of the revolutionary struggle by other means. More generally, the various positions staked out within this activist space, and their corresponding discourses, appear to emulate the preexisting composition of the political arena. Consequently, any form of human rights activism (social liberal, revolutionary, individualist, populist, Marxist, etc.) is shaped by the political positions of the actors involved. Here, we have focused on CADHU and its influence on revolutionary politics at the time when its connections with the human rights project were taking shape in the 1970s and 1980s. This allows us to situate within a longer historical perspective the pervasiveness, in the 1990s and 2000s, of a discourse claiming a continuity between revolutionary activism and human rights activism—and the profile it attained during the presidencies of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, when Eduardo Luis Duhalde and Rodolfo Mattarollo were at the helm of the Secretariat of State for Human Rights. As a result, it becomes clear that this outcome was neither random nor antithetical; it was part of a deeper evolution that had been under way since the dawn of the human rights movement in Argentina, made possible by shifts in political power relations over a specific period of time. The evidence we take from the case study of CADHU also draws our attention to mechanisms that were equally present within more moderate movements, which might mistakenly be regarded as less politicized. The APDH is a good example; it may model itself after an international NGO, but its discourse is no less influenced by its members’ political positions. Each of these factions within the HRS has its own set of “experts,” schooled in competing political ideas and disseminating a distinct language, and whose access to institutional roles expands and contracts according to fluctuations in the power relations at work in the political arena.  [75]


66The analysis presented in this article has allowed us to revisit certain assumptions that tend to determine our understanding of the relations between human rights activism and political activism, particularly on the left of the Left. Following the thread of activist experiences post- 1968, one often gets the impression that the transition from revolutionary activism to human rights activism took the form of a clean break, in conformance with a logic of replacement whereby one cause gave way to the other. However, if we study the circumstances in which CADHU was formed, we see that it is possible to take the view that the two phenomena were in fact simultaneous. This means that the very same actors could be instrumental in forming an organization dedicated to the defense of human rights while at the same time continuing to engage in direct action on behalf of groups seeking to bring about a socialist revolution. By studying the practical and subjective interconnections between these two spheres of action, we come to understand that they are best approached as overlapping, rather than parallel, movements. The reciprocal nature of the activism of CADHU and that of more revolutionary organizations is vital to grasp if we are to understand how the struggle against human rights violations was reconciled with a broader political strategy. Finally, there is a need to resituate the discourse on these violations within a framework that acknowledges the contours of the political divides that guided the actions of those who helped develop this discourse. In this way, different positions within the HRS begin to look like familiar political categories refracted through a new social space. Human rights, then, provided a vehicle for a certain kind of politics, but we would be mistaken to see this as pure and simple instrumentalization. Rather, what we find are two forms of activism inextricably intertwined through a triple logic of simultaneity (chronological), superimposition (subjective), and refraction (discursive). Since the human rights discourse was governed by political action, direct action in defense of these rights helped craft the shared understandings and vocabulary adopted by political actors operating in the space of convergence between these two practices. By no means, then, can it be claimed that the political appropriation of human rights was some covert and manipulative bid to stretch a concept beyond its true meaning; rather, it was a process of actively absorbing a new set of ideological coordinates through the filter of familiar political categories. Through this process, activists were able to transform these categories while simultaneously perpetuating them by other means.

67Here, the merits and limitations of a thematic approach to the human rights project that treats it as a self-contained whole (encapsulated to some extent in the phrase “human rights studies”) come to the fore. While recent historiography has helped highlight the novelty of the activist language that emerged toward the end of the post-1968 period, we must not overlook the extent to which the development of this new vocabulary was shaped by political factors. From this perspective, the human rights agenda was a continuation and a development of older forms of political action, but at the same time it helped modify the vocabulary and discursive strategies—in short, the narrativization—of an evolving revolutionary activism. The historiography of human rights can therefore serve as a starting point for understanding the processes of ideological hybridization at work in activist practices, as long as we can appreciate the (seemingly) external parameters of this historiography.

68The case of Argentina offers a counterexample that allows us to place the overarching theory established by Moyn, which links the emergence of human rights to a depoliticization of activism, into its proper perspective. Not only that, this approach also provides us with a more general set of methodological and heuristic tools for exploring the dynamics of the historical evolution of political ideas. By drawing on a wider variety of resources, it makes it possible to pursue an in-depth reconstruction of moments in history characterized by a particularly dense web of practices and discourses. These moments introduce us to actors engaged in a multitude of intertwining activities, embedded in diverse logics that are difficult to untangle but which, from a position of hindsight, we are often too inclined to try to split apart. This endeavor, a teleological one in a sense, fails to do justice to the (sometimes chronically) hybrid forms of activism that emerge in moments of ideological change. Our approach also allows us to take account of those subjective continuities mobilized by actors caught up in these currents of change. The perpetuation of older political identities within human rights activism, which prompts us to look critically at the autonomy of this emerging space, can therefore be understood as part of a wider effort to bring coherence to the various paths of different individuals and groups. Paying attention to these micro-strategies opens up an opportunity to approach a more nuanced understanding of the space of possibilities from which innovations in political ideas emerge, rather than the bluntness of a gaze that sees this process as a straightforward transition from one binary state to another.

69We can then piece together a contextualized history of ideas in the activist space, without confining ourselves to the more generic overviews that the sources most commonly associated with academic inquiry tend to propose. Drawing on the internal documentation of an organization such as CADHU, or on personal correspondence between activists that sheds light on the more “technical” or logistical aspects of their operations, gives us the keys to understand the conditions in which ideas are produced and formulated in public discourse, with due regard to the immediate historical context, the influence of political organizations, and the power relations between actors. In this way, we can unearth the traces of a completely distinctive ideological tradition: here, the human rights project as taken up by Argentina’s revolutionary Left. This was a simultaneously intellectual and activist project, in which ideas took on a particular form through their convergence with a practice of political engagement. By opening the “black box” of (human rights) activism, we can contribute to ongoing efforts to move beyond traditional methods for reconstructing the history of political ideas.


Appendix. Biographical notes

70Eduardo Luis Duhalde (1939­2012). After studying law at the University of Buenos Aires, Duhalde practiced as a defense attorney for political prisoners, while establishing himself as an intellectual and a journalist with close links to revolutionary Peronism. In 1975, he founded PROA, a small armed Marxist group. In 1976, he took over the leadership of CADHU, which he ran from his exile in Spain. After returning to Argentina in 1983, he worked with various left-wing press organizations and founded a think tank, the Instituto de Relaciones Internacionales (IRI) (Institute of International Relations), and a political party, Izquierda Democrática Popular (IDEPO) (Popular Democratic Left). As part of the leftist opposition to the government of the time, IDEPO won relatively few votes but was nonetheless very influential in the activist networks inherited from the new Left of the 1970s. After the party was dissolved in 1991, Duhalde retired from active politics and was appointed as a judge. In the early 2000s, he made the acquaintance of the future president Néstor Kirchner, who named him Secretary of State for Human Rights when he took office in 2003.

71Carlos González Gartland (b. 1931). Gartland studied law at the University of Buenos Aires before practicing as a lawyer. He was particularly active in defending political prisoners. Initially close to the Socialist Party, he took a step back in the 1960s, becoming a founding member of PROA in 1975. Following the 1976 military coup, he fled to Mexico, where he headed up the local CADHU branch. Gartland returned to Argentina in 1983 and resumed his career as a lawyer. He became a contributor to a wide range of left-wing newspapers, as well as a member of the IRI and an IDEPO activist. After IDEPO was dissolved, he continued to practice as a lawyer throughout the 1990s. He became a consultant for the Secretariat of State for Human Rights upon the appointment of Eduardo Luis Duhalde in 2003.

72Rodolfo Mattarollo (1939­2014). Rodolfo Mattarollo studied law at the University of Buenos Aires, before becoming involved with the PRT­ERP in the early 1970s. He edited one of the party’s journals, Nuevo Hombre, and practiced law as a defense attorney for political prisoners. In 1975, the PRT­ERT dispatched him to Paris, where he was to organize the international solidarity campaign. From 1976, he served as CADHU’s representative in France. On his return to Argentina in 1983, Mattarollo worked as a journalist for various left-wing magazines. He rejoined the IRI and arranged history classes for IDEPO activists. In the 1990s, he advised the United Nations on various international missions, and he spent some time assisting the parliamentary activities of the communist deputy Eduardo Sigal. In 2003, he was appointed chief of staff to Eduardo Luis Duhalde in his capacity as Secretary of State for Human Rights, before serving as Sub-Secretary of State between 2005 and 2007.

73Ignacio Ikonicoff (1941­1977). Born in Santa Fe province in northeast Argentina, Ignacio Ikonicoff studied physics in France before pursuing a career as a scientific journalist in Argentina. A trade union activist, he joined the ranks of a small armed Guevarist organization, the Comandos Populares de Liberación, which later merged with Montoneros. In 1972, he was imprisoned and tortured for several months. Critical of Montoneros, Ikonicoff became a member of PROA upon its foundation in 1975. He later became CADHU’s coordinator in Buenos Aires. In June 1977, he was kidnapped by the army. He remains missing to this day.


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    Emilio Crenzel, “Dos prólogos para un mismo informe. El Nunca Más y la memoria de las desapariciones,” Prohistoria 11 (2007): 49-60.
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    See Samuel Moyn’s critique of the contextualism espoused by Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School, on the grounds that it displays a lack of awareness of non-textual context in the study of political ideas: Samuel Moyn, “Imaginary Intellectual History,” in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, ed. Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 112-30. See also Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006): The Conceptual Historian,” German History 24, no. 3 (2006): 475-78; Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Introduction: Genealogies of Human Rights,” in Human Rights in The Twentieth Century, ed. Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1-26; Samuel Moyn, “On The Nonglobalization of Ideas,” in Global Intellectual History, ed. Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 187-204.
  • [23]
    Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, 120-75.
  • [24]
    Gillespie, Soldiers of Perón.
  • [25]
    Carnovale, Los combatientes.
  • [26]
    Marcos Novaro and Vicente Palermo, La dictadura militar, 1976-1983. Del golpe de estado a la restauración democrática (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2003).
  • [27]
    Dardo Castro and Juan Iturburu, “Organización Comunista Poder Obrero,” Lucha Armada en la Argentina 1 (2004): 102-9; Gillespie, Soldiers of Perón; Pablo Pozzi, Historias de “perros”: entrevistas a militantes del PRT-ERP (Buenos Aires: Imago Mundi, 2012); Pablo Pozzi, Por las sendas argentinas. El PRT-ERP, la guerrilla marxista (Buenos Aires: Imago Mundi, 2004), 374.
  • [28]
    Pablo Pozzi, Por las sendas argentinas, 380; Luis Mattini, Hombres y mujeres del PRT-ERP: de Tucumán a La Tablada. La pasión militante (La Plata: De la Campana, 1995), 469-76.
  • [29]
    Carlos María Duhalde, Una breve historia de la CADHU,” in Argentina. Proceso al genocidio, ed. CADHU (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2013), 5-27.
  • [30]
    CADHU, “Declaración de principios y estatutos,” July 1976, El Topo Blindado digital archives, Buenos Aires.
  • [31]
    Information compiled from the following documents: CADHU Governing Board, “A la Oficina Central Sueca para la Ayuda al Desarrollo (SIDA),” May 25, 1977, El Topo Blindado digital archives; CADHU Madrid, “Fundamentos y bases para una reorganización y reestructuración de la C.A.D.H.U.,” March 19, 1978, El Topo Blindado digital archives; CADHU, “Ejercicio económico del año 1981,” Archivo Nacional de la Memoria, Buenos Aires, CADHU collection.
  • [32]
    Carlos María Duhalde, “Una breve historia de la CADHU.”
  • [33]
    Natalia Casola, “El Partido Comunista Argentino y el golpe militar de 1976: las raíces históricas de la convergencia cívico-militar,” Revista Izquierdas 3, no. 6 (2010), available at:ƒ images/pdf/2011/07/3.pdf.
  • [34]
    Marina Franco, Un enemigo para la nación, 232.
  • [35]
    Manuel Gaggero, email communication with the author, December 2014.
  • [36]
    Marcelo Duhalde, interview with the author, conducted September 2014 in Buenos Aires.
  • [37]
    Carlos González Gartland, interview with the author, conducted November 2014 in Buenos Aires.
  • [38]
    Gabriel Rot, Itinerarios revolucionarios. Eduardo L. Duhalde, Haroldo Logiurato: de la Resistencia Peronista al Partido Revolucionario de los Obreros Argentinos (Buenos Aires: De la Campana, 2016).
  • [39]
    CADHU, Argentina. Proceso al genocidio (Madrid: Elías Querejeta, 1977).
  • [40]
    CADHU, Argentinien. Auf dem Weg zum Völkermord (Bonn: PDW, 1977); CADHU, Argentine. Dossier d’un génocide (Paris: Flammarion, 1978).
  • [41]
    Pozzi, Por las sendas argentinas; Gillespie, Soldiers of Perón.
  • [42]
    Rot, Itinerarios revolucionarios.
  • [43]
    CADHU Madrid, “Fundamentos y bases.”
  • [44]
    Marina Franco, El exilio. Argentinos en Francia durante la dictadura (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2008); Guillermo Mira Delli-Zotti, “La singularidad del exilio argentino en Madrid,” in Represión y destierro. Itinerarios del exilio argentino, ed. Pablo Yankelevich (La Plata: Al Margen, 2004), 87-112; Pablo Yankelevich, Ráfagas de un exilio. Argentinos en México, 1974-1983 (Mexico: Colegio de México, 2010).
  • [45]
    CADHU Madrid, “Fundamentos y bases.”
  • [46]
    Letter from Eduardo Luis Duhalde to comrades in Mexico, Madrid, March 12, 1978, personal archives of Eduardo Luis Duhalde, Buenos Aires.
  • [47]
  • [48]
  • [49]
    CADHU Governing Board, “Informe a los compañeros de la CADHU,” Madrid, May 2, 1981, personal archives of Carlos González Gartland, Buenos Aires.
  • [50]
    Olivier Fillieule et al., “L’altermondialisation en réseaux. Trajectoires militantes, multipositionnalité et formes de l’engagement: les participants du contre-sommet du G8 d’Évian,” Politix 68, no. 4 (2004): 13-48.
  • [51]
    To borrow the terminology used by Laure Bereni and Lilian Mathieu: Laure Bereni, “Penser la transversalité des mobilisations féministes: l’espace de la cause des femmes,” in Les féministes de la deuxième vague, ed. Christine Bard (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012), 27-41; Lilian Mathieu, “L’espace des mouvements sociaux,” Politix 77, no. 1 (2007): 131-51.
  • [52]
    Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Human Rights and History,” Past & Present 232, no. 1 (2016): 279-310, here 282.
  • [53]
    All of the letters cited below are held in the personal archives of Eduardo Luis Duhalde, preserved by his family in Buenos Aires.
  • [54]
    Letter from Ignacio Ikonicoff to “Julieta,” December 9, 1976.
  • [55]
    Letter from Ignacio Ikonicoff to “Julieta,” November 9, 1976.
  • [56]
    Slang for “soldiers.”
  • [57]
    Letter from Ignacio Ikonicoff to “Julieta,” January 7, 1977.
  • [58]
    Letter from Ignacio Ikonicoff to “Julieta,” December 27, 1976.
  • [59]
    Carlos González Gartland, interview with the author, conducted November 2014 in Buenos Aires.
  • [60]
    Jan Eckel, “The Rebirth of Politics from the Spirit of Morality,” 238.
  • [61]
    This was already less true of Human Rights Watch, although Samuel Moyn points to this organization as another example to illustrate his argument. See Dezalay and Garth, “Droits de l’homme et philanthropie hégémonique.”
  • [62]
    APDH, “Memorandum elevado al Gral Videla,” Boletín 4 (September 1976): 2, Ruinas Digitales digital archives.
  • [63]
    CADHU, Boletín 9 (January 1977): 3, El Topo Blindado digital archives.
  • [64]
    CADHU, Argentina. Proceso al genocidio, 139.
  • [65]
    Ibid., 159.
  • [66]
    APDH Presidential Council, “Al Presidente de la República Jorge Rafael Videla,” December 10, 1976, Ruinas Digitales digital archives.
  • [67]
    CADHU, Argentina. Proceso al genocidio, 173.
  • [68]
    APDH, “Entrevista al cadenal Primatesta,” Boletín 4 (September 1976): 6, Ruinas Digitales digital archives.
  • [69]
    APDH Presidential Council, “Al Presidente de la Républica,” 3-4.
  • [70]
    CADHU, Argentina. Proceso al genocidio, 171.
  • [71]
    Eduardo Luis Duhalde, “El terrorismo de Estado y la doctrina de la seguridad nacional en la República Argentina,” typed manuscript, c.1977, El Topo Blindado digital archives.
  • [72]
    Eduardo Luis Duhalde, “El terrorismo de Estado”; CADHU Governing Board, “Informe a los compañeros de la CADHU.”
  • [73]
    Eduardo Luis Duhalde, El Estado terrorista argentino (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2013 [1983]), 247.
  • [74]
    Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas, trans. Douglas Andrew Town (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 147.
  • [75]
    From this perspective, the political career of Graciela Fernández Meijide is especially interesting. Originally a member of the APDH, Meijide became involved in politics in the 1990s. Her influence peaked during the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001), a member of the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Civic Union) allied with the center-left. Meijide withdrew from frontline politics during the presidencies of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner; under their watch, it was the former leaders of CADHU who were given the spotlight.

This article revisits the opposition – a classical one in the history of political ideas – between revolutionary left-wing militant movements and human rights activism. Based on the analysis of an Argentinean militant organisation active in the 1970s and 1980s, it demonstrates that human rights activism can in fact be combined with revolutionary militancy in several ways. This article illustrates how the Argentine human rights space and political world refracted off of each other, producing logics of temporal simultaneity and subjective and organisational superposition. To understand the evolution of either of these two movements, it becomes essential to examine just how closely they were interwoven. We therefore highlight the value of developing a contextual history of ideas based on their uses, by combining the analysis of intellectual phenomena with activist dynamics.


  • Argentina
  • human rights
  • 1968s
  • State-sponsored terrorism
  • revolutionary Left
  • history of political ideas
  • activism
David Copello
David Copello is a postdoctoral researcher at the Casa de Velázquez (School of Advanced Hispanic and Iberian Studies) in Madrid and a research associate at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po (CEVIPOF). His work explores the ideological shift that has transformed the Left since the 1960s, and the interconnections between the sphere of political ideas and the sphere of activism. He has a particular interest in how political ideas and theories have been taken up by activists, and in the flows of political ideas between Latin America and Europe. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he studied the radical Left in Argentina. His publications include: “Jacques Vergès, Rupture Strategy and the Argentinean New Left: Circulations and Adaptations of a Judiciary Theory,” Global Society 33, no. 3 (2019): 348­64; “Lectures du Procès des Juntes en Argentine: production intellectuelle, (re)productions mémorielles,” Cahiers Mémoire et Politique 2 (2015): 31­49. (Casa de Velázquez, Ciudad Universitaria, Calle de Paul Guinard 3, 28040 Madrid).
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