Don's diary: Tango, tanks and trials in Buenos Aires

July 30, 2004

The University of Buenos Aires Law School is probably the only faculty building in the world lusted after by a character in a musical.

When Evita Per"n wanted the building for her own private foundation, President Per"n phoned the dean warning him to move in immediately. Housing the largest law faculty in Latin America - 30,000 students and 902 staff - it makes Albert Speer's architecture appear gemütlich .

Before delivering my first lecture on children's social justice rights, I am shown a small clear plastic rectangle. It lists the names of more than 90 law students who were murdered or disappeared during the military junta. The Government targeted university students and law students in particular. A bitter debate divided the law school for 17 years over whether there should even be a memorial. Several names have been defaced and rubbed out.

The students are enthused by the cases from India, Venezuela and South Africa on children's rights to housing and health, which aim to improve the accessibility of the courts to the most impoverished.

The British Council, which organised our visit, has arranged an interview with a journalist from leading daily paper La Nación . Some members of his family, he tells me, were among those who disappeared and some were among those who fought with the military in the Falklands. He asks how Argentine proposals to lower the age of criminal responsibility will be perceived in the context of a global trend towards raising the minimum age.

After my husband's lecture on the child's right to privacy, we attend a performanceof Beethoven's Fourth in the renowned Teatro Colón. A lift takes us to the top tier,a vertiginous 150ft above the stage.

The rose-coloured presidential palace is threateningly overlooked by the military headquarters, weighed down with communications masts. The image of menace is strengthened by a tank on its front lawn.

Moves to cancel the amnesty, which exonerated the military that tortured and murdered, are being challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is delaying its decision, hoping that Argentina will learn to accept the end of impunity and agree to bring its military to trial.

Every Thursday, women of extraordinary bravery assemble in front of the palace. We walk over to greet them. Protected only by white headscarves, they used to stare down soldiers' rifles, holding photographs of their missing children and grandchildren. Still they assemble, no longer at risk, supporting the President in his demand that those who denied justice to so many are brought to justice themselves.

Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires, on street corners, in jacaranda-flowered squares... At a restaurant in a poorer quarter, the history of tango is performed: it was originally a dance for men only. The mainly Argentine audience sighs deeply when it recognises favourite songs.

Within an hour of landing back at Cape Town International, I am lecturing on the new legal tools for litigating social justice rights. Globalised scholarship has many advantages - jet lag is not one of them.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary, University of London, and the University of Cape Town.

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