As our Helsinki Watch worked within the Soviet orbit, we were reaching into other areas of the world. In 1981, we formed Americas Watch to respond to the rise of military dictatorships throughout Latin America. At a moment when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the Reagan Administration’s UN ambassador, was arguing for greater tolerance of right-wing “authoritarian” regimes than of left-wing “totalitarian” regimes, we felt compelled to demonstrate the human rights movement’s concern with atrocities committed by those of all political stripes.
In Latin America, as in the Eastern bloc, pressure to uncover human rights violations came from private citizens who risked and lost their lives to do so. We stood by these human rights defenders, demanding that they be protected from death squads and allowed to work, and insisting that the larger world – especially Washington – listen to their reports. In Latin America, however, we found ourselves in opposition to the United States government, which was not only sending military aid to these repressive regimes, but proving hostile to the search for truth and justice at the core of the hemisphere’s human rights cause.
The Latin American struggles made plain the power of the truth. The region’s atrocities were marked by secrecy: clandestine prisons, hidden mass graves, “disappearances.” As it does today, secrecy served the interests of the abusers. In Chile, Argentina, and Central America, our investigators fought to make the truth known.
After the military regimes collapsed and internal wars ended, we joined local activists to ensure that the search for truth led to justice as well. The effort began with Argentina’s transition to civilian rule in 1983, when an official commission was formed to investigate the cases of the “disappeared.”
This commission made visible the victims’ fates. Through prosecutions and punishment, the revealed truth about the “dirty war” became, and remains today, a central element in Argentina’s internal debates and policies. Throughout Latin America, we supported truth commissions, prosecutions, and the work of local human rights defenders. Using our ability to bring local concerns to an international stage, we countered the view that forgetting the past best serves present-day healing and peace. To this day, we hold that a full public accounting of a past regime’s crimes and the punishment of those responsible secures justice for victims, deters future abuses, and creates the possibility for true reconciliation.

The struggle to come to terms with past atrocities resonates today in such places as Rwanda, South Africa, Guatemala and, of course, Bosnia. Early in 1997, for example, prospects to secure justice for wartime crimes in Bosnia looked remote. NATO troops had failed to arrest a single suspected war criminal. Only seven indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were in custody; sixty-six remained at large. To address this failure, Human Rights Watch launched Arrest Now!. Combining advocacy, a media blitz and the mobilization of countless individuals, this campaign pressed NATO governments to arrest suspects or force them to surrender. At the same time, our investigations documented how war crimes suspects who remained at large blocked the return of refugees, stifled independent political views, and endangered peace. We believe these efforts contributed to considerable progress. As this report goes to press, NATO troops have arrested nine suspects and forced fifteen others to surrender.
We also worked to establish a permanent International Criminal Court, available to prosecute and punish those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. As this goes to press, a U.N. conference in Rome has just agreed overwhelmingly to launch a strong and independent court, despite the U.S. government’s efforts to restrict the court’s powers to avoid any possible prosecution of Americans.
A key to resisting U.S. pressure was a global coalition of “like-minded states” that Human Rights Watch played a central role in forging. These governments share our vision of a strong and independent court. In pursuing this campaign, we formed partnerships with many human rights NGOs, working with them to spur their governments to act. Our common goal is an effective court that will uphold the rule of law on a global scale, and thus defend the rights of us all.