Last November, Iran and Argentina initiated talks that included discussions on investigating the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) that left 85 dead and over 300 wounded. Those talks were apparently serious, as yesterday, the two countries signed an agreement to create a truth commission to fully investigate the bombing, with five independent (non-Argentine, non-Iranian) judges investigating the attack. While Argentine courts have found Iran responsible for the bombing no convictions have resulted, thanks in no small part to investigative incompetence and ex-president (and current senator) Carlos Menem has been charged with obstructing the case while president.
As important as the agreement is, it does not automatically ensure justice. First, legislatures in both countries have to ratify the agreement. Additionally, while the commission (should it be approved) will question suspects in Iran, there’s no indicator if such questioning will be under oath or whether the suspects will be willing to talk. Complicating matters is the fact that the current Iranian Defense Minister has been tied to the bombing in previous accusations, an allegation that could affect Iran’s full participation.
More curious is the use of a truth commission here. Traditionally, such commissions have been internal committees to investigate human rights violations committed during previous governments, such as Argentina’s truth commission after the military regime of 1976-1983; Brazil’s current truth commission investigating its own dictatorship from 1964-1985; South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission that investigated (but did not prosecute) Apartheid-era human rights violations; or even Canada’s truth commission that investigated violations of indigenous rights in the country. That is not to say that truth commissions can only apply to historical situations of civil war or repression; at the same time, though, Argentina’s and Iran’s use of a bilateral truth commission between two countries to investigate just one event committed (possibly) by non-state actors seems to be a unique application of the idea truth commissions. That Argentina is involved is perhaps unsurprising; although South Africa is regularly held up as the example of a truth commission, Argentina’s truth commission into its military regime was among the first in the world, setting the stage for future investigations.
Nonetheless, this is a new arena for a truth commission. Should it go through, it could provide an interesting model on the deployment of truth commissions and investigations beyond domestic politics, expanding the utility, applicability, and even our understanding of truth commissions as institutions. Only time will tell whether this particular Argentine-Iranian truth commission will be able to exercise its authority, provide definitive conclusions (and possibly prosecution), and lead to some sense of closure for the victims’ families nearly 20 years later.