UNESCO Heritage List Adds Former Argentine Torture Center

Argentina has applauded the United Nations’ decision to designate as a World Heritage site a former facility used for torture and secret confinement. This week, at a session held in Saudi Arabia by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it was decided to add the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory to the list of locations “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” Located in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is the former Navy School of Mechanics, or ESMA. It housed the most notorious unlawful detention facility, which was in use from 1976 until 1983—the final dictatorship in Argentina. Today, it serves as a museum as well as a broader memorial area with offices for human rights groups and government institutions.

In a video greeting, President of Argentina Alberto Fernández commended UNESCO’s choice. “So that no one in Argentina forgets or denies the horrors that were experienced there,” he continued, the memory must be preserved. Later on Tuesday afternoon, Fernández addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, saying, “We will prevent that pain from recurring by actively preserving the memory that denialists want to conceal.” During the dictatorship, an estimated 5,000 individuals were held at the ESMA. After being tortured, several prisoners vanished. It also harbored a large number of people who were later dumped from planes known as “death flights” into rivers or the ocean. Pregnant women transferred from other illegal prison facilities were also detained at the ESMA. They were detained there until they gave delivery, at which point military authorities removed their children.

Horacio Pietragalla Corti, the secretary of human rights for Argentina, applauded the choice to commemorate the location. “To those who deny or seek to downplay state terrorism and the crimes of the last civil-military dictatorship,” he continued, it is a powerful response. The diplomat was shown celebrating the UNESCO decision in a video that Argentina’s Foreign Ministry shared on social media, tears welling up in his eyes. Pietragalla was one of the infants abducted by military personnel and brought up as someone else. Through genetic testing, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo group learned his birth history along with that of 132 other abducted babies. More than any other nation in Latin America, Argentina has worked to prosecute old dictatorship crimes. Since 2006, it has conducted over 300 trials that are all connected to crimes against humanity. Argentina is not the only country to benefit from the ESMA’s inclusion on the World Heritage list. Pietragalla referred to the honor as “a tribute to the thousands of individuals who have disappeared in our continent.”

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