Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Dean has history fighting for human rights


Dean Tom Farer

Tom Farer spent an early part of his career fighting for human rights in Argentina. He currently serves as dean of DU's Korbel School of International Studies. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Thirty years ago, Tom Farer was on the ground in Latin America, investigating mass killings, torture and violations of due process as a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Farer and his six colleagues delivered scathing reports documenting gross human rights violations to the very governments committing the atrocities. His work exposed tyranny to a worldwide audience and weakened oppressive governments.

Farer would go on to become the first American president of the commission, and when he retires from his position as dean of the Josef Korbel School in International Studies in June, he’ll finally have time to write the book on his experience — and what a story it is.

“You actually saved lives, although only a tiny fraction of those you were trying to protect,” he says. “But how often do you get a chance to save even one life? It was very intense, sometimes exciting, often emotionally exhausting, but by far the best thing I have ever done.”

Interestingly however, the U.S. government wasn’t always on the same side.

At the time Farer joined the commission in 1976, it still had a low profile. Its governing body, the Organization of American States, was an association of mostly dictatorial governments, and they didn’t necessarily welcome the commission into their countries. Before Farer was elected, the commission published its first critical report on political persecution under Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

“After that, Pinochet would never allow the commission to enter and Kissinger would never pressure Pinochet,” Farer says. “He was a great supporter of Pinochet.”

Thus, when Omar Torrijos — a military leader who had seized power in Panama — invited the commission to take a look around the country at the White House’s urging (the Panama Canal treaties were before the Senate and the Carter administration wanted to show that Torrijos was not the bloody dictator the far right claimed he was) — Farer saw an opportunity.

Up until that point, the commission had no rules for on-site investigations.

Farer knew that would be a problem when the commission wanted to enter a more powerful country where governments would try to limit the visit. So, he wrote a set of rules that stated the commission would not do an on-site investigation unless the government agrees to cooperate fully, provide logistical support, let the investigators secure evidence in any way they saw fit, and promise no reprisals.

“Whatever I could think of I put in, because I knew Torrijos would agree, and he did,” Farer explains.

That set the tone for the commission’s 1979 visit to Argentina, at a time when political dissenters were being apprehended by government officials — and then disappearing.

“When it came to Argentina, they said we would like to invite us to study the judicial system. That’s all.”

A few of Farer’s colleagues wanted to concede, but Farer insisted the commission not treat one country differently than another, and Argentina’s government eventually backed down and agreed to allow a full investigation.

The commissioners spent 17 days in Argentina. Thousands of people came to file complaints. At prisons, Farer would look for small gestures from detainees, indicating that they wanted to talk, and then request to interview a whole cell, so as not to let the guards know whose story he was really after. He would ask the prisoners where they thought they could talk safely, without being recorded. At one prison, Farer interviewed 500 prisoners in a chapel over a period of two days, working non-stop from noon until 3 a.m.

“They were so desperate to talk,” he says.

But before Farer and the other commissioners could compile their findings on Argentina, they were pulled into another human rights crisis.

In 1980, Colombia thought it had broken the back of the M-19 guerilla movement by arresting 120 people, its entire leadership — almost. Seven remaining guerillas seized the Dominican embassy on Feb. 27 and took 14 ambassadors hostage, including the United States’.

“The president of Colombia fortunately was determined there not be a blood bath, so he wouldn’t let the military go in,” Farer says. “Negotiations had been going on for a month when he called us. The seven guerillas had just put out a new demand, namely that the commission be invited to investigate violations of human rights in Colombia, and this was one of the few things the president could concede.”

The Commission said it would not mediate the hostage crisis, but it would come to investigate the human rights situation in the country. 

“So we came and we really pursued two tracks,” Farer says. “One, we conducted a normal on-site investigation. We went to prisons, met with representatives of all sectors of the population. And each day I and a couple of colleagues would go to the embassy, and we would talk to [the guerillas] and talk to hostages as well. What the guerillas really wanted was the release of their colleagues, and the president told us he couldn’t do that. He didn’t have the constitutional power to release them and thought there might be a military coup if he did. What finally happened was the president got the idea to offer something else to the M-19, which was to allow the commission to stay indefinitely, including overseeing the trial of all of these 120 M-19 leaders.”

Farer, who had earned the trust of the guerillas, was able to convince them that such a move would be an important precedent for human rights in the hemisphere.

The next morning, commissioners accompanied the guerillas to the airport to make sure they and their hostages received safe passage out of the country.

“We feared that some right wingers or military people would attack our little cavalcade to the airport and set off a bloodbath, which they would blame, of course, on the guerillas,” Farer recalls. “We had an old school bus with painted windows so sharp shooters couldn’t see in, just a little hole for the driver to look out.”

The hostage crisis ended peacefully.

“Aside from the fact that we prevented a blood bath and possibly the emergence of military government in Colombia, we very much strengthened our position as an institution,” Farer says.

So much so that Colombia defended the commission at the annual meeting of foreign ministers when Farer delivered the commission’s recommendations on Argentina — with the Argentine foreign minister sitting 20 feet away, glaring with hatred.

The report found that the people who had disappeared had been taken by the government to clandestine torture centers and murdered.

“They didn’t expect a 350-page report giving many cases of people we believed had been taken, tortured, and killed,” Farer says.

Respectable Argentines could no longer deny the systematic campaign of extermination that had occurred. As a result, the military government lost popular support and began unraveling.  Even before the report was issued, the commission was able to improve conditions for the political prisoners who were lucky enough to be alive. 

This fall marked the 30th anniversary of that visit, and Farer was invited back by the Argentine government.

The current foreign minister had been one of the political prisoners Farer’s work helped.

“So it was quite moving, and the first thing I did when I went back was to go to this prison,” Farer says. “I wanted to see it again, and there were several former prisoners who came to greet me because they read I was coming to visit, so it was a big reunion. And the warden of that prison is now being prosecuted 30 years later for violations of human rights.”


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