If someone ever tells you that all politicians are just out for themselves and don’t give a fuck about anyone else, try telling them about Patricia Murphy “Patt” Derian, who died last Friday at age 86.
She was a nurse, a civil rights activist, a diplomat and the human rights bureau chief under US President Jimmy Carter.
During the last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-83) she was credited with saving hundreds of lives by standing up to the generals as a human rights ambassador for the US government.
She was one of the few influential politicians before or since who took the preamble of the United Nations Charter seriously and tried her best to see its promise enacted at home and abroad.
“WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…”
These words were torn up by many successive presidents and politicians and generals and industrialists from all over the world after they were first put down in 1945, after the most destructive war the world has ever seen. But not by everyone of the post-war generation, and not by Derian.
She was born in Manhattan in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash and start of the Great Depression, and raised in Virginia, before moving to Jackson, Mississippi.
In the segregated post-war Deep South, like many conscientious Democrats in the US at the time, she got heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement after working for a while with local black schoolchildren in Jackson.
In time, through the tumultuous struggles and victories of the Civil Rights movement, her activism and commitment to the Democrats got her noticed, and she got on board with Jimmy Carter’s run for the White House, which was successful and won him the election and the presidency in 1976.
If there was an exception to US presidents during the Cold War on foreign policy, it was Carter. Rather than continuing to deepen the very destructive and dangerous thermonuclear one-upmanship with the Soviet Union that had been in vogue for predecessors like Nixon and Ford at the time, Carter decided to focus more on promoting human rights around the world. After all, the US kept talking about doing that. Why not actually try it?
Using the US government’s considerabel economic influence to persuade allies to behave humanely was one premise of the plan. And, as an old campaign comrade, Patt Derian was just the sort of person Carter wanted in his new-look presidency.
One contemporary, Charlie Clements, described the situation aptly in a New York Times obituary:
“Mr. Carter, he said, “wasn’t looking so much for diplomacy as moral fiber.”
“Patt,” he said, “had moral fiber in excess.”
Standing Up To Fascism
Nowhere was this right stuff more important during Carter’s presidency than in Argentina — suffering under the stranglehold of a military dictatorship that was intent on torturing and murdering its own citizens in a power-hungry effort to root out “communist subversion.”
Carter probably understood the US role in helping encourage the “disappearings,” as the human rights abuses were called, before he became President. He wanted to change this cynical, “strategic” approach. Patt Derian could help.
With a group of other exceedingly brave US civil servants, Derian worked to release information to the US about the situation in Argentina — a key US ally in the region against “Red” influence — of ongoing repression and human rights abuses.
Derian visited Argentina three times in 1977 during her tenure at the human rights bureau and took great risks by bullishly continuing to agitate for amnesty and an end to political kidnappings and killings.
In one famous and remarkable story, since repeated and reprinted numerous times since her death, Derian met face to face with one of the chief military repressors: Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera.
“She told us once how she went to (former Navy Admiral) Massera’s office in the ESMA (ex-navy academy that was used as a clandestine detention centre),” Cox recalls. “And that Massera denied that he was torturing and killing people. She responded ‘You know very well that you are torturing people right here,’ pointing her finger to the ground.”
Cox went on to the describe the threats Derrian received as a result of the incident, of how on her visits to Argentina during the period she was followed by military police and, apparently undeterred, continued to speak up for human rights.
Using the relative diplomatic protection afforded to her by the US government, she began to receive human rights denunciations, amassing over 5,000 in total.
This was a key reason why the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights finally sent an investigative team to Argentina to study the horrors being reported in 1979. There was no better person to lead it than Derian herself, which she did with distinction.
A vocal critic of USFP hawks such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, who advocated alliances with and support for fascist dictatorships such as the Argentine military in order to counter Soviet influence in the world, Derian roundly lambasted Kirkpatrick’s approval of military repression, arguing that the US effectively supported “a little bit of torture” at least in doing so, and therefore betrayed its own rhetoric as a result.
In 1985, Derian testified personally in the Trial of the Juntas, which sentenced Jorge Rafael Videla, Massera et al as having orchestrated the mass torture and killings. Her evidence helped put these men behind bars.
She was largely credited with saving hundreds of lives thanks to her efforts defending human rights in Argentina during the dictatorship.
Patt Derian was a courageous activist and diplomat and her human rights advocacy offered examples of what well-placed and smartly deployed morality in politics can achieve.
Her legacy in Argentina might also act as a caution against excessive generalization. When we talk about US foreign policy in Latin America, we often do so in negative terms by highlighting the widespread abuses, the sponsoring of dictatorships, illegal interventions and invasions and so on (the present author included). While this is important, one should never lose sight of the nuances involved in such a sprawling topic. The humanity and achievements of Patt Derian’s work for the US government in Argentina during the military dictatorship was a beacon of difference amid all the darkness.