“Not a glorious chapter in the Federal Foreign Office’s history,” is how Foreign Minister Steinmeier described the Colonia Dignidad case in Chile. The film of the same name was screened on Tuesday (26 April) to an audience including both victims and contemporary witnesses. In reaction, Steinmeier announced his plan to make available all relevant files and include the lessons from the past in the training of future diplomats.
Horrific coercive system
Some of the film starring Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl is fiction but it centres on a horrific true story: Colonia Dignidad was a German sect in Chile which from its founding in 1961 systematically sexually abused children. Members who escaped reported on unlawful detention, forced labour and forced medical treatment. During Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, the isolated Colonia also served as a torture camp for political opponents. Prior to emigrating to Chile, the sect’s leader, Paul Schäfer, was sought by the police in Germany for child abuse. He was arrested in Argentina in 2005 and condemned to 20 years imprisonment in Chile where he died five years later.
Role of German diplomats
What role did the German Embassy in Santiago play in this horrendous story involving German nationals as both perpetrators and victims? At the screening, Foreign Minister Steinmeier took a clear stance:
Our handling of Colonia Dignidad is not a glorious chapter in the Federal Foreign Office’s history. For many years, from the sixties right up to the eighties, German diplomats looked away, at best. Certainly they did far too little to protect their fellow Germans in the colony. Later, too, when Colonia Dignidad was dissolved and the people were no longer exposed to the daily torture, the Federal Foreign Office lacked the necessary resolve and transparency to identify its responsibility and learn lessons.
German diplomacy was slow to recognise the dimensions of the problem, the Minister went on to say. Committed individuals such as Dieter Haller, now our Director-General for Economic Affairs, played their part. He was posted in Chile in the eighties and as early as 1987 committed his suspicion to paper that those living in Colonia Dignidad were possibly victims of unlawful detention. His commitment triggered dramatic reactions. The colony’s lawyers lodged complaints and the Chilean secret service were working so insistently that Haller’s posting had to be ended prematurely.
Consular Law lays down that missions abroad are required to give “Germans advice and assistance” exercising due discretion. Furthermore, people “could have endeavoured at an earlier point in time to exert diplomatic pressure to limit the latitude of the colony’s leadership and to bring about legal action”, as Steinmeier pointed out. Against this backdrop, the question is raised as to how we can prevent similar things happening in future.
Transparency and vigilance
In reaction, the Foreign Minister announced his intention to create transparency. To this end, he has made the relevant files available to the public after 20 instead of 30 years to allow academia and the media access to all the information they need so that this chapter can be worked through in its entirety. In turn, the lessons from the past are to find their place in the Federal Foreign Office’s initial and further training. By means of a new module on the Colonia Dignidad case study, those training for the diplomatic service are to be made aware of the need for added vigilance. The topic is also to be made a permanent component in leadership seminars.
Steinmeier appealed for resolute use of what he termed people’s “inner compass”.
There are cases in which acting in line with the law isn’t enough. Cases in which the responsibility we all bear requires us to do more. The absence of instructions from above can never justify us looking the other way or doing nothing. Our hearts and minds, and the courage to act accordingly, should provide us with enough orientation to do what is necessary, and thus what is right.
Working through this case is going to take years. But given the role of the Federal Foreign Office, Foreign Minister Steinmeier closed with the words:
I pay tribute to the victims of Colonia Dignidad, a coercive system.