Let's talk Latin America

Transitional Justice in Latin America

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Rebecca Wilson attended a Bristol University seminar run by Cath Collins, who has been conducting research on Transitional Justice in Latin America.

Latin America is marred by impunity, turbulent politics and fragile rule of law, yet it’s the region that has done the most to address the legacy of past political violence. Countries around the world have been motivated by Latin American action towards justice, and continue to learn from it. Cath Collins of Ulster University, Northern Ireland, who has been conducting research alongside Ellin Skaar and Jemima Garcia-Gondos, spoke at Bristol University on the 17th of February about transitional justice in Latin America.

Their research spans nine Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay), gathering data post-conflict about the measures each nation has taken to address state violence and human rights abuses. The aim is to track and describe any steps away from impunity and towards accountability, defined as explicit acknowledgement by the state that grave human rights violations have taken place and that the state was involved in or responsible for them. Collins and her team have measured action such as the establishment of truth commissions, government reparations, guarantees of non-repetition and justice measures (such as amnesties and trials). Countries are separated in terms of their conflict or regime type before transition (e.g. internal armed conflict in Guatemala, military dictatorship in Brazil). They are measured in terms of numbers of dead, detained-disappeared and displaced (e.g. 400 dead and DD; 20,000 tortured in Paraguay). The type and sequencing of official Transitional Justice measures both during and after the transitional government period is also considered. For example, it is noted that a truth commission, amnesty, trials and reparations in Argentina took place during its transitional government, and that large-scale trials were held from 2000 onwards.

It is often truth-telling mechanisms that have spurred the government to take action: journalism, photography, film, art, museums, protest, and discussion. National memories are often publicly revived in these different forms, relative to the mind-set of the epoch (dependent on events nationally and internationally, global trends, technological advancement, government, and all other kinds of social progress). Political issues can re-emerge two generations down the line, or can remain an issue for three generations. Justice measures can be renegotiated for long periods of time before action is taken, and countries, just like public opinion, can move backwards as well as forwards in relation to justice measures; the progression is not linear.

The data is drawn up in graphs and tables, scoring countries qualitatively against each other. For example, ‘accountability triangles’ spatially outline the country’s activity in justice, using multiple dimensions. One can measure progress through these statistics; for example, in Paraguay’s graph we see a qualitative jump upon the discovery of the Archives of Terror. Dr. Martín Almada, a lawyer and human rights activist who was tortured under Stroessner’s dictatorship, found over 700,000 documents linked to the regime, hailed ‘an explosion of memory.’ The archives have been used in several key human rights cases in Argentina and Chile, and were an important tool in the attempts to prosecute General Pinochet. Argentina and Chile, on the top of the list for Transitional Justice action, were the pioneers of investigatory ‘truth’ commissions, as well as of reparations programmes for survivors and their families. Brazil is now following a similar path.

The question is, do these studies encourage governments to take action through their comparing nations and quantifying their achievements towards justice? State responsibility to carry out investigations and trials, and to grant reparations, is clearly intensified by these statistics, yet each country’s history and current situation is distinct, and different states must take different measures towards justice, justice being a process that requires time and precision.

The nature of humans means that we do not simply progress towards utopia with experience, investigation and documentation. We are fragile, volatile and stubborn, and we tend to repeat our mistakes. Collective memory can be warped by current events, authoritative manipulation, brave literature and violence. Archives can be destroyed once power is transposed. Strong and just governments rarely remain in power for long before greed and hubris take over, leading to dictatorships, corruption and conflict. Collins’ tables allow us to draw on data for intellectual means, however, it is impossible (and for her, perhaps irrelevant) to infer that such data will lead to steadfast progression towards justice and respectable, honest government.

Transitional Justice in Latin America: The Uneven Road from Impunity towards Accountability by Elin Skaar, Jemima Garcia-Godos, and Cath Collins) is to be published in May this year.

Header photo, Descubrimiento de los Archivos de la Dictadura Stronista y de la Operación Condor, by Transiciones.