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Special Collection

Human Rights Trials in Latin America

Collection launched: 09 Mar 2021

Over the past decade and a half, human rights prosecutions have multiplied throughout Latin America. Scholarship has tended to focus on macro-level processes and impacts of criminal prosecutions. Using innovative research practices including direct trial monitoring and analysis of court transcripts, as well as more traditional research methods such as in-depth interviews, the authors in this dossier analyze specific human rights trials to better understand how postconflict justice operates.

In her study of Argentina, Lorena Balardini examines the trials surrounding the notorious clandestine detention center known as ESMA, illustrating how human rights trials contribute to the production of knowledge about how state terror operated. Francesca Lessa analyzes trials in different countries, including Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Italy, against members of the transnational network of repression known as Plan Condor, focusing on the role of archives in documenting state terror and achieving criminal punishments. Chile’s human rights trials are not observable by the public, so Elizabeth Lira analyzes court documents to show how Chile has successfully prosecuted the material, but not the intellectual, perpetrators of sexual violence against women political prisoners. Through her ethnographic study of a human rights prosecution in Guatemala, Jo-Marie Burt illustrates how victim-centered prosecutions have held accountable the intellectual authors of international crimes, including sexual violence; contributed to knowledge production about the past; and challenged military denial narratives.

The challenges of prosecuting sexual violence crimes is one prominent theme of this dossier. Another is the need to weave together fragments of evidence, using archives, direct victim testimony, physical evidence, and expert reports to build credible, winnable cases. The critical role of international courts and transnational mobilization for domestic prosecutions is another common theme. The authors explore what justice means for victims and for the broader society. They challenge the notion that justice is not a productive space for generating truth about painful pasts, and suggest that when carried out with the needs of victims in mind, justice can be profoundly reparative. Together, the articles in this dossier provide a rich, detailed window into the production of landmark convictions and offer important lessons for transitional justice theory and praxis.

Guest editor: Jo-Marie Burt