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Panel: Tracing Victim-Participant Trajectories in Latin America

Despite the Law: Strategies for Victim Engagement in Three Brazilian Truth Commissions

Álvaro Okura, sociology PhD candidate at the State University of Londrina, Brazil

The legislation that established the Brazilian National Truth Commission precluded individuals lacking the “conditions to act with impartiality” from serving on it. Consequently, this prevented victims of the atrocities from participating directly in the Commission’s investigations, beyond the hearings as victims. Rather than framing it as political repression by the state against its own citizens, the law referred to the presence of a ‘political conflict’ that must not be replicated in the National Truth Commission. Nonetheless, in an unparalleled development, both direct and indirect victim organizations, professional associations and social movements set up nearly one hundred sub-commissions, mostly regionally based, with their own standards of legitimacy, investigations, procedures and reports, creating distinct but simultaneous human rights claims and discourses. Unlike the BTNC, the majority of these institutions were managed by ex-political prisoners, and rather than being impartial, they relied on affect, kinship and proximity to construct forms of situated and engaged knowledge about past violence. The purpose of this presentation is to investigate how this condition engendered a complex relationship between the BTNC and three of its regional counterparts: São Paulo, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro.

Stories of Pain and Courage: Assuming Responsibility for Justice

Dr. Anne Margrethe Sønneland, Associate Professor, VID Specialized University

Persons who have been affected by state violence during past authoritarian regimes play a core role in bringing those responsible to trial and in the development of mechanisms of transitional justice. The role of victims is not limited to participating in the spaces that might be assigned to them. Rather, victims both in Argentina and Peru have taken on responsibility for reaching justice in the aftermath of crimes against humanity. Based on interviews with more than 100 victims in Argentina and Peru as well as on following court trials and collective action related to demands for justice and memory, this paper will argue that victims assume responsibility for obtaining justice. They do so in two main ways: Through presenting demands for justice through demonstrations and other forms of collective action, and through the use of and participation in the legal system.

This paper will focus mainly on the ways in which victims take on responsibility for reaching justice through trials, addressing the ways in which victims have engaged with the legal system from the years of state violence and continue to do so after transitions to democracy, hence forming part of transitional justice.

The Feminist Origins of The Right to Truth: Women as Merely Ancillary Subjects in Truth Commission in Latin America?

Dr. Paula Cuellar Cuellar, Bowdoin College

Under the auspices of the National Security Doctrine, exercised during the Cold War (1947-1991), the governments in Latin America suppressed the individual and collective human rights of those who dared to challenge the existing status quo. As a result, the governmental authorities began perpetrating the crime of disappearances of persons. To learn the fate and the whereabouts of their loved ones, their relatives undertook a quest that is taking place even nowadays. This mission was primarily led by women and is still at this present time. Determined to find the fate and the whereabouts of their disappeared, most of these women entered the public sphere for the first time in their lives. Born and raised most of them with traditional gender roles, these women openly and defyingly confronted the governmental authorities, and strongly demanded answers from those who had abducted their loved ones and took them to a clandestine detention center. By being the first persons in Latin America demanding information about the location and the destiny of their disappeared, these large contingent of women gave birth to the right to truth and truth commissions. Yet, my paper reflects that the first truth commissions created in Latin America did not contemplate investigating violence executed against these women since it did not consider them as victims per se, but as mere ancillaries in the quest of truth for their relatives.

The Legacies of Collective Action: Why Families of Disappeared Persons Mobilized in Mexico 2001-2014

Laura López-Pérez, PhD Candidate in Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Why do families of disappeared persons mobilize for justice in high-risk contexts and with almost null expectations of justice? In the criminal conflicts in Mexico, families of disappeared persons have organized into dozens of groups, called colectivos, to search for the disappeared and demand justice, even in states with relatively low levels of violence, and in some cases even before the start of the “War on Drugs”. I argue that past experiences of mobilization against state-led violence, namely the comités of families of forcefully disappeared persons and religious groups adherent to the Liberation Theology, set the basis for mobilization in the early years of the state-criminal conflicts. These past experiences of mobilization helped create local human rights organizations and the bases for large-scale protest against violence in Mexico. I argue that these key actors facilitated processes of network building among families of disappeared persons, provided them with specialized knowledge on how to demand justice towards the state, and gave them a sense of safety amidst a high-risk context. To test my argument, I conduct an instrumental variable analysis of the effects of past mobilization on the creation of colectivos, and a nested analysis and using an original data set that documents the creation of 59 colectivos between 2001 and 2014. I provide what is, to my knowledge, the first systematic account of the formation of colectivos in Mexico from 2001 to 2014. Families of disappeared persons, for decades, have paved a difficult path towards mobilization justice.