From Amnesty to Accountability: Transitional Justice in South America

From Amnesty to Accountability: Transitional Justice in South America
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cries during a speech at the launching ceremony of the National Truth Commission Report in Brasilia, Dec. 10, 2014 (AP photo by Eraldo Peres).

In a Buenos Aires courtroom, three judges listen to Chileans, Uruguayans and Paraguayans testify about how their friends and family were kidnapped and disappeared as part of an international military conspiracy. The case, known as Operation Condor, accuses 25 Argentine military officers, along with one Uruguayan extradited from Brazil, of forced disappearances, kidnappings, torture and murder spanning half a dozen countries during the 1970s and early 1980s. Over 200 witnesses will testify, and the trial is entering its second year.

It’s just one of dozens of trials taking place in national courts in Chile and Argentina, which are finally confronting the past after decades of official stonewalling and amnesties. Nor is the reckoning confined to criminal prosecutions: Argentina and Chile have been pioneers in the use of both investigatory “truth” commissions and reparations programs for the survivors and their families, and Brazil is now following the same path. Latin America is seen as a template for similar efforts around the world. While this article focuses on Argentina, Chile and Brazil, some combination of similar efforts have been undertaken in Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Ecuador.

The statistics are impressive. In Argentina, 2,071 people have been or are being tried for murder, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity, with 370 convictions. In Chile, over 1,300 people are being or have been tried, although only 64 are presently in prison serving their sentences. What makes these numbers even more impressive is that both countries enacted amnesty laws to shield the military from prosecution. The saga of how those amnesties were left behind is told below.

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