Divergent Discourses: Justice and Human Rights in Transition

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM
Salon 3 (Palmer House Hilton)
Debbie Sharnak, Harvard University
This paper explores the role of human rights in the campaign to overturn the Uruguay’s 1986 amnesty law that was passed to protect members of the military from potential prosecution of violations that had occurred during the country’s dictatorship (1973-1985). Ironically, and perhaps paradoxically, the referendum to repeal the protection of human rights abusers centered on a campaign that ended up ignoring those very violations. The debate, instead, focused on broader claims to democracy. Meanwhile, the language of human rights, which had been so critical in the fight against the dictatorship, became more prevalent in renewed claims within civil society for social and economic rights such as the right to education and fair wages. This shift in human rights meanings demonstrate the expanded and diverse ways that human rights were employed during this period. These tensions became particularly poignant as transnational human rights groups and global philanthropists, who were so important during the fight against the military regime, withdrew interest and support in Uruguay in favor of getting involved in ‘hot’ conflict zones in Central America.

Recent literature on transitional justice focuses on how “justice” for human rights violations is frequently not a top concern in the immediate aftermath of repressive periods as other concerns of consolidating democracy take precedence. This paper explores how this idea played out in Uruguay. It points to both the continued dispersal of the meaning of the term “human rights” within civil society and the competing social concerns beyond a justice framework to address past abuses. Using a diverse set of archives across the Southern Cone, Europe, and the United States, this paper argues that a language of human rights transformed and shifted during this critical period of transition with implications for both the justice movement and the broader direction of democracy within Latin America.

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