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After Oppression

Transitional Justice in Latin America and Eastern Europe

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The decline of authoritarianism in Latin America and Eastern Europe marked the end of a dark chapter in the history of these societies. In both regions, transition to democracy was accompanied by distinct efforts to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of the past and to demand accountability from the oppressors. The impact of these efforts rippled far beyond national boundaries, expanding the frontiers of international justice, and yielding indelible lessons and inspiration.

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The paradox of accountability in Brazil

In Chapter 2 in this volume, Kathryn Sikkink observes that Latin America, as a region, led a global process of accountability for human rights violations over the quarter century from 1979 to 2004. Further, she notes an apparent correlation between the extent of accountability, on the one hand, and the advance of democracy and respect for human rights, on the other. As she observes, although the region has surpassed others in advancing accountability, within Latin America there has not been uniformity. One vital Latin American state – Brazil – has lagged behind. As of this writing in December 2010, accountability for the gross violations of human rights committed by agents of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964–1985) has, on the whole, been extremely limited. We attribute this to a combination of the extended effects of the country’s top-down transition; the comparatively lower numbers of victims of mass atrocity, at least by Latin American standards; the surge in crime that accompanied the transition to democratic rule; and the relative isolation of Brazil. We suggest, in consonance with Sikkink’s conclusions, a causal relationship between, on the one hand, this failure of accountability and, on the other, the incomplete support for democracy in Brazil, the continued severe human rights abuses in the country, and the legitimacy gap plaguing human rights defenders in Brazil today.

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