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Topic / Fairness and Justice

Storytelling in Post-conflict Argentina: How Keeping Memories Alive Can Bring about Justice

Their symbol: a white headscarf. Their weapon: a list of names spoken aloud. Their mission: to keep the memory of their children, “disappeared” by the Argentine military junta four decades ago, alive in the memory of modern-day Argentina and beyond. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of May Plaza), many now in their 70s and 80s, march in front of the presidential building in Buenos Aires every Thursday afternoon, rain or shine. Together, they refuse to let time wash away the blood on the hands of the former military dictatorship.

The impact of these mamás and abuelas is more than symbolic. They are a critical force in the search for justice after violence. Their weekly demonstration is part of Argentina’s larger reckoning with the state-sponsored terror that destroyed the lives of thousands in the 1970s and 1980s. This article will examine transitional justice within Argentina and offer consideration points for policy makers working in other countries in transition. Constant agitation and grassroots movements, like Las Madres, are important not only because they shape the historical narrative around state violence but because they have the power to force formal justice to be set in motion, as in Argentina. Similar participation ought to be fostered in other contexts of transitional justice.

Storytelling and Transitional Justice

Transitional justice is the process a state undertakes to restore peace, build respect for the rule of law, and hold perpetrators of violence accountable after experiencing a large-scale, internal conflict beyond what a traditional national judicial system can effectively handle. Countries experiencing such a transition are often socially, politically, and judicially fragile, requiring a level of attention and expertise that extends beyond the ability and mandate of national judicial systems.

Storytelling plays a powerful role in the context of transitional justice. In a country transitioning from a period of violence, storytelling allows other people inside and outside of the affected community to access past events. Practically, storytelling legitimizes official findings and reports published by state or international parties. Throughout these processes, a significant amount of the evidence collected to create the reports is oral testimony, often serving as the backbone of such reports. Additionally, testimony in investigations, trials, and commissions help the government hold perpetrators of violence accountable. On a national policy level, these framings inform policy makers about what laws to enact to punish perpetrators, strengthen social cohesion, and bolster the state’s ability to prevent similar events from happening again. Collectively, these processes empower previously subjugated populations by prioritizing their perspective.[1]

However, informal storytelling—such as personal narratives, local memory campaigns, and art—is just as important for the empowerment of targeted communities. Collecting testimony from affected groups gives these populations an opportunity to play a role in the narrative shaped after the conflict. These “consensus narratives” help communities unravel complicated questions about what happened and where responsibility lies,[2] enabling communities to pursue education campaigns and determine how future generations will learn about violence and abuses.[3]

This memory-centered approach has gained significant popularity among international peacemaking organizations in the last few decades.[4] Non-institutional transitional justice efforts implemented in Argentina and beyond are particularly important for post-conflict societies. These informal channels include the production of books, documentaries, art, and poetry. The accountability and empowerment characteristic of more formal and institutional transitional justice mechanisms can be similarly achieved when victims employ these informal efforts, as their “individual suffering [is translated] into human rights claims as resistance to dictatorship.”[5] The benefits of storytelling are made especially powerful by the expressive, real, and moving nature of artistic and literary works.

Argentina: A Case Study  

The Argentine state and its citizens mobilized both informal and formal channels of reckoning during the stop-and-start search for justice after the fall of the Argentine military junta in 1983.[6] The state-sponsored violence and repressive regime that controlled Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s took place in the context of a greater Latin American trend toward despotic regimes, military-backed coups d’état, and human rights violations. Within Argentina, this manifested in the installment of General Jorge Rafael Videla after a series of military coups. At his direction, the government established the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganization Process) to root out Communist political ideology and destroy the “enemy within.”[7] This conservative state used forced disappearances, torture, murder, the dumping bodies in mass graves and open bodies of water, and facilitation of illegal adoptions to achieve its mission. Although exact numbers are contested, between 10,000 and 30,000 people were disappeared by the Argentine state.[8]

After the fall of the military regime, Argentine citizens pushed to document these atrocities and participate in the search for justice. Through both formal and informal channels, the people exposed and published the misdeeds of the state. Formally, the National Commission on the Disappeared launched an official investigation into the human rights abuses that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, with over 1,400 depositions taken from those affected in Argentina, and the result was the issuance of the Nunca Más report in 1984.[9] Following Nunca Más, formal trials began, and hundreds of witnesses testified.

When the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws of 1986 and 1987 put a stop to all prosecutions and provided amnesty to perpetrators of violence, informal storytelling efforts compelled the government to resume prosecution. After new details of crimes were unearthed, a great deal of social pressure from inside and outside of Argentina resulted in the pursuit of juicios por la verdad (truth trials),[10] the eventual annulment of the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws in 2003, and the resumption of trials. Top military officials and general Videla have since been tried and sentenced as a result.

Informal storytelling was critical to securing these prosecutions. Las Madres stood out among these grassroots efforts. This group of mothers peacefully demonstrated in front of the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House, every Thursday before the fall of the dictatorship. During the dictatorship, the mamás demanded information about their children’s whereabouts and denounced the indefinite and secret detention of suspects by the government. The demonstrations continued during the restoration of democracy, the pardoning of human rights abusers, and the eventual resumption of trials. They continue their efforts today.

Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence (HIJOS), a network of the children of those disappeared by the military junta, pursued less peaceful avenues. This group was well known for the practice of escrache, a demonstration that intended to out human rights abusers to their communities and publicly humiliate them, seizing an opportunity for extrajudicial justice when formal judicial avenues were no longer an option. Both Las Madres and HIJOS are examples of the high levels of grassroots social engagement.

Written works were also an important part of the transitional process. A well-known example is the testimony of Alicia Partnoy, a woman tortured by the military junta. In her book The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, Partnoy details her time in a state detention center, describing the torture and horrific living conditions she and other prisoners experienced. She stated, “By publishing these stories I feel [the voices of my friends at the Little School] will not pass unheard . . . I pay tribute to a generation of Argentines lost in an attempt to bring social change and justice.”[11]

On a macro level, these informal and formal justice efforts kept the collective memory of the regime’s violence alive in Argentine society. This ensured the continual resurgence of formal justice efforts to pursue accountability over two decades as judicial recourse was unavailable for many years. Additionally, Argentina was and is committed to publicly commemorating those targeted by the state with an annual day of remembrance, educational campaigns, and public spaces and monuments. On a grassroots level, social engagement groups like HIJOS and Las Madres grappled publicly with the planning and creation of these various memorials and monuments and consistently pushed for accountability and the eventual resumption of trials. Creative projects such as documentaries, art, and literature ensure that the past is a continual part of the present.

Lessons from Argentina

Las Madres and the continuation of storytelling in Argentina ensure that societies honor the pledge to never forget what happened by continuing discourse, seeking formal justice to the greatest extent possible, and pursuing informal measures—especially when no judicial recourse is available. While Argentina has not had a perfect transitional justice experience, they have been successful from a judicial and social standpoint. The eventual repeal of the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws and the restart of trials ensured that prominent figures of the Videla regime were held accountable for their part in the atrocities. To this day, the state-sponsored violence suffered in the 1970s and 1980s is still very much a part of the cultural imagination of Argentina. Notably, all of this was achieved while democracy was preserved. In this sense, Argentina’s experience can and should serve as an example to other societies in transition, especially the grassroots involvement in the transitional justice process.

The high level of grassroots participation we saw in Argentina’s transition was organic and began even before the official collapse of the military regime in the early 1980s. This local buy-in was critical to eventual judicial accountability for aggressors and to the formation of a consensus history. As each conflict and transition is different, the circumstances of Argentina will not be exactly paralleled in other cases. However, it is critical to focus on the constant agitation and grassroots movement that eventually forced formal justice mechanisms to be set in motion and to think about how similar participation can be fostered in other cases.

One potential direction for mobilizing grassroots social organization is using art as a tool of transitional justice.[12] The democratization of memory, the ability to involve large numbers of the affected population, and the storytelling component are all aspects of art that mirror successful aspects of the Argentine transitional justice process. In the case of Argentina, individual participatory art efforts, such as biographical and creative writing pursuits and artworks, and large-scale social efforts like Parque de la Memoria (Memory Park) served as creative outlets for survivors and victims’ families, preserved memory, and maintained momentum for the pursuit of justice.

Whereas scholar Antonius Robben believes the disagreement over details of past events in Argentina persists because of unresolved social trauma, leading to cyclical reliving of trauma and “chronic mourning,” there is more to it.[13] Storytelling allows individuals to pursue formal avenues of transitional justice to the furthest extent possible and shows a refusal to allow the wounds inflicted by the military junta to heal.[14] Thus, this constant remembrance is a conscious decision on the part of Argentines, not a passive “compulsive re-experiencing.”[15] As for the open wound, Robben himself recognizes that some activist groups, especially Las Madres, serve as a form of remembrance, rooting themselves in the “disappeared” label attached to thousands of state terror victims who have never been found.[16] It is this perpetual grassroots commitment to remembrance that ultimately enabled the resumption of trials and formal judicial recourse. Policy makers working in countries in transition may dismiss art and grassroots organizing as secondary to formal methods of justice. However, as the case of Argentina demonstrates, grassroots organizations play a central role in democratizing historical memory and, subsequently, holding perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions.

As Hebe Pavello de Mascia, an early activist of Las Madres, said, “Becoming aware of all the terrible things the young people were enduring made us see the ferociousness of the enemy clearly. The ferocity of the enemy gives us the strength to face him.”[17]

Edited by: Nusheen Ameenuddin

Photo by: Secretaría de Cultura de la Nación, Flickr

[1] In the event that there are atrocities committed by multiple sides, this line becomes much hazier because privileging the narrative of the victim may not result in a clear determination of accountability. That said, it is possible to collect testimony and memory from all sides of a conflict that have been victimized, still empowering those communities. However, more research would need to be carried out to determine the best way to address privileging narratives in a post-conflict society with a diverse range of victim groups.

[2] Robert K. Ame and Seidu M. Alidu, “Truth and reconciliation commissions, restorative justice, peacemaking criminology, and development,” A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society 23, no. 3 (2010): 253–68.

[3] Johan Galtung, Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work (London: Pluto Press, 2004), viii.

[4] Chris Andrews and Matt McGuire, eds., Post-Conflict Literature: Human Rights, Peace, and Justice, First Edition (New York: Routledge, 2016), 30.

[5] Andrews and McGuire, Post-Conflict Literature, 130.

[6] It is not within the scope of this article to consider in depth the formal judicial reckoning that took place in the 1990s, early 2000s, and early 2010s in Argentina due to limited space and the inherent complexity of Argentine law as it relates to this topic.

[7] Valeria Manzano, “Sex, Gender and the Making of the ‘Enemy Within’ in Cold War Argentina,” Journal of Latin American Studies 47, no. 1 (2015): 1–29.

[8] Argentina Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, Nunca Más: Informe de la Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, (Eudeba, 1984),

[9] Argentina Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, Nunca Más, 428–37.

[10] For a critical examination of these trials, see Enrique Andriotti Romanin, “Decir la verdad, hacer justicia: Los Juicios por la Verdad en Argentina,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, no. 94 (2013): 5–23.

[11] Alicia Partnoy, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998), 18–9.

[12] There is a growing literature examining the connection between art and transitional justice. See Eliza Garnsey, “Rewinding and Unwinding: Art and Justice in Times of Political Transition,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 10, no. 3 (2016): 471–91; Sanja Bahun, “Transitional Justice and the Arts: Reflections on the Field,” in Theorizing Transitional Justice, eds. Claudio Corradetti, Nir Eisikovits, and Jack Volpe Rotondi (New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2015), 185–98.

[13] Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “How Traumatized Societies Remember: The Aftermath of Argentina’s Dirty War,” Cultural Critique, no. 59 (2005): 120–64.

[14] Vikki Bell and Mario di Paolantonio, “The Haunted Nomos: Activist-Artists and the (Im)possible Politics of Memory in Transitional Argentina,” Cultural Politics 5, no. 2 (2009): 149–78.

[15] Robben, “How Traumatized Societies Remember,” 140.

[16] Robben, “How Traumatized Societies Remember,” 144.

[17] Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), 151.