Intercultural Human Rights Law Review

First Page



The case of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo has been extensively discussed, but most commentators focus on two aspects: its "uniqueness," and its "meaningful participation" in the transitional justice process. This paper challenges the traditional commentary by concentrating on the complexity of the Grandmother's experience and its potential to be replicated by other victims' organizations in other parts of the globe. The paper also proposes replacing the traditional goal of "meaningful participation" - focused on a victim-centered or victim-oriented perspective - by means of a victim-driven approach. To do this, the article analyzes the success of the Grandmothers by showing their independent work during a variety of political circumstances at the national level. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) is a non-governmental organization (NGO), created in 1977 in Argentina. Its organization works to locate children who were kidnapped during the last dictatorship and restore them to their proper families. The Grandmothers' actions have reinforced and advanced the achievements of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence during their forty years of work, strengthening the Argentinean transitional justice process. While the case of the Grandmothers has been extensively reviewed, most observers focus on two aspects: its "uniqueness," and the "meaningful participation" of the organization in the transnational justice process. Characterizing the case as "unique" reinforces an idealization that fails to acknowledge the struggles and challenges that the group members of the Grandmothers have endured. Thus, it obstructs the possibility of replicating their experience in other contexts. On the other hand, the description of the case as an ideal example of "meaningful participation" allows to contrast the Grandmothers' experience with the great majority of the cases in which victims were used as a tool for governmental legitimization, without an actual role in the decision-making process. However, this ideal characterization of the organization based on its "meaningful participation" tends to re-affirm the conventional wisdom that the success of victims' experience should be measured by their intervention in public policies run by the government or by international organizations. This article challenges both the "uniqueness" characterization and the "meaningful participation" thesis. Instead of focusing on a homogenous and idealized narrative of the Grandmothers' participation, it concentrates on the complexity of the Grandmothers' experience, digging into those aspects that have the potential to be replicated by other victims' rights organizations in other parts of the globe. The study analyzes nearly forty years of the Grandmothers' struggle, and how their organization, strategies, and input varied depending on the political circumstances at the national level. At the same time, the article suggests that achieving "meaningful participation" by the victims may not be an achievable ideal in the first place. The countries and regions that are traversing transitional justice processes are particularly vulnerable to political change and socio-economic instability. As a result, even if a certain regime is willing to give the victims a clear voice in the process, this participation is constrained by the success and continuity of that regime. Victims' actions end up being uncertain, and vulnerable to changes in public policy or fluctuating political alignments. The ideal of participation implies a problematic auxiliary role in a public policy that is run by others (e.g. the government, local judiciary, international organizations or international courts). The goal of "meaningful participation," even if temporarily feasible, therefore perpetuates the victims' submissive role in relation to the political leadership of the moment.8 In short, this article proposes that the empowerment of the victims as an end in itself and as a path to reinforce the transitional justice process should not rest on a victim-centered approach, but on what can be called a victim-driven approach. Following this logic, the article proposes that the cause of the Grandmothers' success may be their lack of "meaningful participation" in the transitional justice process and their development of an independent agenda that sustain them throughout different political circumstances. It is not a case of participation, but rather of the leadership of public policy. The Grandmothers were not just a group of relevant individuals who were heard and considered in an official process; they provoked national and international recognition of these crimes, even under the dictatorship. Despite this challenging context, the Grandmothers denounced impunity, conducted fact-finding that was the core of later investigations to restore the abducted children and prosecute members of the dictatorship, and they led a cultural shift to avoid recurrence. As Sikkink highlights: "other countries experienced repression as great as or greater than that in Argentina and did not put forth the same vibrant response from both civil society and governmental actors [...] In Argentina, social movements not only took advantage of existing opportunity structures but also helped create them at both the domestic and the international levels. Mdndez reinforces: "[...] in Argentina, the inherent force of the idea of accountability has resulted in magnificent efforts by civil society to document past violations and to rescue the memory of the victims from oblivion." In short, the article focuses on deconstructing the characterization of the Grandmothers as "unique", and on the development of a victim-driven approach to help reinforce the experience of this organization as a guide for many others. To achieve this, the research is structured in five sections that develop a historical analysis to show how the Grandmothers drove the transitional justice process along the different political regimes. Part II explores the experience of the Grandmothers during the civil-military dictatorship (1976-1983). The article explores which were the characteristics of the group in its initial configuration and queries if they were unique or susceptible of being replicated. The proposed thesis is that the independent and victim-driven agenda of the Grandmothers during this period was centered on their claims for truth by means of international denunciation, regardless the governmental harassment against them. Part III focuses on the Grandmothers' struggle during the 'fragmented transitional process' into a democratic regime (1983-1989). This period was led by Raul Ricardo Alfonsin, in which democracy was unstable and vulnerable to the still-powerful military forces. Then, the Grandmothers supported official decisions such as the creation of the truth commission and the trial against the dictatorship's leaders. However, they preserved their own work in the search of their Grandchildren. They also joined forces with other victims' organizations to vigorously reject official measures that limited the criminal responsibility of those who perpetrated human rights violations during the dictatorship. Part IV centers on the Grandmothers' battles during the years of "impunity" (1989-2003), when the democratic regime was more stable, but President Carlos Menem promoted impunity policies and only concentrated on reparations for the victims. At this time, the Grandmothers kept on working with other victims' organizations and with the civil society intensifying their complaints against the government. However, the Grandmothers also preserved their independent efforts in the transitional justice process that were now concentrated on a judicial strategy. Part V explores the Grandmothers' work during the years that may be described as "human rights' recognition" (2003-2015). These years correspond to the Kirchner government, which acknowledged the past human right violations and encouraged the four transitional justice measures: truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of nonrecurrence. For the first time, the Grandmothers decided to openly support a government, even though they preserved their agenda with a focus on the trials as well as political and cultural activities to ensure the non-recurrence. Part VI analyzes the Grandmothers' activity in the framework of a government that is undermining the transitional justice process, in what might be called "a step back in human rights policies." This moment is particularly interesting because the Grandmothers' opposition to the present government differs from the opposition held in earlier periods. The current Grandmothers' opposition to the government rests on more solid political statements and on the defense of a broader agenda in terms of human rights violations. It is possible that this change comes as a result of the Grandmothers' forty years of experience and their politicization during the former government. Besides their claims against the present government, the Grandmothers preserve their self-determining agenda, which now is concentrated in the continuation of the organization through their restituted grandchildren. In each of the mentioned parts, the article distinguishes the actions, struggles, and contributions of the Grandmothers to enforce the four components of the transitional justice process (the pursuit of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence), following the analysis and methodology of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence (U.N. Special Rapporteur). Particularly in relation to guarantees of non-recurrence, the article addresses the different forms that were established in the "Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law" (The Basic Principles) as doing so demonstrates a perspective that avoids centering this aspect of transitional justice only on the vetting process, and enriches the discussion with the contributions of the Grandmothers to legislative changes and cultural transformation. The final part of the paper offers reflections and suggests that the historical analysis of the Grandmothers' experience might serve as an enriching reference for other victims' organizations, always taking care to respect local particularities.'

Included in

Law Commons