January 14, 2016Back

What can Colombia learn from Argentina’s transitional processes?

The Columbian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) have agreed to the creation of an UN-backed truth and reconciliation commission. As Colombia’s people begin the challenging process of testifying, recording and acknowledging their county’s traumatic and violent history, important lessons can be learned from the country considered to be the pioneer of transitional justice – Argentina.

The trials of the Argentine military junta in 1985 were the first opportunity afforded to the victims of repression and the families of the disappeared to reveal, in an institutional setting, the harm they had suffered during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. The oral testimonials that were presented at the trials of the military commanders as well as those that were detailed in the book Nunca Más, were of great international and historical significance and radically influenced the course of international transitional justice. However, though 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of these trials, many Argentine individuals still personally grapple with many legacies of its violent past.

The dominant human rights discourse on transitional justice constitutes a mix of mutually coherent and reinforcing aims that seek to “make peace with” and “find closure” on a violent past. While political violence has both human rights and health implications, current approaches to the national reconciliation scenario have focused on a therapeutic model, whereby victims rather than perpetrators “are made the evidence of past atrocities” as well as “the vehicle for re-establishing state legitimacy post-dictatorship through individual and social healing” (Humphrey 2005: 204). With their victim-oriented focus and their restorative and reconciliatory discourses, transitional justice initiatives have thus been concerned mainly with the mitigation of the effects of traumatic experiences of survivors of mass violence. Despite their relevance and centrality to addressing historical injustices and suffering, the fragmented and disruptive memories of individuals who have experienced violence and loss are all too often displaced by the nation-building discourse found in transitioning democracies.

However, when we drill down deeply underneath individuals’ more formalised accounts, we are able to see how those mnemonic layers that are unconscious, inexpressible and uncontainable in language, can be lodged deeply within a survivor’s body and are prone to involuntary eruptions. Embodied memories of trauma assume a powerful presence in individuals’ lives, and prevent them from envisioning a future for themselves in which their individual and their nation’s past is safely left behind—contained and fixed in the past.

In having a discussion about justice, and the remembering and forgetting of violent pasts in transitional democracies, we must give due consideration to those irreconcilable and disruptive embodied memories that resist being co-opted into the particular paradigms of dealing with the past. Deep or embodied memories defy closure—or indeed any type of certainty. While we may wish to imagine that justice is the answer in societies grappling with the traumatic past, we are well advised to consider that no amount of public truth-telling can heal individuals’ deeply felt pain. Even when individuals affected by violence and loss manage to successfully seek justice as individuals and as part of various collectives, the psychological and physical pain provoked by deep memory will continue to be an irreducible part of their lives.

Photo by Jill Stockwell