Most of the countries of Latin America lived
through violent and
repressive regimes from the late 60s to the early 80s. These regimes
were marked by widespread human rights violations, including torture,
kidnapping and the murder and "disappearance" of thousands of persons.
In the turmoil and uncertainty that led to the transitions back to
democracy, many times the question of justice for the victims of the
prior regime was left unanswered, or answered in favor of impunity.
But the issue will not go away. In the courts of Argentina and Chile, in the streets of Guatemala, in newspapers across the region, the question is still being debated: Should the perpetrators of these atrocities be punished? Are democratic stability, reconciliation and national unity incompatible with justice for the victims of the prior regime? What mechanisms are available for seeking out the truth, exposing the violations, and restoring the victims' right to justice?
The courts are an integral part of the answer to these questions. But truth and reconciliation commissions might be an alternative. Some countries have gone further than others down the path to judicial accountability. What obligations do current governments owe the victims of the human rights violations of prior governments? And what are the factors that permit some countries and not others to produce effective transitional justice mechanisms?