Confronting South America’s Violent Past: An Interview with Human Rights Scholar Dr Francesca Lessa

Image by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

By Clorrie Violet Yeomans

In this exclusive interview for Protocol Magazine, Oxford scholar Dr Francesca Lessa shares her two decades of experience researching human rights in Latin America. Lessa’s research focuses on accountability for past human rights violations and the politics behind these processes, which involve state, regional, and international actors, as well as civilian activists. She is currently a Departmental Lecturer in Latin American Studies and Development at the Oxford Department of International Development and the University of Oxford’s Latin American Centre.

MPhil candidate in Latin American Studies at Oxford University, Clorrie Yeomans, interviews Dr Francesca Lessa about her work on Operation Condor: a systematic plan of regional repression in Cold War South America. Lessa shares how her research, including her database and forthcoming book, aims to help combat impunity and restore justice today. The interview also reflects on the wider dangers of brushing the past under the rug.

How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I would introduce myself as a scholar-activist. I quite like this word because I believe, when it comes to human rights and issues of justice and accountability, it’s impossible to be impartial. In most cases, we are talking about extreme situations where people’s basic rights are being violated on a systematic basis usually by the state. The clear situation of injustice and abuse of power means that there is an activist element. I have always felt that my work was about revealing these situations of injustice and trying to find a way to improve the victims’ possibilities to access remedies for the past or present crimes they have suffered.

How do you deal with the ethical issues surrounding your research?

My research involves an abundance of ethical issues. I mainly work with victims of human rights violations and so the main concern is that the interview itself could turn into a situation of revictimisation. Generally, I try to ask very open questions so that the victims can choose what they share with me. For example, ‘why were you a political activist at the time?’. Of course, the darkest aspects of human rights violations are there but what interests me the most is the story of the person and why they became a political activist and a human rights activist afterwards.

In most cases, because many of the victims have since become human rights activists, they have had plenty of experience testifying either in trials or truth commissions. They have usually told this story many times before. However, some people may speak out for the first time and it’s much harder for them. In the case of South America, there is quite a significant time distance from these events. Most people, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, have had this previous experience of sharing their past militancy.

Now, with Covid-19, you have the additional element that, for these kind of personal topics, a remote interview would be a little bit uncomfortable. Doing it over a screen is far from ideal. On the other hand, most of the victims are in their sixties, seventies, or eighties and so they belong to the most vulnerable categories.

The second ethical issue is the risk to you as a researcher. Researching these topics that remain very sensitive in some countries can put you on the radar of some unpleasant people. Even when you think that you are going to a place that you know very well, it’s always good to look at all the possible risk scenarios because things can change very suddenly. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of our research. We think that people aren’t interested but sometimes they are, much more than we expect.

Another impact on the researcher is secondary trauma from listening to so many stories of people being tortured, abducted, and disappeared. Although you have not lived through the experience, the continuous listening to these very harrowing and heartbreaking stories can impact the researcher as well. We always feel that we can keep the distance but if you are doing prolonged fieldwork everyday, it’s tough. I remember when I was at the trials in Argentina, it really depended on the person’s testimony. Some people can really get to you and, even if after a year, when I thought I had heard everything I could possibly hear, there was still that testimony that really broke my heart. It’s something that never really goes away. These are difficult stories of human bravery but also human cruelty at the same time.

Would you like to debunk any myths surrounding the Cold War in Latin America?

There are very skewed narratives about the global Cold War and if we were in any of the formerly Russian-speaking countries, they would have a very different story to the one we tell in the West. Many aspects are presented as if it were a Cold War because there was no conflict, nothing really happened, and few people died. But, if you start digging under the surface of that narrative, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared, 9,000 to 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, 400 people were disappeared in Brazil and 20,000 were tortured through the Brazilian military justice system. Those are not wars in the traditional International-Relations sense of two armies or sides fighting each other like during World War One or World War Two. Here, we had states who imposed a very specific view of how society was supposed to be functioning and whoever opposed that view was targeted. In the case of South America, if you were a trade unionist or a student activist, or even a lawyer or journalist sometimes, that was enough for you to stand out as an internal enemy. Even though you weren’t part of an army, your ability to criticise the system was enough to get you killed or disappeared. I think this narrative of ‘there was no conflict’ must be nuanced. There was no conflict as in the sense of a WWI-or-WWII-style-conflict, but each country had an authoritarian regime that was murdering its own people and that’s problematic, too. Even in cases like Guatemala and El Salvador, where there were civil wars, we know from the subsequent truth commissions that it was never a balanced war. In reality, it was the state committing systematic human rights violations against civilians. So, the peaceful image of the Cold War that we are taught at school is erroneous.

So, even the name ‘Cold War’ itself is problematic…

Yes, because it’s in opposition to the ‘hot wars’ of WWI and WWII where you have these traditional conflicts. I also don’t like the alternative discourse which is the discourse of the ‘Dirty War’. In Argentina and Uruguay, there were armed groups but you cannot consider them as being on par with the state. So, the narrative of the ‘Dirty War’ is a discourse that comes from the National Security Doctrine, the School of the Americas, and the armed forces themselves. They were saying that ‘this is an unusual war because we don’t have armies. The enemy is not another country invading you, it’s your own people. So you don’t know who the enemy is and that’s why you need to torture people to get information and to see who your enemy is.’ They tried to legitimise these practices by using the language of war when, in fact, there was no war. Rather, it was the state systematically violating the rights of citizens. Although this narrative is very problematic, it remains very popular in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay among individuals who try to somehow justify the past human rights violations.

Do you think that the UK can learn something from Latin America’s experience of transitional justice?

Definitely. I saw in the news over the Summer that the UK Parliament was planning to issue a blanket amnesty for the crimes committed in Northern Ireland. I read an article by Louise Mallinder in which she argues that the amnesty that the UK government was planning to implement would have been worse than the amnesties in South America… and those amnesties were bad enough! I think that Latin America definitely has many lessons for the UK, the US, and many of the European countries that have done a relatively poor job at coming to terms with the past.

I think that Latin America exemplifies that you cannot brush the past under the rug. It will always come back to haunt you. Even though there have been ups and downs, the demand to know the truth and obtain justice is always there in Latin America. I don’t know how the amnesty plan ended up in the UK Parliament but it will not be a lasting solution. Latin America shows us that the solutions of amnesties could work for a short period of time but they are not long-term solutions. In Argentina and Uruguay, these laws have been derogated and now we have lots of criminal trials. In Chile, the law is still there but it’s being derogated in practice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been very clear that you can come up with any kind of legal tool that you like but you still have to investigate human rights violations. It’s very disappointing to see that, in 2021, the UK Parliament thought that a blanket amnesty might be the way forward in Northern Ireland.

The experience in Latin America shows that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to obtaining truth and justice. You can definitely be creative in your approach. For example, in Argentina they developed a kind of truth-trial which was a compromise between trials and truth commissions to try to access  information about the fate of the disappeared. There has been compensation paid to various groups including the stolen babies who are now adults. No one path exists. The challenge is that each society must come up with its own path, as long as it complies with all the international human rights standards.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your database on Operation Condor?

The database now has over 800 cases of victims of cross border human rights violations in South America between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The idea for the database came from three workshops I organised in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay on the issue of Operation Condor. One of the topics that was always debated was which cases of repression were part of domestic repression and which others were part of Operation Condor specifically. If you read about Condor, you can find anything from 50 victims to 100,000 victims. One of the challenges was defining which cases count as Condor. I invited survivors, human rights activists, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to these workshops to discuss this question.

Operation Condor was based on the exchange of information between countries looking for specific people living in exile. Sometimes, officers also travelled to another country to capture these people and take them back to their home country to kill them there. Since these cases can be quite complex, in Argentina, they originally said that all foreigners detained in Argentina were victims of Condor. When they then started looking at individual cases, they found, for example, a Paraguayan who had moved at two years old to Argentina. This individual had no connections to Paraguay and so it could not count as a transnational human rights violation.

By digging through all the stories, the experts came up with the following criteria. To count as Condor, the crime had to include a border crossing of information, foreign military officers, or deportees. I used these three criteria to build my database looking at all the information from previous research, truth commissions, and trials and going story by story. The database is not a finished product but I’d say that we have captured 80% of the cases. There are other cases that remain unreported since people are still very afraid.

Our aim was not to make categories of victims but to show how these states in South America really went the extra mile to expand their repression across borders. It shows an extra layer of sophistication in the repression through their communication systems, central headquarters in Buenos Aires, and hit squads operating in Paris against specific exiles. This also helps us to discredit the narrative of the Dirty War and ‘excesses’ because there was a plan throughout South America to tackle this Communist threat.

How has your database been used in practice?

So far, the database has been used by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a case of two Uruguayan brothers who were abducted with their parents and ended up going to Uruguay and being abandoned in Chile. They filed a petition to the Commission a few years ago. The Commission then used the database in their report to contextualise their case. When Argentina didn’t comply with the Commission’s requirements, the case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and there was a hearing in May this year. I presented a written piece showing very specifically the victims’ Uruguayan nationality and how members of their specific political party had been targeted. I highlighted how Argentina was also at the heart of this system as it was home to the headquarters of Operation Condor and the majority of South American exiles were living there.

Could you speak to us a little bit about your most recent publication?

I have just finished my next book called ‘The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America’. It’s tells both sides of this story of cross-border repression in South America. The first part of the book explains the transnational terror that was taking place throughout the region at the time. It focuses on Operation Condor, which is the most well-known component of this story. I also try to go beyond the narrative of Operation Condor because it did not appear out of the blue. I therefore begin my narrative a bit early than some of the other publications by showing how there were some conferences in the early XX [20th] century between the police forces in Latin America that were already sharing information about anarchists who had been migrating from Europe to South America. From there, we see a gradual evolution that becomes much more coordinated and consolidated as a very well-oiled system during the Cold War. I start each chapter with the story of a victim and I use this as a window through which to explain the different institutions behind their repression. It’s the voices of the victims that have enabled us to do our research because we have very few other sources, except for some archives. I therefore wanted to put the victims at the centre of the book.

The second part of the book is about justice. Justice is a reverse transnational effort because the crimes did not only occur in one place. We therefore needed Transnational Activist Networks (to use Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s term) to document testimonies, build archives, and file these cases. I focus on cases in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, but also Italy which was strategically used by some of the Uruguayan human rights activists when nothing was taking place in Uruguay. They used the European courts to access the justice that they didn’t have in Uruguay. This included some trials in Rome this year.

Find out more about Dr Francesca Lessa’s research:

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