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In contexts of impunity, where conflict, state repression and the colossal challenge of taking on powerful perpetrators offer no hope for transition, how can we expect accountability to be realized? In this four-part series, a range of scholars and practitioners share their insights on the internal workings of power, truth and justice, in situations where forecasting is difficult, and conflicts are ongoing. What does justice look like outside of state-endorsed institutional processes, be they national or international? How do these truth-seeking initiatives challenge hegemonic narratives?

Contributors examine contexts which tackle, head on, obstacles of impunity and denial, looking to understand how silenced but shared experiences of violence are transformed into public knowledge and acknowledgement. How and when does the fight against impunity open up an arena for action and change? Read on.

This conversation builds on an international workshop, "Truth telling and truth seeking in contexts of impunity", supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and TEPSIS Research Programme.

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Politics of Impunity

Politics of Impunity

This section considers how state violence is entangled within the geopolitics and micropolitics of impunity. It examines mechanisms of power and resistance that frame issues of justice and denial, both at local and international levels. Our contributors explore the grey zones of impunity and reflect on how they are experienced within the everyday. They remark on the structural effects of conflicts and economic crimes, and suggest why these dimensions are often overlooked or invisible in claims for justice.

Civil resistance and the geopolitics of impunity
Baltasar Garzón

The Spanish jurist who went after Pinochet reflects on the battle to unseat impunity in Chile and Argentina, and looks ahead to Spain's continued efforts to shake off its collective amnesia.

Guatemala prosecutes a president, but progress falters
Susan L. Kemp

Guatamala's conviction of former president Efraín Ríos Montt set a precedent for holding heads of state accountable, but the power structures of the country's military dictatorship remain in place.

Bringing CIA torture to justice
Andreas Schüller

In the courts and beyond, a global civil society has been fighting on multiple fronts to chip away at the impunity of the world's most powerful nation.

First do no harm: enforced sterilizations and gender justice in Peru
Kimberly Theidon

From 1996 to 2000 the Peruvian state subjected an estimated 270,000 women to enforced sterilizations. How did an architecture of impunity sanction large-scale sexual violence?

When truth goes to court: the shifting role of testimonies in post-conflict Peru
Martha Cecilia-Dietrich

For the indigenous peoples of Peru, speaking truth to power has proved a much more complex task 15 years after the end of its internal armed conflict.


People’s Tribunals

In situations of impunity, how do communities claim ownership of international law? From the need for justice to the emerging ‘right to truth’, people’s tribunals have emerged as spaces that fundamentally challenge the state and its hold over justice, while also providing fuller and more accurate historical accounts for silenced experiences of state crime. And while traditionally functioning as a response to historical accountability and truth, peoples’ tribunals also address urgent and unfolding cases of impunity.

People’s tribunals, and the roots of civil society justice
Richard Falk

Starting with the Russell Tribunal in 1967, civil society tribunals have emerged to fill the normative vacuum created by the stark hypocrises of international justice.

From punishment to acknowledgment: tribunals of opinion in contexts of impunity
Sévane Garibian

Civil society tribunals, though unofficial, provide new spaces that fundamentally contest the state and its hold over justice.

Searching for justice: the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal
Ustinia Dolgopol

Justice for sexual crimes in wartime still remains elusive for many survivors, but it's never too late. 

The Iran Tribunal: defying international silence
Pardis Shafafi

Survivors of the Islamic Republic of Iran's brutal violence towards its opposition wanted acknowledgement that their situation was not simply ‘unseen’ but had been actively ignored.

The people’s permanent tribunal in Mexico: taking on structural violence
Tatiana Coll

While more than 300 civil society groups presented evidence of structural violence against labour rights and education, the tragic events in Ayotzinapa were unfolding almost simultaneously.


¡Basta Ya!: Civil Society Protests and Activism

Struggles for justice through protests, activism and potent campaigns can directly confront state impunity and challenge the role of powerful perpetrators. How have demands for state accountability and justice been transformed into specific civil society movements in different parts of the world?

Theatre as justice: the fight for accountability in the streets of Mexico
José Carlos Hesles

Neither inside nor outside the law, street trials and popular justice have emerged as sites of social resistance to make visible the utter absence of an independent judiciary.

Speak Out on Poverty: impunity, inaudibility and structural violence
Nicky Rousseau

This set of little-known hearings after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission took a wider appreciation of apartheid violence and the incredible tensions released in the new terrain of political transition.

Justice, morality and exclusion: the case of the Roma in Finland
Raluca Bianca Roman

‘Culture’ appears to be both an easy way in and out of understanding the complexity of the ‘moral’ and the ‘just’ among minority or excluded groups.

Challenging the Syrian state: using information systems to document human-rights violations
Ali Ali

How modes of resistance to document state-sanctioned violence changed after the uprising.

Documenting the perpetrators amongst the people
Shadi Sadr

A databank documenting human-rights violations in Iran by naming and shaming the perpetrators offers the opportunity to break through state-wide impunity.


Violence and Silence

The fight against impunity is linked to a space of justice, but we can’t restrict our understanding to legal imperatives, architectures and instruments. Impunity is also shaped by situations of denial which are deeply rooted within the social body, involving cultures of silence and ideological framing. The relationship between state violence, consent and the crafting of silence is a complex and multidimensional one.

The wounds of Baghdad's Frankenstein
Omar Dewachi

Ahmed al-Sa'dawi's novel, rather than reconciling the complexities of violence in Iraq, seeks to exorcise the demons that haunt the lives of ordinary people left with wounds from decades of imperial brutality.

Aziz's notebook: transmitting the memory of violence
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet and Chowra Makaremi

A granddaughter discovers her grandfather's notebook years after the political massacres that stole her mother and aunt. Beginning as a testimony of loss, it becomes an obsession to leave a trace against silence and denial.

'Parrhesia': the radical destruction of impunity
Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi

What does it actually mean to speak truth to power? In his final two lectures, Michel Foucault discussed the risk involved and the courage required, far from the conventional bureaucratic techniques used today to fight impunity.

Hidden in plain sight: children born of wartime sexual violence
Kimberly Theidon

Abortions and infanticide are phenomena widely reported in post-conflict settings. In Peru, women narrated the familial and communal consequences of the internal-armed conflict and became bearers of collective history.

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