Argentina and the Struggle for International Human Rights

From Pariah State to Global Protagonist: Argentina and the Struggle for International Human Rights

Sikkink, Kathryn


Democratizing states began in the 1980s to hold individuals, including past heads of state, accountable for human rights violations. The 1984 Argentine truth commission report (Nunca Más) and the 1985 trials of the juntas helped to initiate this trend. Argentina also developed other justice-seeking mechanisms, including the first groups of mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, the first human rights forensic anthropology team, and the first truth trials. Argentines helped to define the very term forced disappearance and to develop regional and international instruments to end the practice. Argentina thus illustrates the potential for global human rights protagonism and diffusion of ideas from a country outside the wealthy North. This article surveys Argentina’s innovations and proposes possible explanations, drawing on theoretical studies from transitional justice, social movements, and norms cascades in international relations.

The year 2005 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Argentine trials of the military juntas for human rights abuses during the military regime of 1976-83- The anniversary passed relatively unnoticed around the world. But it deserves more attention, for the trials marked the beginning of an important new development, not just in Latin America but globally. Since the 1980s, democratizing states throughout the world have begun to hold individuals, including past heads of state, accountable for human rights violations. This trend is what Lutz and Sikkink (2001) call the “justice cascade”-a rapid shift toward new norms and practices that provide more accountability for human rights violations. Argentine human rights activists were not just passive recipients of this justice cascade but instigators of multiple new human rights tactics and transitional justice mechanisms, including the trials of the juntas and the 1984 truth commission. The Argentine case illustrates the potential for important global human rights protagonism in the creation of new international norms and practices from a country outside the wealthy global North-something not recognized by most of the international relations literature-and provides material with which to begin to theorize the conditions under which such protagonism can occur.

The truth commission and the trials are only two examples of a much broader protagonism both by Argentine human rights activists and by members of various branches of the Argentine government. Recent manifestations of this ongoing protagonism include the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the amnesty laws unconstitutional, and foreign ministry officials’ deep involvement in the creation of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

There is a huge literature on human rights in Argentina, the human rights movement there, and governmental and societal responses to repression. It includes many first-person accounts, as well as excellent scholarly literature across a range of disciplines.1 Drawing on this literature and on the author’s own primary research over the years, this article makes two arguments, which have not been completely spelled out in earlier work.2 First, it argues that Argentina was the source of an unusually high level of human rights innovation and protagonism. second, these innovations have been diffused broadly, especially in the Latin American region but also in other parts of the world. Argentina has been an “exporter” of human rights tactics, ideas, and experts. One might say that this is a sad legacy indeed, the inevitable product of the massive repression of the military regime. But 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.

The aim here is not to glorify or to romanticize the Argentine human rights movement or the Argentine government, or to imply that human rights problems have been resolved in Argentina. The reports of human rights organizations there detail the many ongoing human rights issues in the country (see, e.g., CELS 2005). Some have suggested that the government’s focus on the crimes of the past allows it to avoid dealing with current human rights problems (La Nación 2006). Even so, when we situate Argentina in a regional and global human rights context, its many innovations stand out and demand some kind of explanation. This article provides a concise history of Argentine human rights innovations, situates these innovations in a global context, and makes a preliminary effort to explain why Argentina played this role. It focuses on the explanation for Argentine innovation, rather than on the processes or mechanisms of diffusion to other countries.

Social movement theorists increasingly understand that social movements work within both a domestic and an international political opportunity structure. Political opportunity structures are consistent dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives and constraints for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations of success or failure (Tarrow 1998). 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.

Before 1976, a genuine international or regional human rights regime did not yet exist. But in that year the basic human rights treaties, the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), entered into force, and the UN Human Rights Committee was set up to receive government reports and communications on compliance with the covenants. The regional human rights treaty, the American Convention of Human Rights, entered into force in 1978. But in both the international and regional cases, the legal and institutional framework was still quite inert. It existed as a possibility, but its potential was not yet actualized or set in motion. Activists from countries like Argentina and Chile, with the support of state and NGO allies, mainly from Europe and the United States, were crucial in using the potential in these institutions and thus transforming them from potential into actual mechanisms of human rights change.


The concise history of Argentine human rights innovations will be explored in three time periods or phases: social movement innovations during the military dictatorship, 1976-83; the key governmental initiatives taken during the Raúl Alfonsín administration, and especially the truth commission and the trials of the juntas (1983-89); and societal and governmental innovations during the subsequent democratic period (1990-2006). It is beyond the scope of this article, however, to cover the entire realm of “memory work,” including museums, oral history archives, art, literature, and so on, or the question of reparations, in which Argentines have also displayed immense protagonism (Jelin 2003; Guembe 2006; Acuña 2006).

Phase 1: The Military Regime, 1976-1983

The military coup that brought General Jorge Videla to power in 1976 was preceded by an upsurge in activities by right-wing death squads and left-wing guerrilla movements (Novaro and Palermo 2003). Once in power, the military government initiated a program of brutal repression of the opposition, including mass kidnappings, imprisonment without charges, torture, and murder. The Argentine truth commission, called the National Commission on Disappearances (hereafter CONADEP), documented almost nine thousand deaths and disappearances in Argentina during the period 1975-83 (CONADEP 1984). Human rights organizations, moreover, have consistently used higher estimates. The great bulk of these murders took place during a relatively short period in 1976 and 1977. Most of the “disappeared” were eventually murdered, and their bodies buried in unmarked mass graves, incinerated, or thrown into the sea (CONADEP, 1984).

This massive and systematic use of disappearances was itself a repressive “innovation” by the Argentine armed forces. Other regimes had practiced “disappearances,” but the Argentine military developed a well-organized system to “disappear” very large numbers of people. Other repressive practices of the Argentine military regime were also frighteningly novel, like that of taking babies from disappeared women, falsifying their identities, and placing them for adoption in families friendly to the regime. Argentine social movements formed in response to this repression and eventually met these repressive practices with tactical innovations of their own.

The first group of mothers of disappeared people was formed in Argentina in 1977. Chilean and Argentine human rights organizations had already created “family groups” (familiares), set up by families of human rights victims, but Argentina also developed the distinctive groups of mothers and, later, grandmothers (Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo). These human rights movements focused particularly on the biological family (especially relations between mother and child). The Argentine military government used the language of the traditional family as one of its central metaphors. The nuclear family was also the key image of the discourse and practices of the Argentine human rights movement (Jelin 2004). Perhaps for these reasons, Argentine human rights organizations were the innovators of this particular form of organizing. Women played a central role in the human rights movement in Argentina (Navarro 1989). Alvarez (1990) argues that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was the most visible women’s group in Argentina during the Argentine transition process.

Over time, this maternal model of human rights activism was heralded globally and diffused broadly, both via human rights networks and, in particular, via some feminist networks, especially in Europe. Since 1977, groups of mothers of the disappeared have formed in more than a dozen other countries, and many of these groups recognize the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo as a key inspiration.3 The Madres and Abuelas also helped to found a regional association, the Latin American Federation of Families of the Disappeared (FEDEFAM), which became a model for a similar Asian association, the Asian Federation Against Disappearances.

Along with the groups of mothers and grandmothers, a very broad and diverse set of human rights groups developed in Argentina, including groups such as the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, and Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) (Mignone 1991; Brysk 1994). These groups had different memberships, strategies and tactics, styles of work, and relations with other political and social groups in Argentina. Although they often collaborated, they also disagreed about many aspects of human rights work in Argentina. Therefore, although this article often refers in general to human rights activists in Argentina, it is important to underscore the multiplicity and diversity of the human rights movement there.

These groups sought to name and identify the very phenomena of forced disappearances. The word disappeared used in this way did not exist at that time in the human rights vocabulary. Human rights leaders in Argentina, especially Emilio Mignone, one of the founders of CELS, were first responsible for naming, identifying, and denouncing the systematic practice of forced disappearance (.desaparicion forzada), or what they called detenidos-desaparecidos (the detained-disappeared). These Argentine groups would later play a crucial role in drafting first the declarations against forced disappearances and later the regional and international conventions on the issue (Mignone 1991; La desaparicion forzada como crimen 1988).

Argentine human rights activists were especially involved in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR produced its first major country report based on a visit to Argentina in 1979Argentine human rights activists worked closely with the IACHR to provide testimony for this pathbreaking report. Likewise, when the Argentine government, with the support of the then-Soviet Union, blocked demands for country-specific actions within the UN Commission on Human Rights, Argentine activists and their allies helped create the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in 1980, the first such thematic procedural mechanism. Such a mechanism would later become a staple of UN human rights activity (Guest 1990). Essentially, these groups took a situation in which both domestic and international institutions were closed to them and converted it into a situation in which at least some international and regional political opportunities were more open to their demands.

Phase 2: The Alfonsin Government (1983-1989)

After the elected government of Raul Alfonsin came to office in 1983, it took a series of key steps to establish transitional justice. The terms truth commission or transitional justice, which we use so frequently today, were not yet part of the ordinary lexicon. Argentine groups and leaders were essentially improvising new tactics and institutional forms that later would be named truth commissions or processes of transitional justice. Today, large NGOs like the International Center for Transitional Justice, set up in 2001, have websites, along with manuals and software to share with transitional governments, activists, and scholars. Although volumes of academic writing now document the successes and failures of different transitional justice tactics, the first academic discussion of the category “truth commission” did not occur until 1994.4 But in 1983, when Argentina adopted its commission on disappearances, none of this existed.

The first recommendation of trials for those responsible for human rights violations in Argentina appeared in the special report on Argentina of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published in 1980 (IACHR 1980). Human rights organizations also began to call for trials. Before the transition in 1983, the demand for “trials and punishment for all those guilty of human rights violations” (juicio y castigo a todos los culpables) became both a slogan and an overwhelming demand of the human rights movement in Argentina. But although groups agreed about the demand for justice, it was not clear exactly what justice and punishment meant or should mean (Jelin 1995).

Whatever the human rights movement meant by justice and punishment, the Alfonsin government had more limited and constrained aspirations. During his electoral campaign, Alfonsin had committed himself to seek justice for human rights violations, but he had to balance that commitment with the desire to integrate the armed forces into the democratic polity and prevent future military coups. The transitional justice mechanisms that eventually emerged during the Alfonsin government were the result of interactions of the human rights movement, the government, and the political opposition, each engaged in forms of improvisation in this uncharted realm. According to Landi and Gonzalez Bombal, the treatment of human rights violations in Argentina during this period “was a process with a life of its own, the course and results of which escaped the calculations and desires of each of the actors directly involved” (1995, 163, translation by author).

As the first step, in 1983, the Alfonsin government sent a package of legislation to Congress calling for the repeal of the self-amnesty that the military government had passed before the elections, and mandating the trial of the members of the first three military juntas (Acuña and Smulovitz 1997). Thus, immediately, the Argentine government managed to overcome a hurdle that had stymied transitional justice in other countries, the constraint to respect the amnesty laws passed by the military regimes.

Also in 1983, by executive decree, Alfonsin established the truth commission, CONADEP. The CONADEP report, Nunca Mas, published in 1984, was the first published truth commission report.5 The title has since become a slogan and a symbol of the transitional justice movement. In her study of truth commissions, Hayner (2001) identifies two commissions that preceded the Argentine commission: Uganda (1974) and Bolivia (1982). In practice, however, neither of these commissions issued a published final report, and neither had a public impact even approaching that of the CONADEP report. In this sense, one can consider the Argentine Nunca Mas report as the one that launched the global trend in truth commissions, as Hayner (1994) recognizes.

The Argentine human rights movement would have preferred a bicameral parliamentary commission with the power to subpoena testimony, but eventually most members of the human rights movement collaborated with CONADEP, providing voluminous documentation (Crenzel 2006).

The Alfonsín government had originally planned to give the armed forces sole jurisdiction to prosecute military personnel for human rights violations and then to pardon those sentenced before the end of the administration. But when the government presented its military reform bill to Congress, the opposition added various provisions that hampered the government’s ability to limit the scope of trials, including a provision for the mandatory appeal of these human rights cases to a civilian appeals court (Acuña and Smulovitz 1997). When the armed forces failed to make even a minimum good faith attempt at prosecution, the trials were therefore transferred to a civilian court. The trial of the nine commanders-in-chief who had been members of the three military juntas that ruled Argentina during the dictatorship was as pathbreaking as the truth commission had been. It lasted almost an entire year in 1985, was attended by large numbers of the public and the press, and produced a vast historical record.6

No previous trials of the leaders of authoritarian regimes for human rights violations during their governments had ever been held in Latin America. The Bolivian Congress initiated accountability trials against high-ranking members of the military government of General Luis Garcia Meza in 1984, but the trials occurred after those in Argentina (Mayorga 1997). Globally, if we focus on countries that have held their own leaders responsible for past human rights violations, the only precedents to the Argentine trials of the juntas were some of the successor trials following World War II and the trials of the colonels in 1974 in Greece. In this sense, just as the Argentine truth commission initiated the cascade of truth commissions, the Argentine trials of the juntas also initiated the modern cascade of transitional justice trials.

The significance of Argentina in the global justice cascade is illustrated with data from a new dataset on global trends in transitional justice.7 The data demonstrate a rapid shift toward new global norms and practices providing more accountability for human rights violations. Most interesting is that Latin American countries led this shift; and among the Latin American states leading this trend, none was more important than Argentina.

As figure 1 illustrates, the number of truth commissions worldwide grew following the inauguration of Argentina’s truth commission in 1983. By mid-2004 a cumulative number of 36 truth commissions had been established worldwide.8 Since 2004, additional truth commissions have been proposed or developed, so the trend seems likely to continue.

Truth commissions are more prevalent in Africa and the Americas than in other regions, making up 36 percent and 38 percent of the total, respectively. While the explanations for this regional concentration are unclear, it appears that the diffusion of ideas and practices is more fluid within regions than between regions. The Argentine truth commission was especially influential in the Americas, and the South African truth commission appears to have had the same catalyst effect in Africa.

The dataset on transitional justice mechanisms also confirms the prominent role that Argentine trials played in the justice cascade. The dataset includes, in addition to truth commissions, a summary of domestic, foreign, and international trials for individual criminal responsibility for past human rights violations in countries that have experienced a transition to democracy. Domestic trials are those conducted in a single country for human rights abuses committed in that country. Foreign or transnational trials are those conducted in a single country for human rights abuses committed in another country. International trials involve individual criminal responsibility for human rights violations, such as the international ad hoc trials for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The data reveal an unprecedented spike in state efforts to address past human rights abuses, which has occurred both domestically and internationally since the mid-1980s. In figure 2, we see that the Argentine truth commission and the early Argentine trials came at the very beginning of this justice cascade.

Of the 192 countries in the transitional country dataset, Argentina was the country in the world with the most country trial years.9 These data are not really comparable between countries, because Argentina experienced its transition to democracy in 1983 and has had the opportunity for more trial years than Chile, for example, which experienced a transition to democracy in 1990. Nevertheless, the total number of country trial years does provide some measure of the persistence of the concern with transitional justice in different countries.

Argentina was also a key country for foreign trials. Human rights violations in Argentina are the subject of one-fourth of all foreign human rights trials in the dataset. Argentines brought most of these cases to foreign courts, though many plaintiffs also have dual citizenship, which, in some cases, gives them access to courts in other countries. The first two foreign human rights trials in the dataset involved Argentine plaintiffs in Italy (1983) and in France (1985). Argentina thus has been a trailblazer, initiating three of the four transitional justice trends shown in figure 2 (truth commissions, domestic trials, and foreign trials).

When sectors of the Argentine military carried out various coup attempts against the Alfonsín government, the government passed two laws that were essentially amnesty laws, Punto Final and Obediencia Debida (Full Stop and Due Obedience), in 1986 and 1987. This was also a formative moment for the transitional justice movement because many analysts and politicians concluded that human rights trials were not viable; they would provoke coups and undermine democracy. But that analysis misinterpreted the actual sequence of events in Argentina. In Argentina, the nine junta members were tried and five were convicted in 1985. The two most important leaders of the first junta, General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera, were sentenced to life in prison. The remaining three were sentenced to between 4 ½ and 17 years in prison (El Diario del Juicio 1985). The coup attempts did not begin until more far-reaching trials against junior officers were initiated. Therefore, to read the Argentine case as an example that trials in and of themselves are not possible is to disregard the successfully completed trial of the juntas and the degree to which the Argentine military has since been subordinated to civilian control.

In 1990, the government of Carlos Menem pardoned the convicted military officers, including Videla and Massera. Some observers again interpreted this pardon as an indication that the trials had been futile. But the pardon did not reverse the trials or the sentences. Acuna and Smulovitz argue that despite the concessions granted by Alfonsin and Menem, the “high costs and high risks suffered by the armed forces as a result of the investigations and judicial convictions for human rights violations are central reasons for the military’s present subordination to constitutional power” (1997, 94).

In addition to the truth commission and the trials of the juntas, the Alfonsin government made other institutional innovations in the realm of human rights. For example, it established a permanent Sub-secretariat of Human Rights in the Ministry of Interior to supervise human rights policy and to manage the CONADEP files. While some countries in Europe had long had all-purpose government ombudsmen, the Argentine Sub-secretariat for Human Rights was one of the early examples of human rights machinery that would become increasingly common in the Americas and around the world.10

While the Alfonsin government was producing major innovations in transitional justice, the Argentine human rights movement continued to develop new tactics. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo proved to be especially innovative in their use of the latest scientific techniques to aid their search for their grandchildren (Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo 2001). The Grandmothers worked in cooperation with the newly democratic Argentine state agencies to develop, for example, a National Genetic Data Bank with both grand paternity blood banks and DNA banks, so that the grandparents of disappeared children could deposit blood and DNA samples. Even if one or both grandparents died, these samples could be used later to identify their grandchildren.

As part of the effort to provide evidence for the trials of the juntas, forensic experts traveled to Argentina and led a project to exhume the graves of the disappeared. Although some human rights groups initially refused to cooperate, a group of young Argentine students participated in the exhumations and eventually, with the help of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a leading international forensic expert, Dr. Clyde Snow, started the first human rights forensic organization in the world, the Equipo Argentine de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) (Cohen Salama 1992).

Like other groups, the EAAF did not work independently but collaborated with the Argentine state to produce its outcomes. The actual exhumations were ordered by judges investigating the disappearances, and were then carried out by the EAAF. Together with Dr. Snow, the EAAF is the group that pioneered the application of forensic sciences to the documentation of human rights violations. It has been instrumental in conducting work in many other countries and training similar experts and teams. Since 1986, the EAAF has worked in nearly 30 countries throughout the world (EAAF 2007). In 2003, the EAAF organized the first meeting of 17 Latin American forensic anthropologists from 7 countries, which resulted in the creation of the Latin American Forensic Anthropology Association (ALAF).

Phase 3:1989-Present

Phase 2 ended with the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws and with Menem’s presidential pardons of the junta members. In many other countries, these kinds of setbacks silenced human rights activist demands for accountability. But Argentine human rights activists responded with more innovations. It was as if the very experience of having their aims opposed and blocked led Argentine groups to renew their strength to continue their struggle (Jelin and Kaufman 2000).

Activists’ first response was to form some new domestic human rights groups with new tactics. The now-grown children of the disappeared formed their own human rights organization, HIJOS. Like the original Mothers and Grandmothers groups, HIJOS groups also developed elsewhere in the region, including Chile and Guatemala. HIJOS also developed innovative tactics, the most novel of which were its escraches, or public events outside the homes of known repressors, denouncing their participation in human rights violations.

Second, existing human rights groups were skilled at turning to regional and foreign institutions when progress on accountability was blocked in Argentina. So, for example, in 1992, in response to a case brought forward by Argentine human rights organizations, the IACHR concluded that the Argentine Full Stop and Due Obedience laws and the pardons issued by President Menem for crimes committed during the dictatorship were incompatible with the 1978 American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights later reaffirmed this position when it declared, in the Barrios Altos case, that two Peruvian amnesty laws were invalid and incompatible with the American Convention (Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2001). This decision created a precedent that suggested that if a similar case (for example, from Argentina or from Uruguay) were brought to the InterAmerican Court, the court would also be likely to find those countries’ amnesty laws invalid and incompatible with the convention.

Domestically, human rights organizations continued their innovative legal challenges. These included efforts by the legal team of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to hold military officers responsible for the kidnapping and identity change of the children of the disappeared, who, in many cases, had been given for adoption to allies of the military regime. The Grandmothers’ lawyers argued that because the crimes of kidnapping of minors and changing their identity had not been covered in the amnesty laws, they were not blocked from pursuing justice for these crimes. This legal strategy became one of the wedges that domestic groups used to open a breach in the amnesty laws. Their legal strategy began to succeed by the mid-1990s, but initially most of those found guilty were lower-level military officers and the adoptive families (Rios 2002).

In 1998, federal judges in Argentina ordered preventive detention for both ex-president Videla and Admiral Massera, the two most powerful leaders in Argentina during the most intense period of repression, for the crimes of kidnapping babies and falsifying public documents. Thus, when Chilean ex-president General Augusto Pinochet was detained in London three months later, the Argentine courts had already done the equivalent. Although the Argentine courts used domestic political institutions, the international context was also important. The context and timing of both Videla’s and Massera’s arrests suggests that Argentine judges may have been influenced by foreign trials in France and Spain (Abregu 1999). To fend off political pressures to extradite many officers, some Argentine judges apparently decided to place a few high-profile but now politically marginalized officers like Videla and Massera under preventive detention.

Another key legal innovation in Argentina was the concept and practice of “truth trials.” After the amnesty law blocked trials for most past human rights violations, the relatives of victims nevertheless encouraged judges to develop trials to learn the truth about the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. In 1995, family members associated with CELS presented the first petition arguing that although the amnesty laws had blocked criminal proceedings, family members still had the “right to truth” and could pursue that right through judicial investigations. When a federal court of appeals allowed the petition, it began to establish a judicial process that would come to be called the truth trials, in which Argentine courts solicited and analyzed information and testimony (mainly from members of the armed forces) to find out the truth about the disappeared (Filippini 2005). Since 1998, truth trials have been under way not only in Buenos Aires but also in various other Argentine cities.

The concept of the truth trial is particularly interesting because it brings together elements from both truth commissions and criminal justice. It also illustrates yet another example of Argentine leadership in developing new human rights tactics and mechanisms (Filippini 2005). Some Argentines consider the concept and practice of a “right to truth” the Argentine human rights movement’s most important contribution to the world, by which they mean not just the truth trials per se but the combined impact of the truth commission, the truth trials, and the pedagogic function of criminal human rights trials. According to Leonardo Despouy, who has held important human rights positions in various Argentine governments and in the United Nations, “The right to truth was the main success of the Argentine human rights organizations that we have exported to the world” (Página 12 2006).

Perhaps the most challenging of the legal battles was the case led by CELS to have the amnesty laws declared unconstitutional. Once again, using the case of a kidnapped child of the disappeared, the lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the amnesty laws put the Argentine judicial system in the untenable position of being able to find people criminally responsible for kidnapping a child and falsely changing her identity (more minor crimes) but not for the more serious original crime of murder and disappearance of the parents, which later gave rise to the crime of kidnapping. Additionally, they argued that the amnesty laws were a violation of international and regional human rights treaties to which Argentina was a party and which were directly incorporated into Argentine law.

A judge of the first instance found the arguments compelling, and wrote a judgment that was a lengthy treatise on the significance of international human rights law in Argentine criminal law (Cavallo 2001). Argentina offered a propitious environment for this kind of decision because the 1994 Constitution gave international human rights treaties constitutional status, and because the courts had earlier found that customary international law could be applied by domestic courts. CELS solicited international groups to write amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs for their cases and succeeded in establishing, for the first time in the Argentine judicial system, the practice of using foreign amicus briefs. The appeals courts supported the decision, but the actions of the executive and legislature made the legal issues in the case even more complex. In August 2003, the Argentine Congress, with the support of the Nestor Kirchner administration, passed a law that declared the amnesty laws (Obediencia Debida and Punto Final) null and void.

In June 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court, in a 7-1 vote, declared the amnesty laws unconstitutional. The court cited the Inter-American Court of Human Rights jurisprudence in the Barrios Altos case, which limited the ability of member-state legislation to enact amnesty laws for crimes against humanity. The Supreme Court also decided that the crime of disappearance was a crime against humanity for which no statutes of limitations applied. The effect of the court’s decision was to permit the reopening of hundreds of human rights cases that had been closed for the past 15 years.

The court’s decision is yet another example of legal innovation in Argentina, although it is too early to tell whether it will have influence in other countries in the region where amnesty laws are under debate. Nevertheless, a campaign is currently under way in Uruguay to have the amnesty law there declared either null or unconstitutional, influenced by the Argentine example (Paysse 2006).

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to promote innovative human rights tactics in their efforts to locate the grandchildren. During the international process of drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the late 1980s, the Grandmothers persuaded the Argentine Foreign Ministry to press for provisions in the convention on the “right to identity.” The final convention includes these provisions as articles 7 and 8; they are informally called the “Argentine articles.” Because the Argentine Constitution incorporates international law directly into domestic law, once Argentina had ratified the convention, these articles provided the Grandmothers with the legal bases to argue that children had a right to identity, and thus to permit judges to order blood tests even when opposed by the adoptive parents, to establish whether or not the children were the sons and daughters of the disappeared (Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo 2001; Rios 2002). In this case, the Grandmothers helped to change international opportunity structure by changing the wording of a treaty; this, in turn, changed their domestic opportunity structure and made it easier to get convictions.

While these moves to pursue accountability for past human rights violations were taking place in Argentina, Argentine government diplomats began to play a major role in the United Nations human rights institutions. Following earlier work by the Argentine human rights activists that helped to define the crime of forced disappearances and to write a regional convention against disappearances, the Argentine government, together with that of France, has been a major sponsor of the International Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, now awaiting approval in the UN General Assembly.

Argentine diplomats were also active in helping design and promote the International Criminal Court to pursue international accountability for human rights violations (Fernández 2002). Together with Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Holland, Argentina was one of the small group of main protagonists behind the creation of the ICC, and it was the only state that was not a wealthy, developed state to play such an essential role. In particular, an Argentine diplomat, Silvia Fernández, was involved in all the formal and informal preparatory meetings preceding the Rome Conference to draft the ICC Statute in July 1998. One of these was a crucial secret meeting in Bonn among four or five persons, called by the German government, to develop a common position for the likeminded countries. At the Rome Conference itself, Fernández served as vice president of the Plenary Committee and presided over the key Working Group on Criminal Process. For almost eight years, Fernández worked almost full-time on the ICC, with the full support of three different Argentine democratic governments. Not only people from the Foreign Ministry but also representatives from the Ministries of Justice and Defense, including representatives from the armed forces, were involved in the negotiation process (Fernández 2002). While members of the Argentine government were involved in the negotiations for the Rome Statute, Argentine human rights NGOs, such as CELS, were present at the Rome meeting to lobby in favor of a strong ICC.

The key mechanisms through which the Argentine human rights innovations were diffused were publications, the media, and the actual movement of activists to new positions in the world’s human rights organizations. The Argentine human rights organizations, the truth commission, and the trials of the juntas trained a generation of activists and human rights professionals. Many of them have moved from Argentina to serve in important positions in international human rights groups. Some were later tapped for leadership roles; most famously, Luis Moreno Ocampo, formerly assistant prosecutor in the Argentine trials of the military juntas, is now the prosecutor of the ICC, one of the most important jobs in the international human rights world today. Juan Méndez, a former labor lawyer in Argentina and a political prisoner during the dictatorship, has single-handedly occupied more important positions in international human rights nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations than almost any other major human rights activist. Méndez moved seamlessly from top positions in NGOs like Human Rights Watch and the International Center for Transitional Justice to positions in the interamerican system, in academic institutions, and in the United Nations. From 2004 to 2007, he served as the first Special Adviser on Genocide to the UN Secretary General.

Patricia Valdez, an Argentine, was the director of the most important human rights organization in Peru, the Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos, and later executive secretary of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador. Victor Abramovich, former director of CELS, later served as a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Monica Pinto served as the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Guatemala in the 1990s, and Morris Tidball, among the key founders of the Argentine forensic anthropology team, later helped train other forensic teams around the world and worked for Amnesty International in London. The Argentine human rights activists who still work in Argentina travel extensively and have shared their experiences with their counterparts throughout the world.


The interesting question in this context is why activists and government officials in Argentina have made such important innovations in the world of human rights. This is a form of what Joseph Nye has called “soft power,” based on the attractiveness and legitimacy of a country’s ideas and policies (Nye 2004). Argentina has had this soft power on human rights issues both during governments like that of Alfonsin, which were committed to human rights, and during other governments less committed to the issues. Some of these governments were profoundly troubled by military uprisings; all faced economic problems and crises; and most perceived a lack of legitimacy as an international actor. But in this area of human rights, although most Argentines are not aware of it, Argentina has been a global leader. How can we begin to try to explain this?

The theoretical puzzle here is why Argentina has been a source of human rights tactical and institutional innovations in the world, not why or how these innovations have diffused globally. The information presented here about the timing of global practices and global diffusion illustrates that the innovations actually started in Argentina (see figure 2). Studies of diffusion by international relations scholars stress the explanations for why governments adopt policies in response to what other countries are doing (Simmons et al. 2006). Diffusion studies do not, however, study the original sources of policy innovation and ask why those countries produced innovations that were later diffused.

There is an underlying assumption in this literature that such diffusion is more likely to flow from wealthier and more powerful countries to less powerful countries. Two of the main explanations for diffusion are coercion and competition, with the understanding that more powerful countries are more able to impose their practices on others (Simmons et al. 2006). A related literature is the sociological institutionalist literature on world culture and the spread of global norms (Finnemore 1996). This literature argues that world culture reconfigures state policies, especially the policies of developing states. These scholars often overlook the reality that global norms and world culture have to come from somewhere, and they fail to identify how local agents, even in the developing world, can influence global normative structures (Finnemore and Sikkink 2001). Likewise, the literature on transitional justice has tended to argue that the trend toward more human rights trials has been fueled by the liberal developed states (Bass 2000).

The literature on transnational advocacy networks argues that groups in the global South often initiate “boomerangs” (Keck and Sikkink 1998) or “spirals” (Risse et al. 1999) to gain international allies to pressure their governments for change. The spiral model also clarifies that far-reaching human rights change will be sustained only with regime change, as was the case in Argentina. These literatures lead us to expect agency from groups in developing countries; they do not anticipate that a country like Argentina could move in a relatively short time from being the principal target of the boomerang or spiral to being a global protagonist exporting human rights norms and practices.

Arguments about norms cascades suggest that such cascades begin in particular domestic settings, especially those with strong norm entrepreneurs and social movements (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). Argentine activists and government officials were indeed norm entrepreneurs in the area of human rights. But the norms cascade literature does not provide more detailed explanations about why some social movements in some countries seem more innovative or entrepreneurial and why some countries have served as more successful platforms to help launch norms cascades. We need to supplement these literatures with additional insights from the literature on transitional justice and social movement theory to understand why Argentina was so innovative in the area of human rights and why Argentine innovations later diffused around the globe. The following sections draw briefly on each of these literatures to propose explanations, and also to propose how these literatures must be expanded to help explain this case.

Characteristics of Repression and Transition

Some aspects of the political context in Argentina made it possible for Argentines to innovate in the area of human rights and transitional justice, especially the level and nature of repression and the type of transition to democracy. Some social movement theorists discuss repression as one aspect of a political opportunity structure (McAdam 1996). Political opportunity structures have more facets than just that of repression, but repression might be seen as the most basic way that political opportunities are blocked or closed.

The Argentine case was somewhat unique in that the repression was very extreme, but not so extreme as to eliminate all possibilities for human rights activism. The military regime in Argentina killed more people than did the regimes in Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. Guatemala, however, had far greater repression than Argentina or any other country in the region, repression so severe that it eliminated or silenced the human rights movement (Ropp and Sikkink 1999).

Not just the level of repression but also the type of repression may be significant. Argentine security forces were among the first to use the practice of disappearance on such a large scale, and over 80 percent of the victims were under 35 years old. They left behind thousands of family members mourning the loss of their children. Compared to death or imprisonment, the phenomenon of disappearance generates a particularly difficult psychological response on the part of family members. Jelin (1995) refers to disappearances as “uncertain harm.” This kind of situation, in which family members or friends are lost to those who know them although they may still be alive, has also been called “ambiguous loss.” Pauline Boss (1999) argues that ambiguous loss, like that experienced by family members of military personnel missing in action, is the most stressful loss that people can face; it can make it difficult for people to move on with their lives. Many family members of the disappeared in Argentina continued to believe that their children were alive and suffering, so that any human rights activism they undertook could make the difference between life and death for their children (Navarro 1989). This may have spurred the movement in Argentina more than in places where families confronted a process of grief over a clear death.

The nature of the democratic transition itself also influenced whether or not activists could demand more accountability. Because the Argentine military regime collapsed after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands war, the armed forces could not negotiate the conditions of their exit from power. The transitions literature has argued that trials are less likely in negotiated or “pacted” transitions, in which the military negotiates the transition and ensures significant protections and guarantees from prosecution for human rights violations, and more possible in “society-led” transitions or “ruptured transitions,” in which the military is forced to exit from power without negotiating specific protections (Stepan 1986; Mayorga 1997).

Argentina is an example of a ruptured transition: it followed the collapse of the military government in the wake of the failure in the MaIvinas war. Chile, Uruguay, and South Africa are classic “pacted” transitions. These differences in transitions help explain why it was more possible for Argentina to hold trials of the juntas almost immediately following the transition, and why it was more difficult to hold such trials elsewhere. Two other countries that held early human rights trials, Greece and Bolivia, also experienced ruptured rather than negotiated transitions (Mayorga 1997).

Political Opportunities and Resource Mobilization

The level of repression and the type of transition only take us partway to explaining the very high level of Argentine human rights innovation. The Argentine case also illustrates a point frequently made by social movement theorists: that political opportunities do not just exist in the abstract but need to be perceived and constructed by activists (Delia Porta and Tarrow 2005). Argentine political actors faced a political opportunity structure more conducive to their human rights demands after the transition to democracy, and yet these groups also were more likely to perceive and create political opportunities than some of their counterparts in other countries. One reason that Argentine groups were more able to create political opportunities is that they had organizational, financial, social, and cultural resources to draw on that were not available to activists in all countries that suffered extreme human rights violations. This argument is consistent with resource mobilization theories of social movements (see, e.g., McCarthy and Zald 1977).

The Argentine human rights movement created a strong organizational framework, or movement structure, designed for mobilization. The Argentine human rights movement comprised a relatively large number of diverse groups with different constituencies, membership, and strategies (Brysk 1994; Crenzel 2006). The very breadth of the movement, the multiplicity of its strategies, and the links that some sectors had to the posttransitional state provided an organizational framework for including human rights concerns on the agenda of the Alfonsin government and some later governments as well. Alfonsin had been a member of one of the key human rights organizations, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, during the dictatorship. Human rights groups participated actively in the campaign events of various parties; and a leader of the human rights movement and father of a disappeared person, Augusto Conte, was elected as a member of Congress, which allowed him to bring human rights issues directly to the parliamentary agenda (Crenzel 2006).

As a result of some of these organizational factors, human rights demands and discourses became a much more prominent part of the Argentine transition than they did in many other countries in Latin America. The relationship between the human rights movement and different democratic Argentine governments varied significantly, but in general, the Argentine human rights movement carried out effective advocacy and managed to get the state to respond to many of its demands.

Although often taken for granted by social movement theorists who work mainly on social movements in relatively well developed countries, some basic economic and social attributes in Argentina provided advantages in creating a strong social movement structure. Argentina’s relatively high level of development, education, and urbanization all provided resources to social movement activists that may help explain their ability to innovate. At the time of the coup in 1976, Argentina had very high levels of education and urbanization.11 According to CONADEP, more than two-thirds of the disappeared people were students, white collar employees, professionals, teachers, and others likely to be drawn from the middle class. Many victims and their families tended to be educated and urban dwellers who were more likely to have the financial and human resources to respond more actively to the disappearances. This is a contrast to other situations of mass human rights violations in the Americas, such as Guatemala, where the victims were most often rural indigenous people without access to these kinds of resources.

Argentine human rights activists made huge financial sacrifices to pursue their campaigns, but nevertheless were able to get the support to dedicate themselves, part-time at least, to the pursuit of justice. Likewise, since 1990, when the Argentine state implemented its policy of reparations to victims of repression, victims and their families have had access to additional financial resources that in many cases provided support for their human rights work. The Argentine state has given out approximately three billion pesos (or about one billion dollars at current exchange rates) in its reparations policy (Guembe 2006) to more than seven thousand families of the disappeared or dead. Through its policy of reparations, the state also provided additional resources for Argentine human rights activists to pursue their strategies of accountability, and it did so at a time when the policy of reparation represented a significant fiscal burden to a state already suffering macroeconomic weakness (Acuña 2006).

A second organizational framework that may have influenced transitional justice strategies was Argentina’s relatively high level of judicialization. Judicialization certainly means more than the number of lawyers, yet this may be one influential factor. One author, using UNESCO data for numbers of students receiving law degrees and ranking countries by the number of law providers in relation to the population, found that Argentina was the fourth-ranked country in the world in terms of the number of lawyers in 1987 (August 1992). Not only was the number of lawyers high, but there was also a strong tradition of activist labor lawyers accustomed to working on labor rights issues. Some of the Argentine lawyers who later distinguished themselves in the area of human rights law, like Juan Méndez, came out of this labor law tradition.

In this sense, existing social networks of activist labor lawyers contributed to the rise of human rights cause lawyering in Argentina. The large number of lawyers provided yet another resource to family membars of victims who wished to pursue accountability. The bulk of the repression took place in urban areas, especially in the Federal Capital and in the Province of Buenos Aires, areas relatively well served by lawyers, which also facilitated a legal response to disappearances (CONADEP 1984).

The trials of the juntas encouraged “the discovery of law,” as ordinary citizens perceived a system of law as more viable and legitimate if law could be used to hold the most powerful former leaders of their country accountable for past human rights violations (Smulovitz 2002). Since 1985, the number of cases submitted to the Supreme Court and to federal and state courts has increased significantly. This judicialization process rests “not only on institutional conditions that enable its occurrence, but also on the development of skills, cognitive resources, and organizational capacities that allowed citizens and associations to take advantage of institutional and political opportunities” (Smulovitz 2005, 176). Likewise, the structure of the judicial system may have provided more leeway for judicial innovation. Since the Argentine judicial system permits lateral entry into the judiciary, judges are somewhat more autonomous than, for example, their Chilean colleagues, where no lateral entry existed and promotion was controlled completely by the Supreme Court (Hilbink 2007).

Historical and Cultural Factors

The level of repression, the nature of the transition, and the political opportunities and resources that activists had available are useful to help understand Argentine innovation in the area of human rights. But we still may need to examine some historical and cultural factors that spurred Argentine human rights activists to innovations in transitional justice.

Argentina is, for example, one of a small handful of countries in the world with more than ten psychiatrists per one hundred thousand population (WHO 2001). Argentine psychiatrists who worked with victims and family members of victims were helping clients actively engaged in political action to seek justice. During and particularly after the repression, teams of psychiatrists and psychologists, some of them associated with particular human rights organizations, formed to help treat torture victims.12 Although not all these teams had identical approaches, in the global treatment movement for victims of repression, a “Latin American approach” emerged that stressed the process of psychological healing in the context of ongoing activism against repression and impunity. According to this approach, the belief was that the process of healing and closure would be helped by involvement in movements for justice and accountability (Edelman et al. 2005). Many in the human rights movement in Argentina embraced this conception of personal healing and of the healing of the body politic through continued activism against impunity.

Finally, there is the murky issue of political culture. Argentine political culture has had a long tradition of intransigence and of combative movements. In many parts of the world, “intransigence” is not considered a political virtue. But in Argentina, the value placed on intransigence is such that various political parties, especially those connected to the Radical Party (Unión Cívica Radical), have included the word in their party names (e.g. Unión Cívica Radical Intransigente, UCRI, and Partido Intransigente, PI).

Intransigence in the face of government repression may have helped the human rights sector innovate. Activist groups often refused to take “no” for an answer or to reconcile themselves to the inevitability of amnesties, and thus found novel ways around the roadblocks put up in their way. For example, Graciela Fernández Mejide described the reaction of Argentine human rights activists to the sentence in the trial of the juntas. Instead of being pleased with the life sentences for some of the accused, they were disappointed by the leniency of some of the other sentences. She and some other Argentine human rights activists were at a meeting of human rights groups from the Southern Cone being held in Chile when they received the news.

We got very angry and felt very bad that night. The next day when we entered the conference, various colleagues greeted us with applause. We said, “Why do you applaud? Are you drunk?” They told us: “You don’t know how to take advantage of what you have. You aren’t satisfied with anything, that’s how Argentines are.” (Fernández Meijide 1989, author’s translation)

Likewise, the notion of being combativo has a long pedigree in Argentine political life, especially in relation to particular sectors of the labor movement (e.g. the Plenario Nacional de Sindicatos Combativos) (James 1988). As compared to Uruguay, where a more consensus-based political culture may serve democratic negotiation but has not fueled strong human rights movements, in Argentina a more intransigent and combative political culture thus could possibly have sustained the stubborn search for solutions to blockages on the road to accountability.


The human rights innovations are so extensive that Argentine social movement activists and members of the Argentine government may be considered among the most important protagonists in the area of domestic human rights activism. Often, they were not emulating tactics they discovered elsewhere but were developing new tactics. On a number of occasions, they have then exported or diffused their institutional and tactical innovations. Argentina, which never was a passive recipient of international human rights action, has gone on to become an important international protagonist in the human rights realm, involved in actively modifying the international structure of political opportunities for human rights activism. This dynamism of the Argentine human rights sector is even more interesting and important in the context of active U.S. hegemonic opposition to the expansion of international human rights law, because it suggests that the advancement of human rights institutions may proceed even in the face of opposition from the United States.

In most of these endeavors, Argentine groups have not worked in isolation. There is extensive documentation of the transnational linkages of the Argentine human rights movement (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Brysk 1994). But to focus mainly on the transnational dimension of these struggles may sometimes blur the question of where the initiative arises. On many occasions, the impetus for such networking came from inside Argentina. Argentine groups sought out international linkages and brought them into their human rights work at home. Both the boomerang model (Keck and Sikkink 1998) and the spiral model (Risse et al. 1999) stress that transnational advocacy campaigns were often initiated when domestic groups reached out to international allies. These models did not necessarily anticipate, however, that a pariah state could become a global human rights protagonist in the course of a couple of decades.

This article has highlighted sources for a more deeply rooted change in the international system. Initially, human rights advocacy networks help save lives and get people released from jail. But over time, these advocacy networks can be part of a much more profound process of regime change and identity change, in which a former violator of human rights can become a leader in promoting human rights change more generally. Norms cascades do not begin only in the wealthy North but can also be initiated by innovative countries in the global South. In the area of transitional justice, for example, South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission has become an international model that many other countries have emulated. Argentina has been an innovator for an even greater number of transitional justice mechanisms.

More than 20 years have now passed since Argentina’s transition to democracy and the trials of the juntas. During this time, Argentina has been more than just another case in the literature on transitional justice. Argentina helped innovate the two main accountability mechanisms that are the focus of much of the debate on transitional justice: truth commissions and high-level human rights trials. Though the actual process of diffusion from Argentina to other countries has not always been clear, the Argentine example was very influential in other countries’ experiences of transitional justice. The Argentine model suggests that accountability mechanisms like truth commissions and trials need not be mutually exclusive options, but can be beneficially combined. Indeed, Argentina innovated a type of trial, the truth trial, that actually combines elements of trials and truth commissions.

The case of Argentina today suggests that some of its lawyers and judges may have innovated yet again by producing judicial strategies for declaring amnesty laws unconstitutional, thus permitting blocked human rights trials to proceed. Other countries are beginning to follow suit, as evidenced by efforts under way today in Chile and Uruguay to find judicial strategies to evade amnesty laws.

This analysis has empirically documented Argentine innovations rather than necessarily celebrating them. Living in a country at the beginning of the justice cascade has not always been an easy experience for Argentines. The theme of the dictatorship continues to be a hegemonic theme in the country today, absorbing both resources and political energy. Other social movements have embraced the tactics of the human rights movement, leading to what some observers consider “an inflation of victimhood.” But the Argentine case shows the possibility that a country can move in three decades from being a major violator of human rights to a country whose citizens have made major innovations to the struggle in favor of human rights.


I wish to recognize the helpful comments I received from four anonymous reviewers and LAPS editor William C. Smith. An earlier version of some of the material presented here appeared in a co-authored article with Carrie Booth Walling, and I thank her for permission to use material from that article, including two tables she prepared with data from our database. I also received extremely useful feedback from the “Nucleo de Memoria” at the Instituto de Desarrollo Econornico y Social in Buenos Aires, and in particular from Elizabeth Jelin, Patricia Valdez, Susana Kaufman, and Emilio Crenzel. In addition, I wish to thank Catalina Smulovitz, Carlos Acuña, Leonardo Filippini, Enrique Peruzzotti, Ellen Lutz, and Naomi Roht-Arriaza for their invaluable suggestions and comments.

1. To list just a brief sample of some important texts, see Acuña et al. 1995; Brysk 1994; Mignone 1991; Guest 1990; Acuña and Smulovitz 1997; Acuña 2006.

2. In her 1994 book, Brysk discusses many of the early tactics catalogued here and the international learning that has occurred as a result of the Argentine experience, focusing on strategies and mechanisms for reform (169-70).

3. For example, groups of the mothers of disappeared people exist in Turkey, Algeria, Bosnia (mothers of the disappeared from the enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa), Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Lebanon, Mexico, Chechnya, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Related groups include the Tiananmen Mothers (mothers of victims of the Beijing massacre) and the Mothers of the New York Disappeared (of people imprisoned due to the war on drugs). Groups as distant as the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, India, state that they were “inspired by the Mothers in Argentina” (India Together 2005). Some of groups have signed joint declarations and attended one another’s meetings.

4. A search of the Internet journal archive JSTOR on the term truth commissions found 175 references using the term, but the first dates from 1994 and is Priscilla Hayner’s classic article. One could argue that with this article, Hayner helped to create the category of truth commissions, bringing together practices that were previously seen as unconnected, such as Idi Amin’s 1974 Commission of Inquiry and Argentina’s CONADEP. Hayner, in turn, cites earlier work, but the earliest work in English on these topics dates to 1989, well after the CONADEP experience.

5. The CONADEP report has been a bestseller in Argentina, constantly in print since it was issued in 1984. It was published in English as Nunca Mas: The Report of the Argentine National Commission of the Disappeared (CONADEP 1986). For the definitive discussion of the CONADEP report, see Crenzel 2006.

6. See, for example, El Diario del Juicio, a weekly newspaper published during the entire period of the trials of the juntas, with transcripts of testimony, interviews, and legal and political analysis.

7. For a full explanation of the data, see Sikkink and Walling 2007.

8. For more information on the database, see Sikkink and Walling 2006, 2007.

9. Country trial years is defined as the number of years during which a state is actively engaged in judicial proceedings for individual criminal responsibility for human rights abuse. This number does not reflect the number of trials under way in that state during those years, which may be far greater. For a complete summary of the transitional human rights trial data base, see Sikkink and Walling 2007.

10. Generally, Argentina’s Defensor del Pueblo de la Nación Argentina (ombudsman), created by the Constitution of 1994, is considered Argentina’s national human rights machinery, but the subsecretariat was an early effort to institutionalize human rights in a government institution. On national human rights machinery more generally, see Cárdenas 2001.

11. In 1976, Argentina had a literacy rate of 94 percent; in 1977, 29 percent of young people aged 20-24 were enrolled in higher education, a percentage higher than that of many of the countries in Western Europe at the time (World Bank 1981). In 1980, 82 percent of the population lived in urban areas, and 45 percent lived in Buenos Aires.

12. See, e.g., the work of the Team for Psychological Assistance of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, collected in Edelman et al. 2005.


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Kathryn Sikkink is a Regents Professor and the McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota. Her current research focuses on the origins and effectiveness of human rights trials in the world and the impact of norms and international law on political change. Recent publications include Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (2004) and “The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America” (with Carrie Walling, Journal of Peace Research, 2007).

Copyright University of Miami Spring 2008

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