Academic journal article Humanity

Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and Mourning in Postwar Peru

Academic journal article Humanity

Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and Mourning in Postwar Peru

Article excerpt

La justice sans la force est impuissante.

- Blaise Pascal

In this essay I focus on the problem of death and the dead in political transitions. The usual approaches to the question of how to deal with past atrocities tend to exclude the dead from consideration, as if the complex problem of justice and recovery in the aftermath of devastating violence concerned only the living. Alternatives such as reconciliation, prosecution, or pardon are considered in terms of breaking cycles of violence and preventing its repetition. The implicit assumption here is that what matters most is the potentiality of death (i.e., death in the present or future) rather than its actuality (i.e., death in the past). In this view, the dead are dealt with at the symbolic level, and questions of proper burial are addressed to the private realm of kinship, as if properly dispatching the dead were not a political problem.

By contrast, following the burgeoning anthropological literature on this problem, this essay interrogates the place of the dead as interlocutors of the transition, as well as their agency in social, political, and cultural transformation in the aftermath of devastating violence. I argue that, as violence continues to be a permanent, even defining, feature of "post-conflict" societies, the question of the (re)foundation of the political order in the aftermath of mass atrocities is concerned with thanatopolitics not only in terms of the continuing problem of whom sovereign power kills or lets die but also in terms of the political problem of how to properly dispatch the dead. Governed by both legal and humanitarian discourses, state-sponsored projects of transitional justice seek to address such problems through the rational means of the law and disciplinary power. As these official projects are eventually unable to return the victims' bodies to their relatives, families of the disappeared participating in legal and forensic procedures, those through which post-conflict Peru seeks to bring closure to past state atrocities, appropriate the outcomes of the forensic procedures to claim a voice and speak truth to power through cultural tropes. In doing so, they are able to find and found (ordinary) languages to imagine forms of justice and mourning without the body in face of mass unaccounted-for death. Seen from this perspective, the usual opposition between (legal) justice and (political) reconciliation as the defining problem of the transition is rendered illegible, because at stake is not merely the problem of the restoration of the political order or standards of the law but also the determination of criteria as to what it means to live together in a human form of life in the face of devastating violence.

As a contribution to this discussion, this essay examines the project of transitional justice through which the post-conflict Peruvian state seeks to address legacies of mass death among Quechua-speaking people in the south-central Andes. More specifically, it focuses on forensic exhumations of clandestine mass graves conducted at Los Cabitos, the headquarters of the counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s and 1990s in Ayacucho, the region most heavily affected by Peru's internal conflict. These forensic procedures were intended to recover the bodies of the desaparecidos (disappeared) during the worst moments of the war in the early 1980s. The forensicarchaeological exhumation provided hard evidence to demonstrate the patterns of extermination of terrorism suspects and uncovered Nazi-like technologies of body disposal used by the military in its headquarters, which made impossible the identification and individualization of victims of state terror.

Death in Transition

In August 2003, after two years of work, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its final report to then-president Alejandro Toledo. The TRC established that approximately 69,000 people, including both civilians and combatants, died in twenty years of internal war (1980-2000) between the Peruvian security forces and the guerrilla groups Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). …

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