Latin American Studies Professor Discusses Peruvian Politics

Posted: April 28, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Nicholas Zinzer

Latin American Studies assistant professor Jo-Marie Burt makes clear her contentment with truth commissions in postwar-ravaged countries. “Holding human rights violators accountable is problematic…an alternative is a truth commission. It will document what happened,” says Burt.

The assistant professor talked about truth commissions, human rights violations and contemporary Latin American history in her lecture on Wednesday, titled “Settling Accounts with Torturers: Seeking Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Postwar Peru.”

A truth commission is a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.

Burt studied the current climate of Peruvian politics, including truth commissions, during her tenure as a Fenwick Fellow from 2004 to 2005. Her speech Wednesday was the culmination of research from nearly two decades worth of research on Peru, most notably her research during her tenure as a Fenwick Fellow.

According to Burt, as events in foreign countries become more transparent and transnational communication is increased, ignoring violations of human rights becomes increasingly difficult. “Ignoring past [abuses] in the name of reconciliation or simply denying the relevance of looking into such issues…became increasingly less viable given the growth of transnational human rights movements that united domestic human rights organizations and international groups…as well as the expansion of human rights law.”

Accordingly, the case for truth commissions becomes more important, says Burt. Since governments often ignore or deny the past, “truth commissions have become an increasingly utilized mechanism to address the abuses of the past,” says Burt.

Burt compared the context of mid-20th century human rights violations to contemporary emerging democracies. “Criminal prosecutions against human rights violators were held in places such as Germany, Japan and elsewhere after World War II. This was the result, largely, of a military victory by an outside power.”

Today, human rights violators emerge from much more complex negotiated settlements. “The transitional democracies of today are more likely to be the outcome of complex negotiations…intact or otherwise, that make trials highly unlikely. Powerful actors, particularly the armed forces, may remain in strategic positions of power.”

Burt is the 2004-05 recipient of the Fenwick Fellowship, which is awarded to one or two faculty members each academic year. The fellows research a project that advances knowledge and utilizes the University Libraries’ resources. The program gives recipients a furnished office in the Fenwick Library on the Fairfax Campus and an award of $1,800.

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