In alphabetical order

Dr Ladan Boroumand,  Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation

Impunity: An imperative to truth telling and an obstacle to truth seeking

The case of Omid: A Memorial in Defense of Human Rights

Omid, a Memorial in Defense of Human Rights, is a truth telling project that was launched in 2001 in the context of the total impunity that prevails in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ultimate goal of Omid, which means hope in Persian, is to document all the judicial and extra-judicial executions that have occurred in Iran or that have been instigated outside Iran by the Iranian Islamic state, since its establishment in 1979. Conceived by two volunteers, both human rights activists and victims, this online virtual memorial contains more than 17,000 cases but is far from being complete. A description of Omid and of the way victims’ stories are documented will bring to light the principles that have presided over its creation. Impunity, helplessness, and the lack of any perspective for institutional justice and reparations prompted us to conceive of a mode of truth telling that could be achieved independently by the victims and by ordinary citizens, and which would respond to victims’ persistent demand for justice, in the absence of any institutional recourse. A summary account of the victims’ participation in the truth telling process and the way they participate in the creation and/or the completion of their loved ones’ memorial pages will allow us to explore Omid’s current impact. More importantly, it will reveal its potential social impact if the project overcomes its main obstacle.

For a rather successful consequence of impunity and powerlessness, Omid’s development and achievement is, ironically, hindered by the same impunity that engendered it. Impunity and the fear it spreads constitute the major obstruction we encounter in our attempts to reach out to the victims. The example of three cases of Omid will illustrate certain aspects of the obstacles we face in our truth seeking efforts.

Dr. Roddy Brett,  University of St. Andrews.

The Ríos Montt / Rodriguez Sánchez Trial and the Post-Conflict Legacy of Genocide.

This paper argues that the legal trial against Generals Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity has evidenced the interplay between the complex factors shaping post-conflict reconstruction and social reconciliation in post-genocide Guatemala, and, ultimately, the disjunctive impact of the country’s peace process. The ‘genocide trial’ then is about more than a legal process, but rather represents a thermometer for Guatemala’s peace process and, ultimately, for testing the nature and stability of the post-genocide / post-conflict conjuncture.

In the wake of genocide, the peace process consolidated a negative peace within which a degree of institutional reform and strengthening was implemented, including within the security sector. Simultaneously, the political subjectivity of human rights, victims’ and, emphatically, Maya indigenous organisations was strengthened by the peace process (which they themselves shaped), ultimately precipitating the unprecedented visibility and empowerment of indigenous actors. Acknowledgement and interiorisation of human rights frameworks and justice mechanisms by indigenous and human rights activists, including of the Genocide Convention, has consolidated a partial rights culture. This, in turn, has led to recognition of the irreversibility of rights (demands) for certain sectors. Said factors, combined with changes within the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), were critical in generating the conditions for, and carrying out of the ‘genocide trial’.

However, the annulment of the trial has simultaneously evidenced the instability, fragility and disjunctive nature of post-conflict peace and the continuing impact of the profound legacy of the genocide and of social authoritarianism. The limitations of the peace accords were severe, including lack of recognition of the genocide as an episode in the conflict, the absence of transitional justice mechanisms that would guarantee justice for past crimes, and restricted engagement with the causes of the conflict. These factors have strengthened the position of (in-) direct spoilers and, combined with acute ongoing racism (‘indian threat’), deep polarisation and elite intransigence to distribute wealth and permit challenges to their historical racial privileges, have come to represent the key challenges to social reconciliation in Guatemala. Research argues that whilst the trial has wielded broad impact within both state institutions and society, ultimately consolidating indigenous political subjectivity, it has simultaneously fortified spoilers and evidenced indigenous collective memory as a contested sphere, characterised by fractures within indigenous experience and recollection. Moreover, building on Arendt and Hayden, it is argued that impunity for the genocide demonstrates how Guatemalan society has yet to ‘recognise’ the indigenous population as ‘deserving of humanity’, neutering the power of rights claims and validating the genocide (Midlarsky), urging the question of whether this ultimately raises the probability for the reoccurrence of political violence.

Research is based upon direct experience as part of the original team that prepared the evidence against Ríos Montt and fieldwork carried out in Guatemala in the wake of the trial. The theoretical framework employed brings together the disciplines of critical peace studies, genocide studies and political science.

Dr Nicky Rousseau, University of the Western Cape

Speak Out Against Poverty: impunity, inaudibility and structural violence.

This paper addresses a scenario of impunity that relates to what has come to constitute a key criticism of the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: namely, its focus on a narrow band of violations which occurred in the struggle against apartheid (disappearances, killings, torture and severe ill-treatment) rather than the violations of apartheid itself. This failure is associated with a wider critique of transitional justice for its seeming failure to address structural violence, which in many instances, is seen to underpin the very forms of political violence that transitional justice aims to address. As a prominent South African historian expressed it, ‘We may run the risk of defining a new order as one in which police may no longer enjoy impunity to torture opponents of the government, but fail to specify that ordinary citizens should not be poor and illiterate and powerless, or pushed around by state officials or employers.’ [1] This latter aspect casts the net of impunity far wider, drawing in those who drove, implemented and benefited from the policy and practice of apartheid.

Within the lifetime of the TRC, several civil society initiatives attempted to place this question centre stage, making audible more pervasive and normative forms of impunity. The most significant of these was the Speak Out Against Poverty initiative convened by the Human Rights and Gender Commissions, together with the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO). Replicating the very forms of public hearings so powerfully associated with the TRC, this initiative organised ten public hearings across South Africa’s nine provinces at which some 600 witnesses, both urban and rural, testified to lives marked by generations of racialised poverty and exploitation.

There are several aspects that make this an important case study. Firstly, Speak Out Against Poverty represents an intervention aimed at disrupting the mandated boundaries of the TRC, speaking from within the very blind spot constituted by the TRC’s mandate. Secondly, while SANGOCO represented a range of non-governmental organisations historically linked to the struggle against apartheid, the Human Rights and Gender Commissions were both official structures, set up alongside the TRC as parliamentary commissions, members of which were thus directly appointed by and answerable to parliament. It thus points to rather more blurred boundaries between official and non-official initiatives than is commonly assumed. Questions of subjectivity and the discursive space from which deponents spoke provide a third line of enquiry. Did the decision to follow the same testimonial practices as the TRC generate similar forms of subjectivity? Was poverty heard through the discourse of trauma, and, if so, how did deponents occupy or contest the proffered subject position? Finally, despite the success of the hearings and powerful testimonies, Speak Out Against Poverty is barely remembered, even by scholars and practitioners of transitional justice. A smaller scale 2008 initiative produced a few leader page articles in various newspapers before similarly sinking into oblivion. This is doubly ironic given that the failure to address legacies of poverty and structural violence is widely and increasingly regarded as one of the key failures of South Africa’s transition. Despite the veritable industry of scholarship, and multiple forms of art, literature and music, around the TRC, Speak Out Against Poverty musters but a handful of references. This paper thus seeks to explain how the testimony of 600 persons at Speak Out Against Poverty hearings was rendered seemingly inaudible.

[1] C. Bundy, ‘The Beast of the Past: History and the TRC’ in W. James & W van der Vyifjer (ed) After the TRC: Reflections of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, 2000


Dr Shekoufe Sakhi, York University

People’s tribunals and truth-seeking in contexts of regime impunity: justice, ethics, agency (Iranian Experiences)

Pardis Shafafi, University of St Andrews

Swings and Roundabouts: Obstacles on the road to achieving collective justice (Iranian Diaspora movements)

In 1979 Iran’s socio-political landscape was transformed. After years of conflict between the Shah and a myriad of political opposition groups it seemed that the people had indeed prevailed in their push for change. This was an internal, heterogeneously composed opposition front including almost all elements of society, spanning religious, ethnic and left wing ideological demographics (Behrooz, 2000:96). As is now widely known, their short lived victory transformed into a systematic program of terror that turned back and attacked a great number of those who had enacted the transition. The ‘bloody decade’ of the 1980s saw thousands of executions and disappearances under the cloak of the war with neighbouring Iraq. The records of these massacres are still largely unreliable and or incomplete. This program of terror that ensued and persists up to the present day instigated a sprawling transnational Diaspora. My doctoral thesis and much of my professional career has been amongst those who were deeply affected by these events. Their post-revolutionary wave of migration, dubbed the ‘brain drain’ constituted highly skilled and educated liberal and left wing elements (Hakimzadeh, 2006), presumably well placed to remobilise abroad and challenge the newly established status quo.

But although numerous case studies have demonstrated that Iranian communities abroad are indeed generally disproportionally more politically active and more concerned and involved with ‘home’ politics than other immigrant groups, they are more commonly associated with another age-old narrative. This narrative implies that they (Iranian political groups abroad) are unable to work with each other; static in their revolutionary dogmas and unable to form cohesive and productive mainstream opposition groups with recruits from outside of their circles of familiarity. They are further understood to be prone to fragmentation and aggressive disputes that ultimately hinder and or halt their progress. This paper examines this prevailing narrative of Diaspora Iranians’ ineptitude in processes of collective mobilisation. The complex, multiple and often conflicting expectations and outcomes in their pursuit for collective and, crucially, personal quest for justice will be polemicized around their shared experiences of state violence and forced migration. Accordingly, through the course of my presentation I will examine just some the common obstacles to forming a robust and unified opposition movement abroad. Ultimately, my paper raises questions about whether it is realistic, or even possible to expect the opposition movement abroad to resolve their collective traumas, and if so, to pose possible avenues for doing so.