In conversation with Dr Francesca Lessa

Dr. Francesca Lessa is an esteemed scholar and Departmental Lecturer in Latin American Studies and Development at the University of Oxford. Dr Lessa’s impressive academic achievements and her latest publication, “The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America” (2022) has received widespread acclaim for its groundbreaking exploration and fresh insights. The book dives deep into South America’s complex web of transnational repression and human rights issues. It was awarded the prestigious 2023 Juan E. MĂ©ndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.

During our conversation, Dr Lessa spoke about her experiences as a lecturer and researcher, uncovering the remarkable contributions she’s making in Latin American studies and human rights research.

Luena: As a Departmental lecturer in Latin American Studies, how do you engage and inspire students to explore and critically analyse the complex issues surrounding human rights and development in Latin America?

Dr. Francesca: Human rights and international relations are undergoing key transformations in Latin America. These matters intersect as transnational predicaments affect the entire continent and the wider world. Given the nature of these cross-border issues, the traditional approach of individual states addressing their own problems is no longer effective. Cooperation and coordinated action amongst states are critical in addressing the origins and repercussions of these intricate problems.

As a lecturer offering courses on Latin American human rights and Latin American international relations, I endeavour to involve students by focusing on current issues. Although we delve into the history of human rights and international relations to provide context, I make a concerted effort to incorporate contemporary issues. Students are keen to learn about the world from an academic perspective and to investigate how these issues have been debated within theoretical frameworks. This permits us to unravel the intricate dynamics and consider policy alternatives and strategies.

I utilise a range of methods to stimulate participation. For instance, in addition to regular lectures and classes, I invite Latin American experts to deliver extra seminars. Last year, experts from Mexico and Venezuela offered their perspectives on the drug conflict and the migration crisis, respectively. These topics shed light on the conditions created by authoritarian regimes that violate human rights, exacerbating inequality, poverty, and restricted access to education and employment. Consequently, there has been a significant wave of migration not only from south to north, but also within Latin America itself.

Moreover, I have in the past organised a human rights film festival showcasing films related to the course content. These films explore everything from the transition from dictatorship to peace and democracy to today’s issues of inequality, poverty, discrimination, gender-based violence, and environmental crises. The screenings are followed by discussions, which enable students to engage with and scrutinise the dynamics surrounding these pressing issues.

I aspire to create an interactive and inclusive learning environment by employing a variety of teaching methods, such as expert seminars and film screenings. These approaches allow students to delve into the complexities of Latin American human rights and development, encouraging critical thinking and fostering discussions that transcend the conventional lecture and seminar format.

LR: Memory and transnational justice are central themes in your work. How do memory initiatives and the pursuit of accountability interact in the context of human rights violations? What impact do they have on societies in Latin America?

FL: Indeed, another challenging question to answer, I would argue that both memory and justice are fundamental, not only to Latin America but more broadly. This is because we know that numerous other countries and regions worldwide are grappling with similar challenges: providing accountability for systematic human rights violations committed during periods of state terror, dictatorship or war, and that are still being committed today. Take Ukraine and Sudan, for example. Regrettably, the news continually gives us more examples indicating that these dynamics haven’t disappeared. Consequently, the challenge remains: how can societies best grapple with this legacy in a way that doesn’t solely dwell on the past, which, of course, is a crucial step in attempting to comprehend precisely what transpired. 

What were the structural and institutional causes that prompted the onset of these extreme periods of violence? But also, how do we look forward: how can we prevent these types of crimes from being committed in the future? Recently, there has been considerable focus on the so-called transformative justice in many publications. This approach attempts to blend transitional justice — in terms of accountability for past crimes — with a look at the issue of structural violence. Sometimes violence is not solely confined to direct cases of disappearances, murder, or abductions, but it also emerges from inequality, poverty, lack of opportunities to study or work, or facing discrimination because of gender, race, or ideology. All these dynamics still create situations in which people’s potential is not fully realised.

This new concept of transformative justice tries to take a closer look at the ground level to understand how different communities perceive justice and what needs to be done to achieve this conception of justice. The aim is not to impose a top-down state policy without actually listening to people and the communities directly suffering. What exactly do they need? How do they want their societies and communities to look? 

This new concept of transformative justice tries to take a closer look at the ground level to understand how different communities perceive justice and what needs to be done to achieve this conception of justice.

Transitional justice and memory are critical in this context. As I said, not only for past crimes — although many countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, are still trying to come to terms with the legacy of their military dictatorships — but also for contemporary human rights violations.

Take Peru, for example, where over the past few months, there have been numerous societal protests and a government response marked by violent repression of the right to protest and free speech. We witness these dynamics unfolding in parallel all the time.

What transitional justice and memory, as academic disciplines, help us to see is an attempt to trace the origins of these contemporary forms of violence. This includes looking back at institutional mechanisms such as the police, the military police, and the way they are trained to respond to protests. Why is violence always the immediate response in cases of protest? Why is the right to protest increasingly criminalised? Why are specific sectors of society marginalised and feel excluded from the societal good?

In Chile, for instance, since the 2019 protests (the so-called social uprising), there have been significant efforts to change the Constitution to make it more inclusive, especially for women, LGBTQ+ groups, and indigenous communities. These efforts attempt to tackle some long-standing structural inequalities and issues dating back centuries, but most recently to the constitution of 1980, enacted during the military regime.

You can see these connections between past and present continually confronting each other, with some critical moments when this confrontation becomes far more acute. There are no easy solutions. There has been a lot of back-and-forth on the Constitution, and the referendum didn’t pass. Now, after another vote for a new stage, right-wing groups have achieved a lot of votes. This result has caused concern among grassroots organisations, fearing that the new constitution might be even more restrictive than the one they currently have.

These are continual processes, and I believe that learning from past experiences can provide some guidance.

LR: Congratulations on your second book, “The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America,” receiving the Juan E. MĂ©ndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. Could you provide an overview of the book’s main themes and its significance in understanding human rights in South America?

FL: Thank you. I’m very excited about the book. It took a lot of work and time to write, so I’m very happy that it has been well received. The book has two main themes. The first theme is transnational repression, which is a notion and term discussed in the literature of human rights, international relations, and migration. Transnational repression refers to the ability of states to prosecute political opponents even after they have left their country of origin. The term encompasses the different tools, practices, and mechanisms that states employ to reach, silence, or eliminate opposition outside their borders.

Transnational repression refers to the ability of states to prosecute political opponents even after they have left their country of origin.

Operation Condor serves as a perfect example of transnational repression. It involved South American states collaborating to silence not only political opponents who were members of armed groups but also individuals from social and political organisations that exposed the crimes committed by the dictatorships within their own borders. The objective was shared among the South American states, leading them to work together through Operation Condor to effectively persecute political opponents. During the time of Operation Condor’s creation in late 1975, the majority of dissidents were in Argentina, as the other countries were already under military rule. Many dissidents initially fled from Brazil and then moved through Bolivia, Uruguay, and Chile. They sought refuge and converged in Argentina due to its democratic period from late 1973 until early 1976. However, when Argentina also experienced a coup in March 1976, they were trapped and faced severe persecution within the context of transnational repression. This explains why there were numerous victims, including many Chileans, Paraguayans, and Brazilians, who believed they were safe in Argentina but were ultimately not.

The first theme of the book aims to understand how states prosecute political opponents who are physically located elsewhere. While there is existing literature on Operation Condor, this book offers something new by exploring the emergence of Operation Condor and delving into its origins from the late 1960s, seven to six years prior to its actual establishment. It examines the gradual progression over time, starting with Brazil, the first country interested in monitoring the activities of exiled dissidents and diaspora. The book illustrates how the countries in South America gradually collaborated more closely to silence political opponents. Furthermore, it seeks to understand the end of Operation Condor, which, similar to its beginning, was not a sudden event but rather a gradual process of dismantling its practices and a return to the traditional concerns of the Armed Forces. Once the military regimes felt they had effectively eliminated the threats posed by these exile groups, Operation Condor came to an end. This forms the first theme of the book.

Then, the second theme of the book is transnational justice, which can be seen as a mirror image of transnational repression. While transnational repression involves states crossing borders to persecute individuals, transnational justice involves the efforts of victims, human rights groups, civil society actors, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and historians to uncover and present evidence in court. They aim to prosecute the individuals responsible for cross-border crimes in a court of law. However, the challenge lies in retracing and piecing together all the steps and crimes that occurred in multiple geographical spaces. Justice seekers, including the victims and their network, had to collect evidence such as archival documents and testimonies from survivors or their families. They had to painstakingly assemble this information like a puzzle to present it in court.

…transnational justice involves the efforts of victims, human rights groups, civil society actors, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and historians to uncover and present evidence in court.

The second part of the book focuses on transnational justice, examining these efforts to obtain justice and denounce major human rights violations. One interesting aspect of this part is how justice seekers began to expose the crimes during the same period when Operation Condor was at its peak. Early denunciations were made before the US Congress and international bodies like the Inter-American Commission, dating back to 1976 and 1977. This shows the courage of individuals, including survivors, who had endured abduction, arrest, torture, and transfer between countries. They went to international institutions to raise awareness and collect evidence to denounce the crimes. It is worth noting that these efforts took place during the Cold War, a time of major international confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, where human rights were not a priority. However, due to these early information-gathering efforts, there was substantial evidence by the time the so-called third wave of democratic transition occurred in South America. This paved the way for some efforts to achieve justice and accountability once the countries returned to democracy.

Another innovative aspect of the book is that I followed one of the trials related to Operation Condor that took place in Argentina between 2013 and 2016. I personally observed the trial for 18 months, offering an ethnographic account of the trial process and attending approximately 70 hearings. This trial represents the largest investigation into Operation Condor in South America. Additionally, I conducted a similar endeavour for a trial in Italy, albeit on a smaller scale. Exploring the stories of these trials, which are relatively rare, provides a unique perspective and offers insight into the process of seeking justice and understanding human rights.

LR: As an expert in Latin American studies, how do you see the field evolving in the coming years? Are there any emerging areas of research or new perspectives that you find particularly interesting or promising?

FL: Yeah, so I believe Latin America has always been a dynamic region in terms of innovation, new thinking, social mobilisation strategies, and policies. However, sometimes progress comes at a price, as we’ve seen in the case of Operation Condor. Despite the atrocities committed during that period, it led to mobilization efforts by civil society to denounce these crimes and resulted in the emergence of new treaties on torture and enforced disappearances, which previously didn’t exist. The region has always been a hub of activity, but I would like to highlight a couple of key areas that I believe will become even more prominent in the coming months and years.

Firstly, there is a significant mobilisation around gender issues and reproductive rights. Over the past few years, numerous countries have taken steps to recognize and protect women’s rights, reproductive rights, and the right to make decisions about their bodies. Uruguay and Argentina, for example, have adopted progressive legislation, and Chile has made some improvements in this regard. However, many Central American countries still have restrictive laws on these issues. The transnational social movements advocating for women’s rights have played a crucial role in pushing for change, and I believe we will continue to see progress and further developments across the region. Similarly, there have been advancements in recognizing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, with countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and possibly Brazil legalizing same-sex marriage. These achievements highlight the positive strides being made in different gender-related issues.

Of course, it’s important to note that it’s not all positive. Latin America also faces challenges, such as high rates of femicides, which emphasise the need for better legislation and implementation to protect women from targeted violence. Nevertheless, progress is being made, and there is an ongoing push for change.

The second area of interest relates to the environment. Latin America is home to breathtaking landscapes and rich biodiversity, particularly the Amazon rainforest, which is a global treasure. However, the region has also witnessed contrasting trends due to extractivist policies pursued by many governments. These policies prioritise resource extraction for domestic use and exportation to countries like China, Europe, and the US. Unfortunately, this approach has led to environmental and cultural damage, especially impacting indigenous communities deeply connected to the land. They have often been dispossessed or suffered the consequences of environmental disasters. This complex situation, exacerbated by climate change, has become one of the key contemporary human rights issues in Latin America.

Notably, there have been interesting developments in the form of the EscazĂş Agreement, the first regional agreement in Latin America that addresses access to environmental information, justice in environmental matters, and the protection of environmental defenders. It acknowledges the constant threats faced by environmental defenders and emphasises the state’s responsibility to create a safe environment for their vital work in protecting the environment. Although 15 out of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean states have ratified the treaty, more have signed it, including Brazil, which signed but never ratified it. Encouragingly, I hope to see more countries in the region ratify the treaty and adopt proactive policies and legislation for the protection of the environment.

In my view, these two areas—gender issues and reproductive rights, as well as environmental protection—are key thematic interests in Latin America. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the region also faces other challenges, such as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and persistent inequality. There is much more to explore, but these areas are particularly evolving and exciting at the moment.

LR: Your research has gained significant attention from international news outlets and organisations. How do you view the role of media and public awareness in advancing human rights causes and holding perpetrators accountable in Latin America?

FL: The role of the media, I would say, has been key in generating awareness about the crimes and human rights violations that have been committed. In many cases, especially during the dictatorship era, but even today, there is not a lot of information available about these practices.

Therefore, the media plays an important role in disseminating this information and raising awareness among society that such atrocities are still happening.

the media plays an important role in disseminating this information and raising awareness among society that such atrocities are still happening.

However, the media can have a dual role. For example, in Brazil, many media outlets can be quite conservative and have normalised some of the human rights violations in the country. They have perpetuated the unfortunate practice of assassinating young boys, particularly from the poorest neighbourhoods of Rio and Sao Paulo, creating an image that associates living in these neighbourhoods with criminality. This automatic association is present not only in the media but also in political discourse and policy-making. The media sometimes reproduces and normalises the notion that having a certain physical appearance or living in a specific part of the city makes one dangerous or likely to be a criminal. This, in turn, justifies the extremely violent response of the police when they enter these parts of the city.

Therefore, it is important to be cautious with the media. While it has the potential to be an ally in terms of raising awareness, education, and challenging silence and impunity by providing news and information, it has also been used to legitimise or justify human rights violations. That’s why the presence of independent media in Latin America is significant. Independent media outlets try to be less influenced by political interests and provide an unbiased voice on these issues. In my experience working with journalists from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, I’ve noticed that they all share a common endeavour to produce and disseminate knowledge. They strive to bridge the knowledge gaps left by governments that have not been proactive in releasing information about the dictatorship era, crimes, or contemporary human rights violations. These journalists play a crucial role in filling those gaps, and their work is truly commendable.

Image credit:

Image description: Portrait of Dr Francesca Lessa