By David McCoy
On November 15th, Nina Schneider, a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, gave a lecture titled “‘Transitional Justice’ in Brazil? A Historian’s Perspective” at Tulane University. The goal of the talk was to question the precision, appropriateness, and historical nature of the terms “transitional” and “justice” as they are used in the Brazilian case as well as internationally. Schneider argued that the vocabulary of transitional justice can be used to mobilize the causes of memory and justice but can also be employed to mislead onlookers as to the true nature of what occurs in the process, which is often understood as being carried out to appease the international community without bringing a true “transition” domestically.
Schneider began the presentation with a recounting of the most significant occurrences in the process of Brazilian transitional justice as well an explanation of the dynamics of the National Truth Commission and the state and private commissions. She outlines the history flowing from the publication of Brasil, Never Again, Cardoso’s installment of the Death and Disappearance Commission in 1995, the Amnesty Commission installed in 2002, and finally the Truth Commission. She also presented examples of gray areas that make the terms “transitional” and “justice” problematic, such as the case in which ex-colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra was condemned but not prosecuted in court, in addition to the temporal problems of using “transitional” 30 years after the transition from the military regime after which violence on behalf of state actors has not ceased. Schneider presented some intriguing cases of the contemporary “industry” of transitional justice, such as the Handbook on Transitional Justice for Latin America, produced by publishers in Brasilia and the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, despite Brazil’s lack of a support for transitional justice in relation to its neighbors.
Throughout the presentation and during the question and answer session, Schneider highlighted her points with particular cases that gave insight into the culture of the transitional justice process in Brazil, such as students wearing masks with the faces of disappeared students during the inauguration of the University of Brasilia’s truth commission and the emotional accounts of personal experiences of torture that were repeatedly cut off by a five-minute limit during a Truth Commission meeting with civil society. Schneider used these moments of anecdotal insight to guide the listener into an understanding of what is still very much so lacking in Brazil. Schneider made it clear that she was not making a suggestion as to how transitional justice should work but rather analyzing the use and role of the term in the Brazilian case. She addressed her take away message as being that the term lends itself well to easy usage when discussing aspects of a government’s efforts to address human rights violations but that it becomes so fluid the term “transitional justice” begins to lose meaning, in the case of Brazil, as a legitimate method or commitment to resolving the crimes of the dictatorship.