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Persistent or Eroding Impunity? The Divergent Effects of Legal Challenges to Amnesty Laws for Past Human Rights Violations

  • Francesca Lessa (a1), Tricia D Olsen (a1), Leigh A Payne (a1), Gabriel Pereira (a1) and Andrew G Reiter (a1)...


Transitional countries have struggled to overcome impunity for human rights violations committed by past authoritarian regimes. While some scholars have hailed the emergence of a ‘justice cascade’, a ‘justice revolution’, and an ‘age of accountability’, our research highlights the persistence of amnesty laws despite efforts to erode them. This article examines 63 amnesties for human rights violations committed by state agents that were enacted in 34 transitional countries from 1970 to 2011, and the 161 challenges that endeavoured to undermine the power of these laws.

We find significant variation in the outcome of challenges. While some lead to the removal or weakening of amnesty laws, others validate them. We explain the variation using an explanatory model that focuses on the characteristics of four actors: civil society, international governmental and non-governmental agencies, domestic executives and judicial leaders. Time also plays a conditioning role in our framework. We illustrate our argument by presenting emblematic country case studies. We conclude that even when amnesty laws are displaced or eroded, impunity tends to persist in some form.



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1 Sikkink, Kathryn, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics (WW Norton 2011).

2 Sriram, Chandra, Globalizing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Revolution in Accountability (Routledge 2005).

3 Lessa, Francesca and Payne, Leigh A (eds), Amnesty in the Age of Human Rights Accountability: Comparative and International Perspectives (Cambridge University Press 2012).

4 Mallinder, Louise, Amnesty, Human Rights and Political Transitions: Bridging the Peace and Justice Divide (Hart 2008) (Mallinder (2008)); Mallinder, Louise, ‘Can Amnesties and International Justice be Reconciled?’ (2007) 1 International Journal of Transitional Justice 208.

5 Mallinder (2008), ibid 19–20.

6 Louise Mallinder, ‘Amnesties’ Challenge to the Global Accountability Norm? Interpreting Regional and International Trends in Amnesty Enactment' in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 69; Kathryn Sikkink, ‘The Age of Accountability: The Global Rise of Individual Criminal Accountability’ in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 19.

7 Olsen, Tricia D, Payne, Leigh A and Reiter, Andrew G, Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Processes, Weighing Efficacy (United States Institute of Peace 2010). Keesing's World News Archive is their only source, but they nonetheless claim a high degree of consistency with the Mallinder data set.

8 The Transitional Justice Collaborative Data Set was partly released in November 2013; currently only data on trials is available for browsing; amnesty and truth commission data will be available in early 2014: see Transitional Justice Collaborative,

9 Meintjes, Garth and Méndez, Juan E, ‘Reconciling Amnesties with Universal Jurisdiction’ (2000) 2 International Law FORUM Du Droit International 76.

10 Snyder, Jack and Vinjamuri, Leslie, ‘Trials and Errors’ (2003/4) 28 International Security 5.

11 Freeman, Mark, Necessary Evils: Amnesties and the Search for Justice (Cambridge University Press 2009); Mark Freeman and Max Pensky, ‘The Amnesty Controversy in International Law’ in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 42.

12 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (entered into force 1 July 2002) 2187 UNTS 90 (ICC Statute).

13 Authors' translation; the original text of the law is available here: ‘Ley de Amnistía Chilena’, Equipo Nizkor,

14 Amnesty International, ‘Amnesty International Report 1997 – Bangladesh’, UNHCR, 1 January 1997, See also ‘The Indemnity Ordinance, 1975 – Bangladesh’, The Bangladesh Gazette, 26 September 1975,

15 Amnesty International, ‘A Legacy of Impunity – A Threat to Algeria's Future’, March 2009, MDE 28/001/2009, 2009, 16.

16 See Massacres of El Mozote and Nearby Places (2012) Inter-Am Ct HR (Ser C) No 252; Gelman v Uruguay (2011) Inter-Am Ct HR (Ser C) No 221; Case of Barrios Altos v Peru (2001) Inter-Am Ct HR (Ser C) No 75.

17 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, OAS Res XXX, reprinted in Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System, OAS/SerL/V/I.4 Rev 9 (2003).

18 American Convention on Human Rights, Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica (entered into force 18 July 1978) 1144 UNTS 123.

19 Although in our larger study we tracked pressure against amnesty laws by three INGOs (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Centre for Transitional Justice), because they do not constitute legal challenges we have excluded them from the analysis in this article.

20 See Decreto N° 145-96, Ley de Reconciliación Nacional, UNHCR, 27 December 1996,

21 Individuals accused of being the intellectual authors of Myrna Mack's murder filed a petition for amnesty in January 1997, arguing that her murder was a political crime and therefore fell within the scope of the amnesty. In February 1997, first instance Judge Delgado argued instead that the murder was not ‘one of the crimes listed as a related common crime’ in the amnesty: see Margaret Popkin, ‘Guatemala's National Reconciliation Law: Combating Impunity or Continuing it?’ (1996) 24 Revista IIDH 174. More recently, on 23 December 2008, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court rejected an appeal for amnesty by army officer Marco Antonio Sanchez Samayoa. He is accused of participating in the disappearance of five civilians in the village of El Jute, Chiquimula. An appeals court had earlier freed Sanchez, ruling that he was entitled to amnesty. This was later upheld by the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court, however, ruled that, although the law was applicable in the case, the Supreme Court judges had failed to take into account its exclusion of ‘certain crimes related to human rights violations’ from the ambit of permissible amnesties: see Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Emily Braid, ‘De Facto and De Jure Amnesty Laws in Central America’ in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 194.

22 Backer, David, ‘Civil Society and Transitional Justice: Possibilities, Patterns and Prospects’ (2003) 2 Journal of Human Rights 297; Bickford, Louis, ‘Unofficial Truth Projects’ (2007) 29 Human Rights Quarterly 994.

23 Hilbink, Lisa, Judges Beyond Politics in Democracy and Dictatorship: Lessons from Chile (Cambridge University Press 2007).

24 Skaar, Elin, Judicial Independence and Human Rights in Latin America: Violations, Politics, and Prosecution (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

25 Keck, Margaret and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Cornell University Press 1998).

26 Roht-Arriaza, Naomi, ‘The Role of International Actors in National Accountability Processes’ in de Brito, Alexandra Barahona, Enríquez, Carmen González and Aguilar, Paloma (eds), The Politics of Memory: Transitional Justice in Democratizing Societies (Oxford University Press 2001) 40.

27 Laplante, Lisa J, ‘Outlawing Amnesty: The Return of Criminal Justice in Transitional Justice Schemes’ (2009) 49 Virginia Journal of International Law 915.

28 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rule-of-Law Tools for Post-Conflict States: Amnesties, HR/PUB/09/1 (United Nations Publications 2009).

29 For a discussion of the role of the executive power and presidents in influencing accountability see Pion-Berlin, David, ‘To Prosecute or to Pardon? Human Rights Decisions in the Latin American Southern Cone’ (1994) 16 Human Rights Quarterly 105; Roehrig, Terence, ‘Executive Leadership and the Continuing Quest for Justice in Argentina’ (2009) 31 Human Rights Quarterly 721.

30 The Full Stop Law of December 1986 and the Due Obedience Law of June 1987 severely restricted the prosecution of human rights violations committed by middle and higher ranking state agents indicted by March 1987. For the text of the Full Stop Law see InfoLEG,; for the text of the Due Obedience Law see InfoLEG,

31 For a detailed discussion of the Argentine process, see Par Engstrom and Gabriel Pereira, ‘From Amnesty to Accountability: The Ebb and Flow in the Search for Justice in Argentina’ in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 97.

32 For a discussion of these strategies and their outcomes, see ibid.

33 Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Informe Anual 2002 (Siglo XXI 2002).

34 See Report 28/92 – Cases 10.147, 10.240, 10.262, 10.309 and 10.311, Argentina (2 October 1992) (IACHR). See also UN Human Rights Committee, ‘Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Argentina’, 3 November 2000, CCPR/CO/70/ARG.

35 Engstrom and Pereira (n 31).

36 Kirchner won the presidential election with only about 22% of the votes after competing candidate Menem withdrew his candidacy before the second round and after having gained about 25% of the votes in the first round. Menem was widely expected to lose the second round with a significant margin.

37 See ‘Hubo 439 condenas en todo el país por crímenes de lesa humanidad’, Centro de Información Judicial Argentina, 31 May 2013,

38 The Supreme Court of Argentina has pointed out that the judiciary was initially not adequately prepared to administer the many and often complex judicial cases because of a lack of resources: see ‘Informe: Delitos de lesa humanidad Informe sobre la evolución de las causas Actualizado al 16 de julio de 2010’, Centro de Information Judicial,

39 Par Engstrom, ‘Transnational Human Rights and Democratization: Argentina and the Inter-American Human Rights System (1976–2007)’, DPhil dissertation, University of Oxford, 2010.

40 Lessa, Francesca, Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay: Against Impunity (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

41 Walter Pernas, ‘Ojos vendados’, Brecha, 3 January 2013,

42 For more details, see Jo-Marie Burt and Francesca Lessa, ‘Recent Sentence by Uruguayan Supreme Court Obstructs Search for Truth and Justice,’ Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 28 February 2013,

43 See the Observatorio Derechos Humanos website for up-to-date information on trials and sentencing in Chile: ‘Cifras Causas DDHH Chile/Latest Human Rights Case Statistics for Chile’, Observatorio Derechos Humanos,

44 For a general discussion of the strategies and outcomes of human rights groups during and after the authoritarian rule see Collins, Cath, Post-Transitional Justice: Human Rights Trials in Chile and El Salvador (Pennsylvania State University Press 2010).

45 Collins, Cath, ‘Grounding Global Justice: International Networks and Domestic Human Rights Accountability in Chile and El Salvador’ (2006) 38 Journal of Latin American Studies 711.

46 ibid.

47 For a discussion of the decisions of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights see Centro de Derechos Humanos, Universidad Diego Portales, ‘Informe Anual sobre Derechos Humanos en Chile’, 2003,

48 Almonacid-Arellano and Others (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR (Ser C) No 154.

49 Collins (n 45).

50 For discussion of some failed initiatives to annul or restrict the amnesty see Centro de Derechos Humanos (n 47) and Collins (n 45).

51 Collins (n 45).

52 For an example, see Leigh A Payne's discussion of the Punta Peuco prison where Manuel Contreras, second in command in the Pinochet regime, was imprisoned: Payne, Leigh A, Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence (Duke University Press 2008) 153–54.

53 Burt, Jo-Marie, ‘Guilty as Charged: The Trial of Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for Human Rights Violations’ (2009) 3 International Journal of Transitional Justice 384.

54 Collins, Cath, Balardini, Lorena and Burt, Jo-Marie, ‘Mapping Perpetrator Prosecutions in Latin America’ (2013) 7 International Journal of Transitional Justice 8.

55 ‘Sentencias – Estadísticas y Gráficos sobre las Sentencias en casos de Graves Violaciones de Derechos Humanos’, Human Rights Trials in Peru, data from 2 September 2012,

56 Full text of 1979 Brazilian amnesty law, please see Lei No 6.683 de 28 de Augosto de 1979, Diário Oficial da União Secao, I-Parte I., .

57 Daniel Arao Filho Reis, O golpe e a dictadura militar: quarenta anos depois (1964–2004) (Edusc 2004) 47.

58 Emily Braid, Francesca Lessa, and Gabriel Pereira, ‘Unravelling Amnesties: The Quest for Justice in Latin America’, paper presented at the 2012 International Conference on Law and Society, Honolulu, Hawai'i (US), 7 June 2012.

59 Schneider, Nina, ‘Impunity in Post-authoritarian Brazil: The Supreme Court's Recent Verdict on the Amnesty Law’ (2011) 90 European Review of Latin American and Carribean Studies 39.

60 Case of Gomes Lund et al (‘Guerrilha do Araguaia’) v Brazil (2010) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 24 November 2010, (Ser C) No 219.

61 American Convention on Human Rights (n 18).

62 Mezzaroba, Glenda, ‘Between Reparations, Half Truths and Impunity: The Difficult Break with the Legacy of the Dictatorship in Brazil’ (2010) 13 SUR Journal – International Journal on Human Rights 7.

63 Paulo Abrão and Marcelo Torelly, ‘Resistance to Change: Brazil's Persistent Amnesty and its Alternatives for Truth and Justice’ in Lessa and Payne (n 3) 152.

64 Paloma Aguilar, Laia Balcells and Héctor Cebolla-Boado, ‘Determinants of Attitudes Towards Transitional Justice: An Empirical Analysis of the Spanish Case’ (2011) 44 Comparative Political Studies 1397.

65 Aguilar, Paloma, ‘Judiciary Involvement in Authoritarian Repression and Transitional Justice: The Spanish Case in Comparative Perspective’ (2013) 7 International Journal of Transitional Justice 245.

66 Tilly, Charles, Regimes and Repertoires (University of Chicago Press 2006).

67 Case of Barrios Altos v Peru (n 16).

68 Case of La Cantuta v Peru (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 29 November 2006, (Ser C) No 162.

69 de la Puente, Susana Villarán, ‘Peru’ in Due Process of Law Foundation (ed), Victims Unsilenced: The Inter-American Human Rights System and Transitional Justice in Latin America (Due Process of Law Foundation 2007) 95.

70 Loveman, Mara, ‘High-Risk Collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina’ (1998) 104 American Journal of Sociology 477.

71 Couso, Javier, Huneeus, Alexandra and Sieder, Rachel (eds), Cultures of Legality: Judicialization and Political Activism in Latin America (Cambridge University Press 2010).

72 ‘Estado de las cosas’, La Diaria, 10 October 2012,

73 Case of Gelman v Uruguay (n 16) para 278.

74 Case of Gomes Lund et al (‘Guerrilha do Araguaia’) v Brazil (n 60).

75 ibid para 325.9.

76 Daniel Roncaglia, ‘Ação contra Curió por sequestro é suspensa’, Folha de S Paulo, 4 December 2012.

This research received support from the National Science Foundation (Grant No 0961226) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Grant No AH/I500030/1) for the project entitled ‘The Impact of Transitional Justice on Human Rights and Democracy’; from the Oak Foundation (Grant No OCAY-11-143) for the project ‘Overcoming Amnesty in the Age of Accountability’; and from the John Fell OUP Research Fund (Grant No 101/552) for the project ‘Accounting for Amnesty: Justice for Past Atrocity’. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Oak Foundation or the John Fell OUP Research Fund. The authors would like to acknowledge support from their fellow team members on this project, especially Emily Braid, Pierre-Louis Le Goff, Geoff Dancy and Kathryn Sikkink.


Persistent or Eroding Impunity? The Divergent Effects of Legal Challenges to Amnesty Laws for Past Human Rights Violations

  • Francesca Lessa (a1), Tricia D Olsen (a1), Leigh A Payne (a1), Gabriel Pereira (a1) and Andrew G Reiter (a1)...


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