Throughout Latin America during the past 15 years, new democratic or postwar governments have faced demands for transitional justice following the end of authoritarian rule or the conclusion of internal armed conflicts.
Demands for justice for serious past abuses have often been met by threats of destabilization by the perpetrators and calls for forgiving and forgetting in the name of reconciliation.
Although recent developments in and interpretations of international law oblige states to punish those responsible for serious human rights violations, many transitional governments insist that reconciliation requires broad amnesty laws. This essay first reviews basic legal and conceptual issues relating to prosecution of, and grants of amnesty to, those responsible for gross human rights abuses during earlier periods. A comparative examination follows, starting with El Salvador, where the amnesty law constitutes the most comprehensive and successful action to end efforts to address past abuses. The essay then reviews the status of efforts in Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, and South Africa, where, despite amnesty laws, civil society and courts have sought to uncover the truth about the past, hold perpetrators accountable, and obtain redress for victims.