International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Art’s Place in Transitional Justice

Death and the Maiden is a play written by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman in 1991, after he returned to the newly-democratic Chile from exile, with the country in an uneasy transition and Pinochet still in command of the armed forces. The Rettig Commission was carrying out its work, and Dorfman felt the need to break the self-censoring silence that still remained in everyday life, of victims and perpetrators living side-by-side, coexisting, and, he says, “never acknowledging the pain and the guilt, not to themselves, not to anybody.”

The play itself is provocative, moving, and extremely relevant to our class, but it and Dorfman’s explanations of its necessity in transitory Chilean society raise an issue that we haven’t discussed much: the role of art in transitional justice. Art, especially in the case of Death and the Maiden, addresses the plight of the individual, of the victim and the perpetrator as humans, and of the relationships that compose society and everyday life after a such a massive break in the social fabric as an authoritarian regime or mass atrocity.

I think that we’ve been hinting at the more individualized and psychological requirements of transitional justice on this blog, in the class, and in some of the readings, and the role of art gives us a new way to discuss them. Dorfman makes the case for raising art above the therapeutic role that it is typically assigned, and giving it an integral place in reconciliation. With all of the focus we have put on the truth, it is important to remember that before the truth can emerge, there has to be a way of breaking through silence.

In his afterward to Death and the Maiden, Dorfman explains his motivations behind writing the play, giving the reader insight into his personal experiences during the transition, and asking many of the questions with which transitional justice is forced to struggle. I’ve included a break with one of these passages:

“It was then [in 1990] and is now [in 1991] more than ever my belief that a fragile democracy is strengthened by expressing for all to see the deep dramas and sorrows and hopes that underlie its existence and that it is not by hiding the damage we have inflicted on ourselves that we will avoid its repetition.

As I began to write I found the characters trying to figure out the sort of questions that so many Chileans were asking themselves privately, but that hardly anyone seemed interested in posing in public. How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land? How to heal a country that has been traumatised by repression if the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere? And how do you reach the truth if lying has become a habit? How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future? Is it legitimate to sacrifice the truth to ensure peace? And what are the consequences of suppressing that past and the truth it is whispering or howling to us? Are people free to search for justice and equality if the threat of a military intervention haunts them? And given these circumstances, can violence be avoided? And how guilty are we all of what happened to those who suffered most? And perhaps the greatest dilemma of them all: how to confront these issues without destroying the national consensus, which creates democratic stability?

Three weeks later, Death and the Maiden was ready.”

(Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. New York, NY: Penguin, 1992.)


2 responses to “Art’s Place in Transitional Justice

  1. awoodz November 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    saracord – your excellent question about the place of art in transitional justice is something that I have been pondering as well throughout the course. Indeed, in analyzing processes of restorative justice via the ICC and truth commissions, it has become apparent that cultivating a sense of trust is pivotal in fixing victims’ damaged relationships with the state and with other community members. In their quest to “heal” victims, the ICC and truth commissions have emphasized the need to give “voice” to victims in judicial proceedings. However, as you mentioned, the ways in which international law institutions are attempting to do this is have not adequately addressed the fact that many victims are not participating in these healing processes because of a self-censored silence.

    In addition, I think this international legal rhetoric of “giving voice to victims” (while obviously well-intentioned) is somewhat flawed in that it presumes that victims immediately want to partake in prosecutions against perpetrators, that all victims are psychologically and socially ready and/or willing to do this. How can one retell the “truth” of a crime if one hasn’t come to terms with the crime his/herself? While “giving voice” to the victim does elevate victim presence in the courtroom, it does not necessarily lend to healing.

    There needs to be an alternative option for socially-recognized victim expression that facilitates the steps of healing that precede confrontation with the perpetrator. Justice for victims means providing victims with the opportunity to reassert their human rights, to express themselves without fear of repression and separately from political or legal agendas. Most importantly, I think its critical to reevaluate whether or not victims are really “silent”: that is, there is a difference between being silent and being silenced. No doubt, victims are reliving and reviewing their pasts in their own minds all the time. What is needed is a social outlet that exhibits and articulates their already active voices and identities and accepts them. Art and literature offer mechanisms to do just this. Artistic therapy could constitute an arena of traditional justice that is respectful of victim experience, that truly heals and that is protected from impeding political influences. Cultivating trust means ensuring victims that their rights to well-being are protected, regardless of their particular ethnic, religious, or political identities; therefore, if the ICC and truth commissions purport to represent these human rights goals, it seems that they should take into consideration artistic modes of individual and community therapy, and perhaps provide resources to struggling programs like this such as the Tree of Life program in Zimbabwe.

  2. dlawrence27 November 19, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I agree that art can play important role in transitional justice in both its implementations—as a therapeutic tool and, as Dorfman suggests, for greater goals of reconciliation. Art is a wide-spread medium that can at the same time comment on the past and current wrongs in society in a complex manner, while having highly individualized interpretations.

    More specifically with regards to Death and the Maiden itself, the protagonist, Paulina, was raped during a period of imprisonment. Although Dorfman does not use specifics, Death and the Maiden takes place in a Latin American country, where truth commissions did not include addressing sexual violence as part of their mandates. Dorfman illustrates the danger of the cycle of impunity and revenge when victims’ psychological needs are ignored; Paulina demands of her supposed torturer what the state did not provide—a recorded, truthful confession. This moment shines a light on the failings of some transitional justice institutions—Dorfman specifically chose to address the silence surrounding sexual violence and through doing so he may have hoped to break it.

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