On Judgment: Managing Emotions in Trials of Crimes Against Humanity in Argentina

AuthorNoa Vaisman,Leticia Barrera
Publication Date01 Dec 2020
On Judgment: Managing
Emotions in Trials of
Crimes Against Humanity
in Argentina
Noa Vaisman
Aarhus University, Denmark
Leticia Barrera
For over a decade, judicial accountability of mass human rights violations committed
during the last civil-military dictatorship in Argentina (1976–1983) has been carried out
in federal courts by regular judges, following the rules of the National Code of Criminal
Procedure. Research on these trials has focused mainly on the victims and the accused.
This article opens a different path by exploring the affective experiences of the judges
presiding over and leading the trials.
Based on interviews with 18 federal court judges and some participantobservation, in
this article we present a descriptive exploration of the judges’ experiences and sense-
making processes. We examine the complex interaction between the professional
requirement to separate emotions from judgment and the emotional toll that these trials
produce in thepersonal and professional livesof the judges. We end with short reflections
on these crimes against humanity trials in the post-Transitional Justice context.
Argentina, crimes against humanity, emotions, judgment, Transitional Justice
Corresponding authors:
Noa Vaisman, Departmentof Anthropology, Aarhus University, MoesgaardAll ´
e 20, Højbjerg, Denmark.
Email: noa.vaisman@cas.au.dk
Leticia Barrera, Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales, Universidad Nacional de San Mart´
ın, Edificio de Ciencias
Sociales - Campus Miguelete, Av. 25 de Mayo 1021, San Mart´
ın, Pcia de Buenos Aires (1650), Argentina.
Email: leticiabarrera@conicet.gov.ar
Social & Legal Studies
2020, Vol. 29(6) 812–834
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0964663919900974
In Argentina, the victims’ struggle for recognition, truth, and accountability began
during the years of dictatorial rule (1976–1983) and has seen ebbs and flows. In the
early 2000s, it led to the reopening of judicial proceedings against perpetrators of mass
human rights (HR) violations. Scholarly interest in these crimes against humanity trials
has mainly focused on specific trials (Guthmann, 2015; Lessa, 2019; Natarajan, 2013),
on the victims’ perspective (Lay´
us, 2015, 2018) or on the legal outcomes of these
monumental events (Anitua et al., 2014; Bouvier et al., 2014; Lorenzetti and Kraut, 2011;
for a distinctly broader exploration see Bell and Di Paolantonio , 2018). Our article,
somewhat differently, explores the emotional impact of these trials on the judges who
have taken part in one or more trials in recent years.
Our research examines the following questions: how do judges, who sit through
hundreds of very difficult testimonies that recount forced disappearances, rapes, torture,
and other horrific violations of basic rights and dignity, who conduct ‘ocular visits’ in the
clandestine centers (or, more often than n ot, in their ruins), and who must face the
horrifying violence and its marks on a daily basis – handle the detailed information and
its inevitable emotional toll? What do they do with the emotional turmoil that such
information can generate? And how do they incorporate or resist its incorporation in
their management of the court and the writing of sentences? Specifically, we are inter-
ested in learning about the subtle and rep eatedly negotiated relations between leg al
thinking and ideas of detachment and disinterest in judicial decision-making contexts,
on the one hand, and emotions and their expressions or recognition, on the other hand. In
what follows, we offer a descriptive exploration of various trial courts judges’ experi-
ences of presiding over trials of crimes against humanity seeking to convey the complex-
ity of judicial adjudication in th e prosecution of these crimes. We elaborate on the
judges’ accounts of different techniques utilized and the paths chosen to engage with,
or at the very least, to mitigate the emotional consequences of these oral processes. We
reflect on their emotional engagements by situating their interventions in a larger con-
text, locally and regionally. We also suggest how this examination might shed light on
questions of emotions, objectivity, and judgment in the context of judicial accountability
measures in the long aftermath of an authoritarian rule. In this vein, our analysis of
judges’ emotional worlds brings into dialogue contributions from different fields such as
Law and Emotions, Transitional Justice (TJ), and the large and growing literature on TJ
in Argentina.
Before turning to the protagonists and their words, in the next two sections we provide
an overview of the trials and their historical context and a short note on our methodo-
logical choices. The next three sections each deal with the relationship between emotions
and judgment from a slightly different angle: the first, explores the relationship between
objectivity, law, and judgment in socio-legal research and in our interviewees’ world-
views; the second, examines the subjective emotional toll of the trials; and the third,
depicts the management of emotions in the courts. Thus, our exploration moves through
scales from the subjective to the social context of the court. Las tly, we turn to the
contextual setting to explore the judges’ view of the trials in the local and international
framework of judicial accountability in the post-TJ era (Collins, 2010). Here we detail
the judges’ views of the stakes of the trials as a way to make sense of some of their
emotional responses as well as insistence on objectivity and emotional impartiality. We
Vaisman and Barrera 813

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