The End of Amnesty or Regional Overreach? Interpreting the Erosion of South America's Amnesty Laws

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The atrocious abuses committed under South America’s dictators resulted in a wave of amnesties. Following transitions to democracy, challenges from victims and civil society unpicked several of these amnesties, leading to hundreds of perpetrators facing prosecution. These developments prompted far-reaching claims in academic literature and policy reports regarding the significance of the erosion of South America’s amnesties for shaping international legal norms and policy preferences on amnesties within the region and beyond. This article draws on a comparative analysis of case law from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and national courts as well as legislative changes to argue that there is a regional trend to move away from broad, unconditional amnesties enacted during or after dictatorial rule. However, it notes that this is not universal across the region, nor does it represent a rejection of all forms of amnesty. The article then tests the claims being made in the literature regarding the significance of the regional trend on the legality, durability and desirability of amnesties. It finds that there is little evidence to support claims that the regional developments are indicative of a broader normative shift. It concludes by identifying the risks posed by regional overreach.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)645-680
Number of pages36
JournalInternational and Comparative Law Quarterly
Issue number3
Early online date4 May 2016
Publication statusPublished online - 4 May 2016


  • amnesty laws
  • duty to prosecute
  • human rights
  • impunity
  • Inter-American
  • Court
  • transitional justice


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