In Grassroots Activism and the Evolution of Transitional Justice: The Families of the DisappearedIosif Kovras looks at the varying mobilisations of the families of the disappeared through four case studies – Chile, Cyprus, Lebanon and South Africa. Emphasising the importance of context in shaping the objectives and success of the different movements, this is a thought-provoking contribution to the critical literature on transitional justice, finds Ebru Demir.

Grassroots Activism and the Evolution of Transitional Justice: The Families of the Disappeared. Iosif Kovras. Cambridge University Press. 2017.

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As I was writing this book review, I was checking the news and watching the trial of Ratko Mladić live on television. Alongside this, I also read the comments of some of my Bosnian friends on Facebook about the court’s decision. One of these friends, Elmina Kulasić, is still searching for her disappeared grandparents. In her post, she wrote that: ‘The verdict in the Mladić case will not bring our loved ones back but it will give us a glimpse of justice and courage to continue our efforts in seeking truth and countering genocide denial.’

This sentence corresponds with the arguments in Grassroots Activism and the Evolution of Transitional Justice: The Families of the Disappeared: the significance of the trials for the families of the disappeared depends on contextual dynamics. As my friend stressed, the verdict will be a tool for Bosnians to counter genocide denial since, in the Bosnian context, there is no shared truth. Because of the absence of this, the decision itself seems to have been the primary objective of the families of the disappeared.

But do the families of the disappeared share the same objectives in every context? If not, how and in what ways are different aims shaped? In answering these questions, Iosif Kovras has a concise message: context matters. Kovras looks at the varying mobilisations of the families of the disappeared through four challenging case studies – Chile, Cyprus, Lebanon and South Africa – although the experiences of many more countries are frequently highlighted and referred to throughout the book.

The main question addressed is: ‘why are victims’ groups in some countries caught in silence, even after the passage of several decades, whilst other groups bring perpetrators to account?’ (3). To answer this question, Kovras offers an in-depth comparative analysis of the four cases with their divergent transitional justice outcomes. The book becomes an answer to the gap in the literature by exploring the role of the victims’ groups in transitional justice processes. What also makes this book distinctive is that Kovras looks at the reasons underlying the question of which movements of the families of the disappeared have been ‘successful’ by analysing them within their global and historical contexts. Instead of seeing the failures in any mobilisations of these families as the ‘cause’ for the failure in transitional justice processes, they should instead be considered as ‘symptoms’.

Image Credit: Protesting outside the governmental palace under the Pinochet regime, Chile (Kena Lorenzini, donated to Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos CC BY 3.0)

The book proposes a new conceptual framework of truth recovery for the disappeared. Within this framework, Kovras identifies three levels of truth recovery: institutionalised silence; forensic truth; and broader truth. Institutionalised silence refers to those societies which respond to the problem of the missing by enacting amnesty laws: Kovras calls this type of truth the narrowest level of truth (37). Forensic truth suggests ‘a very narrow level of truth recovery, associated with the process of exhumation, identification and return of remains to the families’ (37). Broader truth, as the term suggests, refers to the revealing of the truth in every aspect by carrying out effective investigations to identify those primarily responsible for the disappearances in the first place (37). Kovras emphasises that the broader truth is more in line with International Law. Indeed, under the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, states are required to ‘carry out a preliminary inquiry or investigations to establish the facts’ (Article 10.2 of the Convention), so the ‘broader truth’ is what International Law obliges states to pursue.

However, even in those countries which are implementing the ‘broader truth’ according to the table given in the book (44), Kovras highlights that it is the role played by international actors that enables the countries to reach this. To give an example, Bosnia and Herzegovina is categorised under ‘broader truth’, but the discussion in the book also illustrates the significant role of influential international stakeholders, for example in the exhumation process. Kovras emphasises that without the involvement of international organisations, it would be, for all practical purposes, impossible to exhume 17,000 people (out of 30,000 disappeared) who went missing in the Balkans (36) and to reach the ‘broader truth’ here. Thus, although the table initially seems simplistic, in the following chapters it gains more meaning after Kovras’s analyses of each individual case.

So, what do the families of the disappeared want and expect from transitional justice? The answer to this is another question: in which context and which families? Kovras highlights the requests of the families in each separate case. For instance, in Argentina, the Madres of Plaza de Mayo adopted ‘an uncompromising attitude, evident in their main motto aparicion con vida (bring them back alive)’ (72). Kovras makes the point that not only did the requests of the families of the disappeared change over time, but also they were not a homogenous group with unified demands. Although the Madres of Plaza de Mayo demanded information on the whereabouts of their children, later ‘as more opportunities appeared, calls for accountability and punitive justice got louder’ (72). On the other hand, a consortium of other family groups in Argentina, the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo, prioritised exhumations, which was in fact a major problem for the Madres since it could ‘depoliticize the issue and deviate from the central objective of the group, which by 1984 had become punitive justice for perpetrators’ (72).

Kovras’s crucial claim, therefore, is that ‘law follows the social and political struggles in the societies’. This also overlaps with the findings of the book. He ends by presenting the argument that countries whose transition periods are followed by ‘democratisation’ have a more realistic chance of reaching the broader truth (231). Lebanon can be given as an example: the ‘institutionalised silence’ in Lebanon is, according to Kovras, ‘a result of the weak democratic institutions and the failure in the democratic process’ (151). Since ‘democratisation’ is essential in the process of mobilising the families of the disappeared, more space could have been allocated in the book to a discussion regarding the meaning of ‘democracy’ and the ‘democratisation’ process. Here, again, consistent with Kovras’s own rigorous argument, countries also go through different ‘democratisation’ processes. A consideration of the relevance of and the interactions between families and democratic processes would have further enriched and deepened the discussions.

All in all, Kovras makes an important contribution by bringing the heterogeneity of the families of the disappeared to light, challenging the existing literature. In addition to deep and rigorous analyses of the case studies, the terminology which Kovras uses also presents an original and thought-provoking discussion. The book allies itself with the critical literature on transitional justice as it highlights and reminds us of the significance of context when analysing the families of the disappeared.


Ebru Demir is a third-year PhD student and Associate Tutor at University of Sussex, Law School. Her research areas are transitional justice; transformative justice; women, peace and security; and peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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