Inaugural Professorial Lecture by Cath Collins BA MA PGDip MSc PhD, Professor of Transitional Justice

The Politics of Uncertainty: Forensic Aesthetics and the Search for Latin America's Disappeared

Inaugural Professorial Lecture by Cath Collins BA MA PGDip MSc PhD, Professor of Transitional Justice

Tens of thousands of people were forcibly disappeared during Latin America's 1970s and 1980s military regimes. Disappearance, even more than the accompanying state-sponsored killings, torture and exile, came to stand as mute testimony to the worst excesses of state terror. It's often said that disappearance is uniquely cruel. It instils fear and uncertainty in families who wait and hope, sometimes for decades, for their loved ones to come home. It blurs the line between the dead and the living, freezing victims in time and turning them into haunting images on a photo from long ago. Disappearance puts lives on hold, pre-empting the normal social rituals of grieving, caring for our dead, and laying them to rest.

Relatives' associations in Latin America met terror with defiance. Families marched with their loved ones' faces on placards, demanding to know '¿Dónde Están?' (Where are They?). Feminised archetypes were invoked to justify the search and protect the searchers: who would deny a grieving mother the right to bury her child? In recent times, the basic human impulse to know the truth, to see, touch and recover the physical remains and last resting place of the disappeared has been answered as never before. Trials, truth commissions and exhumations have excavated the past, providing sometimes unwelcome certainty about the fate of some of Latin America's disappeared. In the process, forensic science has become a key piece of the human rights puzzle. In conversation with human rights expert Professor Todd Landman, of the University of Nottingham, Professor Cath Collins will discuss how images, aesthetics, science and statistics have been used and sometimes misused in the effort to bring the disappeared home.

The response will be given by Professor Todd Landman FRSA, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham.


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