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Tortured Logics: Crafting the U.S. Response to Human Rights Violations during the Argentinian Dirty War and the Salvadoran Civil War


My dissertation examines the relationship between law and society by analyzing the implementation of U.S. human rights legislation. In the 1970s, the U.S. Congress, reflecting the growing international consensus that human rights were a matter of international policy, legislated that respect for human rights be considered in all foreign aid decisions. A central feature of this legislation stipulated that aid should not go to countries “engaged in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Subsequently, many have concluded that the United States has inconsistently applied this legislation, especially in United States-Latin America relations. These researchers have studied human rights as a self-evident concept, obscuring the fact that policy advocates—those with a vested interest in defining human rights and their violation and the United States’ response—imbue the concept with of human rights with meaning through policy debates. This dissertation takes a different approach, studying what I call the politics of meaning-making: the process by which policy advocates define and contest the meaning of these phenomena. In order to develop this approach, I examine two cases testing the United States’ commitment to promoting respect for human rights abroad: the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina (1976-1983) and the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992). The similar scope and severity of human rights violations in both cases provides for a powerful comparison. Based upon a content analysis of 160 U.S. Congressional hearings—summing to more than 35,000 pages of documents, I find that policy advocates assessed each society’s supposed capacity for self-governance and leveraged their own analysis to develop a plan of restoring respect for human rights in Argentina and of establishing respect for human rights in El Salvador. The distinction between restoring and establishing respect for human rights is important because each had significant social consequences for all of the nations involved, both during and after these conflicts officially ended. This analysis served as a foundation for both how policy advocates framed human rights violations perpetrated during each conflict, and how they measured progress towards curbing human rights abuses. I trace the logics and resources policy advocates used to respond to each specific case of human rights violations abroad. My analysis offers a new way to understand the United States’ response to human rights violations through a unique lens. Moreover, my research points to the importance of examining the boundaries between crime and human rights violations. How and by whom these boundaries are drawn and redrawn, impacted all of the societies studied, and continues to have a contemporary impact on local, national, and global levels.

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