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Contemporary debate about compensation for past wrongs turns on the assumption that state reparations benefits the victims of atrocity by acknowledging harm and ameliorating victim suffering. Indeed, much recent theoretical and practical work has concurred to establish reparation to victims of state crimes as a cornerstone of human rights. However, this article argues that reparation can also function to placate victim demands for criminal justice and to regulate the range of political and historical meanings with which the crimes of the past are endowed. This is most evident in transitional political contexts in which gestures of reparation are usually concomitant with the inauguration of new political orders, and formal investigations of past atrocity are conditioned by the balancing of the political demands of new and old regimes. This article argues that in such contexts, state reparation can work to control social suffering with the consequence that it sometimes intensifies rather than alleviates it. To evidence this claim, the article investigates the refusal of reparations by the victims towards whom it is addressed, with reference to Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo. This analysis of their refusal demonstrates how victim groups make important challenges to some of the core assumptions in the field, reveals internal inconsistencies within the analytical architecture of the scholarly and professional discourse, and indicates the ways in which reparations carry political, and not just palliative, significance.

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Typically within existing academic debates, forensic databases are seen as tools of state surveillance and are deeply connected to issues of privacy. This project moves the debate beyond these themes to explore how citizen-led forensic databases can be used as a tool for reparation and truth finding. The project breaks with traditional (state-centric) ways of researching violence and disappearance, since it challenges the persistent boundary between victims and experts: between claims for justice by victims, and official practices of constructing ‘truth’ about the dead and disappeared. It is also fuses biogenetic and social research thus providing a tool to open novel avenues of academic inquiry, as well as grounded insights for humanitarian and political intervention.

It’s 7:00 a.m. and I’m rushing through my morning routine with an eye on the clock. My plan is to get into my car before 7:30 a.m. so I can tune in and listen to the Brekete Family Radio program. It is always the perfect companion during my 15-minute drive to work through Abuja’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. As I drive out of my compound, I am relieved to hear the voice of Ordinary Ahmed Isa, the president and host of the Brekete Family, come on the air with the familiar but strange greeting “Hembelembe,” to which his studio audience responds “Olololoooo.” You can’t help but mutter the response under your breath. The atmosphere is electrifying because you don’t know what to expect on this show. The Brekete Family Radio (BFR) is a reality radio program in Abuja, modeled after a public complaint forum or people’s court. Conducted in the local lingua franca (pidgin English), people call in to report on issues of impunity, whether public or private. The panel sitting in the studio discusses the issue and invites the public to give advice to the plaintiff.

What do you think group health insurance is? You know you ask these guys, “Do you have group health insurance where you …?” “Oh yeah, I get …” you know, “my law firm …” So when you get sick you’re able to afford the treatment.

The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you’re able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you’re relying on the idea of the group. Yeah. And they nod their heads, and you go “Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.”

And … you know when you say, OK, we’re going to do what we’re doing for your law firm but we’re going to do it for 300 million Americans and we’re going to make it affordable for everybody that way. And yes, it means that you’re going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm … Their eyes glaze. You know they don’t want to hear it. It’s too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected.