Juan E. Méndez Book Award presented to Dr Francesca Lessa at Duke University
Dr Francesca Lessa visited Duke University in February as winner of the 2023 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America for her highly acclaimed book, The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America (Yale University Press, 2022). The judges were unanimous in choosing her as the winner, praising her book which exposes the secrets of Operation Condor, a transnational system of repression in South America between 1969 and 1981.
Winning this award is particularly significant for Dr Lessa. Named after the Argentinian lawyer who defended political prisoners in the 1970s to much personal cost and who became the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment between 2010 and 2016, the book prize is a testimony to the work of a man whose personal and professional life has been dedicated to human rights and the upholding of democracy in Latin America and around the world. Dr Lessa remarks, ‘For me this was an especially significant award because of who it is named after – a person who I had the privilege of meeting in Oxford. He’s one of those people who has been an inspiration for me in my work, so to receive this award that honours his legacy and lifelong commitment to human rights in Latin America was especially important. I hope through my book to make a tiny contribution to the history of human rights in the region and to capturing the efforts of many people whose lives and trajectories have been devoted to the promotion of human rights.’
Founded in 2008, the Juan E. Méndez Book Award began as a joint initiative between the Washington Office on Latin America and Duke University and is now wholly run by the latter. It has always aimed to give recognition to both academic and activist writers covering the area of human rights in Latin America.
Dr Lessa attended the award ceremony at Duke University in North Carolina on 22 February, joined by members of the Duke Human Rights Center, colleagues from other faculties working in the field of human rights, PhD students, undergraduates, judges and Patrick Stawski, the human rights archivist at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Professor Robin Kirk, Faculty co-chair of the Center, gave an opening speech before the floor was given to Dr Lessa to read extracts from her book. She chose to focus on the emblematic story of two small brothers whose parents disappeared in Argentina, not only describing what happened to them as children but also exploring their efforts to achieve justice. In addition, she shared a new initiative that she has been working on with colleagues in the Southern Cone: the website Plancondor.org. This features an interactive map showing where people were detained and includes uploaded declassified documents, criminal verdicts, documentaries, and videos. The hope is that this website will bring the work of so many to a broader audience beyond the book. The ceremony ended with a question and answer session before a celebratory dinner.
During a short stay at Duke University, Dr Lessa was able to join a class on human rights alongside Professor Kirk and share her research with students. She also met with Law Faculty colleagues working on similar issues of transitional justice and accountability and spent time in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has a sizeable human rights archive including documents from the Washington Office of Latin America.
Since The Condor Trials was published, several criminal investigations remain ongoing. In fact, Dr Lessa was asked by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome to testify at one of these trials in an Italian court in February 2023. This required her to provide three and a half hours of historical and political background to Operation Condor as well as specific information regarding three victims and the defendant for the Italian judges.
The book also received an honourable mention for the Bryce Wood Book Award and has already been translated into Spanish and Italian. Work on a Portuguese edition is underway, providing a much-needed source of information on this subject in Brazil. Dr Lessa says, ‘While the trials are ongoing it is difficult to say, “Now I move on to the next project”,’ so she has been following the trial in Italy and finalising the second phase of the Plancondor.org website project, which involves adding an interactive timeline and additional information. She is also writing a paper on her findings. However, on the margins, she is also beginning to explore a new area of interest. Latin America is the world’s most violent region for environmental defenders; a new treaty, the Escazú Agreement, aims to protect these activists and help indigenous communities achieve justice. As this is the first treaty in the world to recognise these issues, Dr Lessa plans to explore how states comply with the agreement and whether other countries are likely to sign up.
You can read an interview Dr Lessa gave at Duke University here.
For more information about the history of the prize and its move to Duke University, see here.
Watch the recording of the book award ceremony.
Follow the link here to a TLS review of The Condor Trials.
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