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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