Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
The Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS - Center of Legal and Social Studies), an Argentine human rights organization, was created in 1979 as a response to the atrocities committed by Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship (1976-83). In its first years of activity, CELS campaigned for truth and justice in relation to the crimes committed by the authoritarian state.
The founding members of CELS were part of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH). They created the new organization out of a need to take swift and decisive action to stop systematic human rights violations, document state terrorism, and provide legal aid and assistance to the families of victims of state violence, especially in the case of detained or disappeared people. Indeed, between 1970 and 1980, during and in the wake of the dictatorship, a vast movement for the defense of human rights was born and developed in Argentina. Initiatives like CELS acquired popularity at the regional and international level, and continue even today to play a decisive role in the country’s political and institutional reality.
The founder and first president of CELS was Emilio Mignone, a writer, educator, lawyer, whose 24-year old daughter was disappeared by the regime. In fact, all the founding members of CELS were family members of young people disappeared by the regime. At the time, Mignone was the vice president of the APDH of Buenos Aires and considered one of the main defenders of human rights in Argentina during the dictatorship. Mignone was succeeded by Horacio Verbitsky in 2000, a journalist and writer with a broad political and intellectual background, who remains at the mantle of the organization today.
After the end of the Argentine dictatorship, in the late 1980s, CELS started focusing on human rights violations committed under the new democratic regime, highlighting structural causes of violence rooted in the deep social inequalities shaping Argentina. Since then, the activities of CELS are aimed at promoting the protection of human rights and their effective exercise, justice, and social inclusion, both nationally and internationally. CELS aims to impact public policies, reinforce the effective exercise of rights, and support the victims of human rights violations who seek justice. Today CELS is composed of a large and dynamic team of activists whose campaigns, research, political analysis, and policy advocacy seek to further justice for affected individuals and groups across Argentina, Latin America, and beyond. Over the years, CELS has managed to adapt to changing political realities and social needs, carrying out the necessary institutional transformations that would allow them to become a national human rights organization with an influential international voice. Such transformations include their work advancing and defending social protest, at both global level through the INCLO network and regionally through their engagement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH).
CELS has led campaigns at the regional level on a broad range of topics, such as institutional violence, security politics, prisons and the penal system, drug policies, the environment, housing rights, mental health rights, abortion rights, gender violence, and the right to communication. 2019 was a historic year for CELS, as it celebrated its fortieth anniversary. However, it turned forty in a highly adverse context, as Argentina has witnessed a rollback on key social rights since 2015, when president Mauricio Macri was elected. In the midst of a harsh economic crisis, 2019 saw an increase in violent police response to public assemblies and protests, an increase in judicial prosecution of activists and organizers, state officials’ defense of extra-judicial killings (such as the case of human rights defender Santiago Maldonado), and despotic political discourse justifying these types of acts.
As part of a strategy of broadening its audience and base, CELS has increased its work on Art and Human Rights. CELS recognizes that through their creations, artists are able to denounce injustice and inequality by representing and articulating complex social contexts and by challenging the status quo. Moreover, the poetic dimension of art can facilitate an understanding of the importance of defending human rights, which is something that human rights organizations are not always able to achieve to the same effect. CELS works at the intersection of human rights and art largely began with the “Art for human rights” in 2010, an exhibition supported by CELS in the Parque de la Memoria of Buenos Aires where the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism is housed. Following the exhibition, CELS improved its alliance with artists and the arts world to support activism and human rights defense.
In October 2018, ARC collaborated with CELS to organize a two-day regional workshop on Art, Activism, and Human Rights in Buenos Aires. This event brought together artists, academics, lawyers, NGO representatives, and more from across Latin America for an engaged discussion on the state of artistic freedom and human rights in the region. CELS is an integral member of ARC’s global network, playing a crucial role in furthering human rights and artistic freedom in Latin America. Considering the growing regional challenges artists face, we look forward to our ongoing relationship and collaboration with CELS.
By Alessandro Zagato, April 2020. Alessandro is ARC's Regional Representative for Latin America.