The Rights of Spring: A Memoir of Innocence Abroad by David Kennedy (the Harvard Law professor, not the astronaut)

David Kennedy is Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he has worked since 1981, and is the director there of the Institute for Global Law and Policy. Originally from southern Michigan, he also taught at Brown University as Vice President for International Affairs and in 1991 founded the European Law Research Center at Harvard. He has plenty of experience advocating for human rights in a legal capacity and has worked with such international initiatives and institutions as the United Nations, the Commission of the European Union, the Qatar Foundation, the US Council on Foreign Relations, and the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Commission. Find out more at

The Rights of Spring tells the story of David Kennedy’s early experience in Uruguay as a “first generation human rights professional,” using his experience in law alongside New York doctor Richard Goldstein and Washington writer Patrick Breslin to investigate the current well-being of four medical students made political prisoners and tortured over the preceding two years. This is a heartfelt and honest account meant to recapture the doubts and ambiguity that plagued Kennedy both during and after the trip. Sometimes sensational in the level of introspection he brings to the narrative, it is an evocative portrayal of human rights advocacy meant to spur the reader into questioning the cold bureaucracy of the institutional and professionalized model used by NGOs today.

The account takes place in the “spring” of 1985, and not to nitpick, but this makes the timeline of the narrative rather confusing. In the epilogue, Breslin writes from Washington in February the same year that Ramon Hernandez, one of the three male political prisoners in question, was released on New Year’s Eve while the rest had been released in September. Kennedy says early in the book that he received the call about going to Uruguay just after Christmas and was asked if he could go over his spring break (ie. according to the American school calendar, not Uruguayan spring which begins in December). Bear in mind also that the civic-military regime of Uruguay was replaced in March 1985, the result of a democratic election finally allowed by the military in 1984. Hopefully you can all forgive the reluctant history student’s impulse to try to sort out such inconsistency, which I assume is the result of a simple error (most likely the story takes place in the spring of 1984, with Kennedy having been invited after Christmas of 1983).

Returning to the story at hand, most of Kennedy’s musings pivot around the intermingled feelings of estrangement and empathy he felt with both the tortured medical students and those responsible for their plight. He discusses his role as an outsider and potential cultural imperialist, trying to impose universal standards on a regime quick to vilify those that challenge its dictates. When confronting the warden of the Punta Rieles women’s prison, his effort to break down potential barriers to examining the prisoners and ultimately defending their rights leads him to question the balance between empathizing with those responsible for such barbarity and the sense of complicity he feels as a result. Kennedy describes only being able to keep himself grounded by keeping his attention on those he came to help, which leads to a whole new set of emotionally-charged depictions of how one thinks when confronted with stories of violation and brutality. Ana’s experience horrifies the reader, her recollection of unimaginable torture over at least two weeks in 1983 causing the author to question his own capacity to relate or represent, exploring his own preconceptions of gender and victimization while trying to bounce between fluid roles of cold legal representation and sympathetic concern.

Kennedy repeats much of this thought process in his account of meeting the director at Libertad prison (a cruel joke of a name considering Uruguay’s motto “libertad o muerte”), after meeting the prison’s director and then with minimal privacy or flexibility being allowed to examine and question the three male prisoners: Ramon Hernandez, Ana’s boyfriend and imprisoned for having been a member of the school’s student council; Francisco Zelaya, tortured, isolated for over a week in punishment cells; and Victor Guerra, veterinarian medical student and imprisoned for attending a rally and later voting against the military in a referendum held that year. Kennedy questions the ease with which he associates with the first two men as passionate activists, instead seeing Ana and Victor as helpless victims for whom he is all the more compelled to deliver aid. Again, much of the author’s introspection here revolves around the complexities of dealing with real people and the need to balance abstract ideals with real-time improvisation and human connection.

As another aside, Kennedy very briefly remarks on the justifications used by the warden, director, and later Judge Silva Ledesma, with all three portraying themselves as subject to rigid military and legal requirement all while villainizing the students as long-term dissidents and violent threats to the established order. Note the Libertad director’s office, where Kennedy sees pictures of victims from Tupamaro terrorist attacks. Known more for theft and political kidnapping, the movement became more violent at the end of the 1960s and was almost completely suppressed by 1973, during which time they had engaged in assassinations and guerrilla tactics. They used several bombs that caused injuries but no fatalities, and on one occasion shot down several soldiers defending a high-ranking general. Twelve years later, their actions were still being used by the regime to justify fear and repression with no thought towards proportion, relevance, or decency. I would argue that we ourselves are not above such distortion of fear, whether in right-wing responses to terrorism, intolerance and prejudice on all sides of the spectrum, and general attitudes of pessimism regarding the human condition. Perhaps a similar realization is what allowed Kennedy to find himself wishing the warden of Punta Rieles well despite knowing the horrible system with which he was directly involved.

It suffices to say that Kennedy’s reflections present the dark side of human rights advocacy but are also meant to counter disillusionment or emotional distance. It is a compelling challenge to get involved and experience the ambiguities of activism firsthand, and it is a story that ends rather auspiciously with the release of the political prisoners and the downfall of the military regime in Uruguay.

Important quotes:

“As an absolute language of righteousness and moral aspiration came to be used strategically, it became less persuasive, easy to interpret as nothing but strategy, cover for political objectives, particular interests clothing themselves in the idiom of the universal.”

“I’ve become ever more convinced that we must learn to embody the will to power, to confess our politics to ourselves. If you don’t want to rule the world, I tell students, why are you taking this course?”

“I have often heard some of the best-educated young people in the world demur when asked how the world might be made more just – we really don’t know enough; we’re not qualified, not ready for rulership.”

“Increasingly, I see worry about standing — like so many of the human rights movement’s self-flagellating debates: about cultural imperialism, about “Asian values,” about intervention and relativism and all the rest — as symptoms of our unwillingness to own a politics. And the divided selves that go with politics, the intensity, the desire, the will to power and submission, to affirm and deny, to affiliate and disaffiliate.”

“Moreover, refusing to analyze our prison experiences in the language of credibility and doubt seems no more faithful to Ana than doing so. Although it might capture something of our solidarity with the women, it would also suppress the ambiguities of our experience with them. “They were also strategizing, emoting, reciting scripts, and making it up as they went along. In a way, assessing her credibility may be the only way to avoid placing Ana on a pedestal of untouchable authenticity. Analyzing our experiences from the remove of my Cambridge study, there seems no escape from the simultaneous necessity and danger of assessing the truth of Ana’s story.”

“To a certain extent, this fluid confusion served a purpose. It often allowed us to differentiate our moral and our instrumental selves, our retrospective sense of the authenticity of our relations with the prisoners and our more purely instrumental relations with Uruguayan officials, without abandoning our sense that these two dimensions of our personality and activity were integrated in some way. Indeed, we pursued these official relations in part precisely to reconnect connect us with the authenticity we now imagined ourselves to have experienced with the prisoners.”

“Ramon and Francisco seemed to carry themselves as temporarily defeated warriors in a greater political struggle, and that is how they seemed to view their own stories of capture, torture, and imprisonment. Imprisoned warriors like Ramon and Francisco seemed our equals; they needed no rescue. To them we were comrades, participants in a political struggle. The connection we had felt when in their presence achieved by contrast with our experiences at Punta Rieles-diminished my sense of purpose. Like Ana, Victor, the passive victim, awakens my indignation and motivates me to act. Suddenly, our meeting the next morning at the court might be more than a formal plea for pardon. We might be able to do something. Victor, pleading legal procedure and propriety, rekindles our involvement, somewhat dampened by our abstract political solidarity with his fellows.”

“The human rights bureaucracy, built up so dramatically since we were in Uruguay, is as much the machinery of our mutual estrangement as of any connection.”

“Immersion in the machinery of international human rights could not discharge the taint of our distance from those we had come to know in the Uruguayan prisons, precisely because that bureaucracy is the machinery of our mutual estrangement as much as of any connection.”

[*** Though I assume everyone read the book, the next quote may disturb those who have experienced any sort of sexual trauma – for those able to read on, I think it is important to understand the brutal reality of what these individuals experienced, if only to know what we are up against.]

“A woman was tortured. Electrodes on her genitals. Female victims, profane men and male avengers. In this frame, we would represent Ana far more than Ramon, Francisco, or Victor. Maybe once electrodes had been placed on their genitals, they were women. It was hard to think of them as either engaged, fighting, deploying themselves, or as suffering. Suffering as men.”


Do you think we need to understand the logic of torture and other rights violations in order to fight them? (vs. reporting it, using the “narrative unknowability of violence” as Kennedy describes it)

Why does Kennedy think the desire to rule the world is necessary and do you agree? Do you agree that debates about cultural imperialism, about “Asian values,” intervention, and relativism are self-flagellating and show a failure or unwillingness to own a politics?

Kennedy intentionally explores issues of gender and sexism, particularly surrounding his thoughts on torture and his own self-consciousness. Do you have any initial impressions or critiques of his thought process here, both as he connected with the political prisoners and in his musing after?

6 thoughts on “The Rights of Spring: A Memoir of Innocence Abroad by David Kennedy (the Harvard Law professor, not the astronaut)

  1. yes, i do think that to be able to properly advocate for human rights violations the individual does need to understand the thought process and reasoning the person went through to understand why they chose to use torte. if the person has a better understanding of this it in tun helps to argue in response to it, that human rights violations such as torture are unnecessary and agroratory in the sense that it is. also i think its important to point out that these days people have become pretty desensitized to aspects of violence and torture and so by having proper understanding of the reasons why a person committed such heinous acts it helps to put into perspective the cruelty of the torture.


    1. I think your point about how desensitized we have become to violence is crucial here. What scares me most about that is how the worst perpetrators of torture are usually those who have had military training or who themselves went through serious, violent trauma in their own lives – the resulting desensitization, once partnered with bad ideology, is all it really takes to push someone to such extremes. And here we are, living in a culture where violence so easily draws a crowd (but then again, hasn’t this always been the case?). I’ve never considered the capacity to understand or empathize with violence as enough to actually stop it – absolutely important, yes, but not enough.


  2. In regards to your first question, I think that we do need to understand the logic of rights violations to understand them. Even though Kennedy wrote that he relied on the “narrative unknowability of violence” more “than on any mechanism [for] … coming to grips with its logic,” I think there was still a basic understanding of what it was and why it was used. I can understand the argument that just the pure notion of torture is enough to understand that it is wrong and a rights violation, and I don’t think that’s an incorrect way of thinking – I just think that in order to fight them better, we need to understand their logic. I think discussing the logic of rights violations helps to place them within a social, economic, or cultural understanding, and with this we can better combat them. Like Rashida wrote, I agree that more and more we become desensitized, primarily because of media, and Kennedy’s account proves, as you said this “brutal reality” for those subjected to torture. I think this reality just shows the depth of torture and how it shows this ‘darkness’ that people are capable of.


  3. If one is trying to be apolitical and hold no biases one way or another then one should report torture using the “narrative unknowability of violence” to justify their taking action. However, one takes actions based on one’s morals and compares the act of torture to their situation that is most likely devoid of such a thing. To one that has not been exposed to such a thing as torture, this is absurd and not happen in any circumstance no matter the justification. This always seems to come back to Western ideals and standards being compared to others throughout the world. When these standards do not match with ours we question them, especially when some form of violence is involved. Understanding the logic of torture in its context whatever it may be will never be understood through a Western lens; therefore, regardless of the reasoning for torture, we will always set in to prevent torture of any kind.


  4. In regard to your third question, I found it interesting how Kennedy realized that he perceived Ana’s torture differently than he viewed Ramon’s and Francisco’s torture because he felt a sense of connection to the latter, while with the former he was so focused in seeking out answers to his questions about her imprisonment that he disregarded the inhumane treatment to which she had been subjected. I think that his exploration of gender and sexism points to a larger issue that women are not regarded as political prisoners to the same extent as men because women have traditionally been considered as apolitical beings, so when a woman is imprisoned as a political prisoner, her imprisonment seems foreign, whereas men imprisoned for the same reasons are seen as courageous warriors because this is a battle that man has fought before.


    1. The tragedy here is that I don’t think you’re at all wrong. Though, I think I read Kennedy a bit differently here – it is very clear throughout that he was horrified by Ana’s treatment and felt moral outrage, a need to defend and fight on her behalf spurred by his view of her as a helpless, violated victim. The distance he touches on didn’t come from disregard, but from his own inability to relate. He doesn’t touch too much on her political activism and compares her more to Victor, the meek and politically uninvolved veterinarian graduate, whereas with both Ramon and Francisco there is some conversation regarding their opposition to the regime (more so with Ramon) – it’s unclear to what extent Ana was arrested for her own views (all we know is her opposition to violence) as opposed to by association (ie. to her boyfriend Ramon, whose place she was by when arrested). The sexism of the account comes out more when Kennedy sees Victor as emasculated by his helpless exposure and vulnerability during torture, whereas the other two men seem much more resigned to their fate as passionate activists. It’s the association of femininity with violation, victimization, and vulnerability that he has difficulty discarding and that is problematic. If anything, I wish he had touched more on your point, and maybe this shows that his own assumptions regarding women as apolitical led him and the team to ask Ana less direct questions regarding her views (instead of just what she was accused of) – though again, this is only speculation, and again, in the case of Ramon especially, it was Ramon who voluntarily revealed his views and political understanding of the situation without the questions even being asked.

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