Elena is currently reading for a DPhil at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies of the University of Oxford. Her research, supported by the ESRC, investigates the experiences of conflict-affected children and adolescents in the transitional justice and peacebuilding process in Colombia. Her multidisciplinary research combines legal analysis with ethnographic methods, including participatory techniques for research with children. A product of her long-term fieldwork in conflict-affected settings in urban and rural Colombia is the participatory documentary ‘Somos’ (trailer available), where a group of youths share their life stories and views about peace.

In Colombia, Elena has also collaborated with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with a view to making her research directly relevant to policy in the crucial transitional moment the country is undergoing. She has also occasionally acted as a visiting lecturer on transitional justice at the Law Faculties of the National University and the Rosario University in Bogotá. At Oxford, Elena is co-founder of the Oxford Children’s Rights Network, member of the Oxford Transitional Justice Research group and of the Oxford Network of Peace Studies, and editor for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies.

Prior to coming to Oxford, Elena graduated as Class Valedictorian from University College Utrecht (the Netherlands), where she completed summa cum laude a combined Hons BA in Law and Anthropology, with a minor in Research Methods and Statistics. She was also a visiting student at SciencesPo Paris (France), specialising in international law and conflict studies. A section of her bachelor thesis on children’s rights and local justice in Northern Uganda was awarded the Law Overall Winner Prize at the international competition ‘The Undergraduate Awards’. During her undergraduate studies, Elena also worked as a research intern at the Utrecht University School of Human Rights Research and at the Barcelona University Peace Studies Centre. She has also volunteered in several countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe in the areas of sustainable development, peacebuilding and child education. 

Supervisor: Prof. Fernanda Pirie


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  • Butti, 'The Invisible Violence behind the Legal Façade: Challenges of and Strategies for Conducting Research in High-Risk Settings in Transitional Colombia' (2016) Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies
    Based on my first months of ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia, this 'Notes from the Field' piece describes the profound divide between the perfectly-crafted legal framework and the daily realities of people living at the margins, as the country undertakes a process of transition to peace. Through ethnographic anecdotes, it illustrates the paradoxes of a legal discourse that often remains pure rhetoric, and it contrasts it with accounts of the informal, but more effectively enforced, norms deriving from armed actors' territorial control. Finally, it reflects on strategies for conducting fieldwork in high-risk settings, which may be useful to other researchers undertaking similar fieldwork.
  • Butti, 'Children’s Rites: Examining the Role of Local Justice in the Ugandan Transitional Justice Process through a Child Rights Approach' (2016) The Undergraduate Journal: A collection of winning entries from 2014
    Building upon the recent increased attention to local justice mechanisms, and responding to calls for child-sensitive approaches to transitional justice, this study asks the following question: 'How, if at all, can the Nyono Tong Gweno (‘stepping on the egg’) ritual play a role in facilitating a child-sensitive approach to transitional justice in Northern Uganda?' Relying on semi-structured interviews with Ugandan NGO workers, primary legal sources and secondary literature, this study performs a detailed analysis of the potential of this ritual to implement children rights. Four core groups of children rights are identified: the rights related to social reintegration, restoration of culture, psychological recovery and freedom of expression in the justice process. This study concludes that, while not devoid of problems and shortcomings, Nyono Tong Gweno can play a fundamental role in enhancing children rights in transitional justice in Northern Uganda. However, the mechanism needs to be revised in order to fully meet its potential. Room for revision involves providing employment and educational opportunities to children returnees to fully ensure their social reintegration; ensuring that children’s participation in such rituals is voluntary and well-informed; encouraging professional psychologists to work side-by-side with elders during consultations to ensure children’s full psychological recovery; and giving children the possibility to engage in a dialogue with elders concerning the specifics of the justice process. Moving away from the elitist and politicised arguments that had characterised advocacy for the Mato Oput (‘drinking the bitter root’) ritual, this study suggests a holistic approach that combines local and international justice for the mutual benefit of both.
  • T. Zwart, N. Al Haider, Butti and others, 'Safeguarding the Universal Acceptance of Human Rights through the Receptor Approach' (2016) 36 Human Rights Quarterly 898
    The receptor approach relies on ethnographic research to identify social institutions and cultural values that match international human rights obligations. Where these institutions and values fall short, home-grown remedies are used to amplify them. The receptor approach provides a practical tool to activists and states. In addition, it welcomes culture as a potential source of human rights rather than dismissing it as an impediment to their protection. Yvonne Donders and Vincent Vleugel’s position that it is “old wine in new bags” is therefore unfounded. The same is true for their argument that it pits “the West against the rest.” Research shows that regional values are still notably different. States are entitled to take these cultural differences into account when implementing their human rights obligations. Denying them their right to do so will force Southern states to disengage.
  • Butti, 'Children’s Visibility in Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite Campaign: In Everyone’s Interest but Children’s' (2016) Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog
    On 2nd October 2016, Colombians were called to vote in a historic plebiscite to express their (lack of) support to the final peace agreement signed by the colombian government and the biggest guerrilla group FARC-EP. In the months prior to the plebiscite, the country was pervaded by a very polarised campaign, while the younger generations were pervaded by the most widespread indifference. In various instances during the campaigns, supporters of “yes” or “no” have ‘used’ children’s faces or causes to support their side. In my post, I critically reflect on these happenings through the frame of children’s rights to participation. the central argument is that children in colombia are in need of structural reform in education and family policies, rather than being instrumentalised for political campaigns.
  • Butti, 'The Unreal(istic) Rhetoric of Children’s Rights in Colombia’s Reparations Law' (2016) Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog
    As Colombia is undergoing a transition from violence to peace, the government is designing and implementing a series of transitional justice measures including special justice, truth-telling, and reparations. These have been, however, largely adult-cantered and have tended not to take into account the younger generations in meaningful ways. Based on my work at the Colombian Office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, this post outlines the main challenges in the implementation of policies for child-victims under the National Reparations Law.


Research programmes

Research Interests

  • Transitional Justice
  • Peacebuilding
  • Children'’s Rights
  • Human Rights Law
  • International Criminal Justice
  • Experimental techniques for Research with Children
  • Ethnographic Methods for Research in High-Risk Settings



Research projects