The Ethics of Human Rights (12): How to Deal With the Horrors of the Past?

After a country has gone through democratic reforms, it often faces the difficulty of dealing with the horrors and injustices committed by the previous dictatorial regime. In many cases, a democratic transformation is possible only because of some kind of deal with the previous rulers. They agree to give up power and in exchange receive amnesty and immunity (take the case of Pinochet or of many of Franco’s assistants).

However, things may even be worse. In some cases, the horrors have been committed, not only by a handful of rulers, but by large numbers of citizens. The transformation to a stable democracy is then sealed by a so-called “Pact of Silence”, in which the victims and their families agree to burry the past in order to make it possible for the different parts of the new democratic state to live together.

Democratic progress and democratic stability may indeed require the tragic choice of impunity for the old rulers. But they also require national reconciliation when the past atrocities were the work not only of the rulers but also of numerous civilian henchmen. A society that is not at peace with itself doesn’t have a future, especially when it is a democracy. A democracy, much more than any other state, require the support of a large majority of the people. If a substantial number of people feel that the new democracy is the state of the “victors”, a state moreover which will do everything to get back at them, then we will witness strong social division and a lack of loyalty, both of which are very dangerous for young and not so young democracies. No democracy can afford dissatisfaction and disloyalty in large groups of civilians.

Does this reconciliation, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the new democratic state, require silence about the atrocities of the past? A “turning of the page”? I don’t thinks so, because this silence will not satisfy the victims and their families. And then they will not accept the new democracy. And neither will the international community. Silence and inaction undermine the legitimacy of the new state and sends a message to future criminals.

Punishment can indeed alienate a large portion of the population, and can be detrimental for a young democracy. But so can silence. A democracy is caught between doing too much and doing nothing. However, there’s a large distance between silence and punishment, a distance which can be filled with the writing of history, the telling of the truth (as in the South-African Truth Commission), and the dispensing of forgiveness. Victims and their families will never accept silence, certainly not in the long term. The telling of the truth is very important to them, more important probably than punishment. And in exchange they may be convinced to forgive, especially if the truth-tellers can also express regret, remorse and guilt. This forgiveness in turn sends a strong message to the perpetrators, a message of inclusion and love. And this is a strong basis for a new society. Forgiveness is the opposite of forgetting. Because of the extraordinary nature of the forgiveness for an act of horror, this act will be remembered forever. A “right to truth” can be based on the right to information as expressed in art. 19 of the Universal Declaration.

The remembrance of the past may require some kind of amnesty. One can convince people to tell the truth and to ask for forgiveness by promising some kind of leniency. To fight amnesia, amnesty may be necessary. Of course, this applies to the large number of ordinary citizens who were the executors of the crimes, not to the few leaders planning and ordering them. They have to be punished, and they can be because their support is not required for national reconciliation. Their support is not necessary for the maintenance of the new regime. How can people be expected to live their lives when the most despicable murderers continue to live among them, often in luxury and without remorse? And how can the normal criminal justice system be expected to function?

Punishment of large portions of a population, on the other hand, may satisfy some short term feelings of revenge, but does nothing to build a long term future for society. There may be judicial verdicts on their crimes, but the punishments for the crimes should be indefinitely postponed in exchange for the truth. This is not impunity. It’s the correct balance between the needs of the past and the needs of the future. Turning the page without closing the book, as someone has said.

Silence is never good. Telling the story can help to avoid the horror from repeating itself. However, telling the story isn’t a sufficient conditions. Education isn’t almighty. Present-day neo-Nazis for example know all too well what happened, and they consciously want to repeat it. But forgetting is a sufficient conditions for a repetition. Some people do learn from history. And telling the truth, making things clear will force people who want to repeat it to openly take the side of barbarity. They will have a lot more difficulties to promote their case and they will only attract barbarians.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (12): How to Deal With the Horrors of the Past?”

  1. This issue will arise this year in another context, without the leaders or implementers, but with a still painful legacy, on the centenary of the Armenian genocide.

    Like

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