Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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History’s Crimes and Punishments

BUENOS AIRES: What price justice? How countries deal with historical violations of human rights is the material of daily politics across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Look at Rwanda. Look at Chile, where General Pinochet may at last face trial. Look at Poland where President Kwasniewski and former President Walesa were almost banned from October's presidential election because of alleged ties to the communist era's secret police. People everywhere are perplexed by the fact that horrific, systematic violations of human rights are treated differently in different countries. Although differences undoubtedly exist, the ethical principles by which historical human rights violations should be treated in reconstructing democracy are the same.

Chile and Poland are not unique in confronting the burden of history. Building democracy out of political cultures and civic habits riddled by state violence is no easy task. The difficulties are multiplied when attempted in times of economic crisis. I come from a country where violations of human rights were punished harshly. Nonetheless, I understand the impulse to limit punishment in order that society heal and rebuild. For punishment of systematic, historical human rights crimes as a matter of government policy is only morally justified if it is designed to protect society from greater evils in the future.

Human rights crimes, though fostered by states, are committed by individuals acting according to their own wills. There are real social consequences in seeking punishment for such people. It is not rational to impose such punishment when the consequences, far from preventing future crimes, may incite or cause greater or new social damage. Punishment is ultimately an instrument – not the only one, nor the most important – for restoring a collective moral conscience to societies ravaged by dictatorship.

More important than punishment, I believe, is the revelation of truth by credible means, such as through an impartial judicial process. Through such revelations what I call a "moral sentence" may be imposed on the guilty, and it is the existence of such a "sentence" which will arouse the type of deep public reflection necessary for the restoration of democracy. No more secure guarantee for the protection of human rights exists than a heightened, collective moral awareness within society to defend every person’s dignity. National laws and international studies are valuable instruments to protect such rights insofar as they serve to promote such awareness, but they cannot replace it as the ultimate guarantee.

In democratic systems, this moral awareness can only be cultivated if the citizenry trusts the independence of its judges. In the transition from dictatorship to democracy, members of the judiciary lack legitimacy. So reestablishing social trust in the judiciary is one of the weightiest tasks democratically elected officials face during a transition. In the appointment of independent judges, great care must be given to insure that the judiciary helps revitalize social trust in the capacity for transformation to democracy.

Based on my own experience as Argentina’s first democratically elected president after the collapse of its military junta, I know that this is a long, complex, and painful process. But if a social consensus arises that the judiciary is insufficient to guarantee or safeguard individual rights as well as the division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, that lack of trust could lead to social dismemberment.

Comprehending the process by which a society begins to fail to protect itself, by which it’s moral compass deteriorates, is almost impossible. Perhaps ethical absolutism and its opponent relativism influenced that deterioration by undermining the sense of collective truth that is forged in social dialogue and wide civic participation. But a society’s decision to waive punishment for human rights violators is not necessarily a sign that its moral awareness remains stunted. Retribution is not the only sign of restored moral vigor.

A moral sense is essential to a democracy of true solidarity. To secure the moral sense that only social solidarity may provide, a clear set of social rights must also exist. A decent home and health care, education and an adequate income to develop and enrich personal lives, is sometimes considered as a particular goal for a group – class, union, corporation – without effect on other groups. But the contrary is true. Developing the economic and social aspects of the rights of man helps root all human rights as undeniable truth.

In short, democracy can only be built by men and women who are democratic in all their aspects. This obvious truth is forgotten frequently. Monarchy can exist with people who are anti-monarchists. Fascism and Soviet communism were constructed on the backs off unwilling people. Democracies built on unwilling foundations, however, cannot stand. For democrats, loving freedom is not enough.

The great failure of our democratic conscience is in not recognizing this. The habit of limiting universal human rights to a series of political and moral rights and consigning the economic aspects of humanity to a second, lower tier of our concern is dangerous. It undermines the ethics of solidarity through which all human rights exist.

Democracy today must urgently address this insufficiency of solidarity. If human rights are truly to be protected, the second, economic tier of human rights must be elevated to equality with the first tier in our consciences. Only then will history’s crimes receive the response they demand, which first and foremost is not punishment, but the certainty that such crimes will not reoccur. Never again: for history’s victims, that is our truest debt of honor.

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