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.