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.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in

  1. An employee works at a chemical fiber weaving company VCG/Getty Images

    China in the Lead?

    For four decades, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth under a centralized, authoritarian political system, far outpacing growth in the Western liberal democracies. So, is Chinese President Xi Jinping right to double down on authoritarianism, and is the “China model” truly a viable rival to Western-style democratic capitalism?

  2. The assembly line at Ford Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

    Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

    The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

  3. Donald Trump Saul Loeb/Getty Images

    The Globalization of Our Discontent

    Globalization, which was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries alike, is now reviled almost everywhere, as the political backlash in Europe and the US has shown. The challenge is to minimize the risk that the backlash will intensify, and that starts by understanding – and avoiding – past mistakes.

  4. A general view of the Corn Market in the City of Manchester Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

    A Better British Story

    Despite all of the doom and gloom over the United Kingdom's impending withdrawal from the European Union, key manufacturing indicators are at their highest levels in four years, and the mood for investment may be improving. While parts of the UK are certainly weakening economically, others may finally be overcoming longstanding challenges.

  5. UK supermarket Waring Abbott/Getty Images

    The UK’s Multilateral Trade Future

    With Brexit looming, the UK has no choice but to redesign its future trading relationships. As a major producer of sophisticated components, its long-term trade strategy should focus on gaining deep and unfettered access to integrated cross-border supply chains – and that means adopting a multilateral approach.

  6. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now