Reporter 458, 6 November 2000

Peace processes can test the limits of human forgiveness

"If they can just show us the bones of my child, I’ll be grateful."

Joyce Mthimkulu, whose son Siphiwo was murdered by the police in apartheid-era South Africa, was speaking to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a body with the power to grant amnesty to self-confessed killers. Her harrowing words are quoted by Professor Nigel Biggar, of theology and religious studies, in Burying the Past (forthcoming, Georgetown University Press).

The edited volume confronts the complex political and moral issues thrown up by the transition from conflict to an often uneasy peace in countries like South Africa, Ireland, Guatemala, Chile and Rwanda. Professor Biggar poses the question of whether a stark choice has to be made between making peace and doing justice.

The moral demands of justice often give way, in post-conflict scenarios, to a more pragmatic response to defusing political tensions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quasi-judicial commission extended amnesty to some of apartheid’s criminals-in-chief; and the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by a majority in Northern Ireland, required the early release of paramilitary prisoners.

"Burying the political past has affected the lives of millions, for better or worse," said Professor Biggar.

A ‘policy of forgetting’ in post-Vichy France, mirrored in post-Franco Spain, appeared to ease what had earlier seemed irreconcilable political conflicts. But the effects of opening up the secret police files in the former East Germany, or allowing racist criminals to earn impunity in the new South Africa, showed that reconciliation demands much more than the passage of time.

Professor Biggar concludes that the lingering grievances of conflict cannot be swept under the carpet – they need to be ‘laid to rest’ by doing some kind of justice to the victims.

But can this be achieved if crimes and criminals go unpunished? As a moral theologian, the professor argues that punishment is only one part of the ‘vindication’ to which victims are entitled. It is at least as important that their hurt be recognised and the truth revealed.

"Compromise is inevitable, and the price of peace is that justice must be allowed to suffer political constraints," he said. "Not all justice can be done. If justice will ever be done perfectly, it won’t be here, it won’t be now, and it won’t be by us. Frustration is the name of the game with human justice."

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