Forgiveness, Truth and Reconciliation

Although forgiveness has been most prominently associated with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the close association of forgiveness with truth commissions really began in Latin America in the 1980s and early 1990s. This new emphasis on truth emerged in the Latin American context in response to the nature of political repression the region experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. In large part, this was in response to the fact that the military governments of Latin America ‘did not openly kill their opponents’ but rather made them ‘disappear’

(Roht-Arriaza 2006: 3). Following transitions to democracy in many Latin American states, postauthoritarian civilian governments began instituting truth commissions to investigate and document human rights violations that had been kept hidden by previous regimes. Rather than simply rendering the truth, however, these early truth commissions revealed just how complicated the relationships between truth, justice, and forgiveness could be, particularly when states and institutions imposed forgiveness processes on the victims of gross violations of human rights.

In 1991 a Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was established with a mandate to investigate ‘serious acts of violence’ that had occurred during a civil war fought between the military-led government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of five left-wing militia groups. Its report, ‘From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador’ was presented on 15 March 1993. It recommended that members of the Salvadoran armed forces, civil services, and judiciary who were ‘personally implicated in the perpetration or cover-up of serious acts of violence, or who did not fulfil their professional obligation to initiate or cooperate in the investigation and punishment of such acts’ be dismissed from their positions (USIP 1993). Among these acts, the commission documented some 22,000 complaints of extra-judicial killings, disappearances, and torture, including the murders of Monsignor Oscar Romero while conducting Mass in a San Salvador church in 1980 and six Jesuit priests nine years later.

Significantly, El Salvador’s Truth Commission sought to end impunity for human rights violations by naming names. ‘Not to name names,’ it argued in its final report, ‘would reinforce the very impunity to which the parties instructed the Commission to put to an end’ (USIP 1993: 4). On 20 March 1993, however, just five days after the commission released its report, the legislative assembly of El Salvador passed ‘a sweeping amnesty law’ that called for the ‘extinction of both criminal and civil liability’ and ‘conferred unconditional amnesty to any individual (including guerrillas) who perpetrated politically motivated crimes prior to 27 October 1987’ (Popkin and Bhuta 1999: 100; Pope 2003: 815). In doing so, President Cristiani, referred to as the ‘peace President’ in the commission’s report, stated that the ‘Salvadoran people need “to forgive and forget this painful past”.’ The ‘immediate, general and total amnesty,’ he argued, would ‘end the temptation to seek revenge’ now that the truth had been revealed (America’s Watch 1993: 15). ‘What is important now,’ he said, is ‘to erase, eliminate and forget everything in the past’ (USIP 1993: 19; Pope 2003:

815). Amnesty-as-forgiveness was thus conceived as the state’s contribution to societal forgiveness and specifically instituted to limit the potential negative effects associated with making the truth about the past public. As subsequent president, Francisco Flores later argued in response to calls to lift the amnesty law thereby allowing criminal trials to take place, ‘amnesty carried with it the concept of forgiveness, which.. .made national reconciliation possible after the conflict ended’ (in Davis 2014: 23).

In the Salvadoran case, victims were thus simply instructed to forgive and with this, state-enforced amnesia was enacted with little appreciation of a potential disjuncture between the needs of the state and the desires of the primary victims of abuse. As torture survivor, Cecilia Moran Santos explained, ‘We have been forced to forget, to forgive and to reconcile with the idea that there are no rights, that we have to assimilate and recognize that nothing will happen to the perpetrators, that there is no need to impart justice’ (in Davis 2014: 76). For victims and survivors like Santos, the problem with Cristiani’s amnesty was thus twofold. First, by defining amnesty in terms of forgiveness, the state ignored victims’ rights to choose whether or not to forgive. As Davis argues in this vein, ‘[b]y imposing an amnesty to protect themselves from legal accountability, Salvadoran officials stole the victims’ right to forgive. They merely hid impunity beneath the mask of forgiveness’ (Davis 2014: 24). Thus, second, and following from this, was the fact that Cristiani’s amnesty provided impunity for the perpetrators of gross violations of human rights. This, as the colleague of the murdered Jesuit priests, Jose Maria Tojeira argued, was ‘an insult to the victims of El Salvador.The amnesty law attempts to say that nothing happened here, that the living are the ones who count and the dead don’t matter’ (in Avila 2009). That is, critics of the Cristiani’s amnesty refuted the claim that forgiveness and reconciliation necessitated the abrogation of justice.

Despite their opposition to the amnesty law then, not all or even most victims and critics were wholly against the idea of forgiving the perpetrators of human rights violations. On the contrary, in the aftermath of the Jesuit murders Tojeira argued that ‘as Christians and as human beings we have the moral obligation to forgive and promote reconciliation’ (in Envio 1990). However, he explicitly sought to distinguish interpersonal or moral forgiveness from state instituted amnesties or pardons. The second of these forms of forgiveness, Tojeira argued, is only possible when the truth has been revealed and when ‘real reconciliation’ has been achieved in El Salvador. Until then, he argued, to talk about ‘any pardon would be a slap in the face to justice’ (in Envio 1990). Tojeira thus argued that the perpetrators of human rights violations ought to be presented with two options: ‘confess and ask society for forgiveness, or stand trial’ (Doggett in Pope 2003: 823). Although this ‘truth for pardon’ suggestion ‘was never adopted,’ a modified version of the idea later found form in South Africa’s ‘truth for amnesty’ approach, which combined elements of truth, justice, and forgiveness in the pursuit of reconciliation.

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