Now that Burundi seems to be heading in the direction of peace, there are murmurs of having some process to address all the gross violations of human rights that occurred.

If someone asked off hand what should happen in countries where there have been gross violations of human rights – extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and so on – most of us the in the West are sufficiently indoctrinated in a particular human rights framework to suggest that those who commit such atrocities should be tried in fair courts and serve prison sentences.

Rurengera Friends ChurchThat accords with a sense of retributive justice – that people who do bad things should face, if not an equally bad thing, then at least some kind of punishment. And many argue that such prosecutions are the only way to end impunity and reestablish the rule of law.

But it turns out there may be situations where countries emerging from conflict throw the notion of punishing human rights violators out the window, and have good reason to do so. Consider Mozambique, a country that experienced a quite brutal civil war in which an estimated 800,000 people lost their lives, and then decided simply to grant a blanket amnesty for all atrocities committed by both sides and move on to rebuild their nation. Agreeing to such an amnesty was basically a precondition for achieving a peace accord, and many people seem happy to be focused on the future rather than the past. Instead of trials, they approached the healing of the wounds of war with traditional healing rituals and worked hard to reintegrate the combatants back into their communities.

I take this example from the journalist Helena Cobban’s book Amnesty After Atrocity?: Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes. Cobban compares the cases of Rwanda, South Africa, and Mozambique in terms of how they handled human rights abuses and how that affected the movement towards peace in those countries. It’s full of interesting details that I can’t include here, but consider the following:

  1. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up by the UN to try the leaders of the genocide in a Western style court system, cost more than 1.1 billion dollars (by her estimate). How many suspects were tried for that quantity of money? 26. That works out to $42.3 million per suspect!
  2. For comparison, in 2003 Rwanda received $331.6 million in overseas aid, even while, as with most post-conflict countries, the lack of jobs was one of the biggest challenges to peace.
  3. Were people satisfied with this system? An attitudes study in 2002 “found that only 29.2 percent of the Rwandan respondents expressed any degree of approval of ICTR’s record.” (Cobban, p. 194) She found higher approval levels in S. Africa and Mozambique for approaches that didn’t involve such a court system.
  4. The court system itself, with the burdens of proof it seeks to establish through cross-examination, etc., can be re-traumatizing for victims, and through its adversarial approach can emphasize differences between people rather than unite them.

That suggests the case for war crimes tribunals is at least troubling. That said, when (back in DC) I heard Betty Bigombe speak about her experience negotiating the conflict in northern Uganda, she suggested that the threat of being tried on human rights charges helped bring the LRA to the negotiating table. So I don’t mean to suggest this is a simple matter (and of course, I’m not actually against human rights per se, just an overly simplified view of how to achieve them).

A broader approach would include asking about more than just what would end impunity and reinstate the rule of law, such as: (1) what is best for victims, (2) what the opportunity cost of a course of action is in terms of economic development and other forms of reconciliation that could be implemented, and (3) what is best for the nation to achieve and sustain a peaceful future (given that something like 50% of countries relapse into conflict within 5 years of signing peace accords).

With these criteria in mind, how a country deals with its human rights violations may vary from one place to another, and is a decision that might well be left to the people of that country itself (though this is tricky in cases like Rwanda, where the government is not a power-sharing arrangement but instead represents one side of the conflict).