Amnesties in a Time of Transition

Article excerpt


In the past twenty-five years, more than a dozen countries have enacted amnesties exonerating perpetrators of human rights abuses.1 In fact, "[a]mnesties of one form or another have been used to limit the accountability of individuals responsible for gross violations of human rights in every major political transition in the twentieth century."2 Although several reasons exist for governments enacting amnesty legislation, national leaders often face the task of weighing the peace they believe will result from an amnesty against the justice that results from holding trials. Indeed, some leaders have justified providing an amnesty as crucial for the peace process; in these instances, the desire for stability simply outweighs that of accountability.3 As this balancing process shows, many governments believe that the tradeoff between peace and justice is valid and that the freedom from prosecution central to amnesties is an acceptable price to pay for ending war or removing authoritarian governments.4 Other nations, however, disagree, believing instead that a state has a duty to prosecute alleged perpetrators of mass human rights violations. Amnesties, it follows, violate this fundamental duty: they provide "a cover story for amnesia and evading accountability."5

Amnesties are not all alike, however. Some recent examples of governments enacting amnesty legislation highlight not only the fact that amnesties are still very much a part of countries' current conflict resolution plans, but also the differences between the amnesties themselves and the political climates that led to their enactment. In Uganda, an amnesty was promulgated as an incentive for rebel soldiers to lay down their arms.6 The amnesty in Algeria excludes certain crimes from its applicability and offers reparations for victims. Finally, paramilitaries and guerrillas in Colombia are eligible for amnesty only after they confess their crimes.7 All of these amnesties, enacted in the past ten years, show that countries are seeking peace through their usage, regardless of their legality under international law.8

In 2000, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni offered amnesty to soldiers from a rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), who laid down their weapons.9 The LRA has been fighting the Ugandan government for decades, often through the use of chilling tactics: "abducting children and turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into drug-addled child soldiers. Abductees are forced to mutilate, maim, rape, and kill under penalty of death."10 While the Amnesty Act was intended to sunset after six months, it has been extended several times to allow rebels additional time to surrender.11 By November 2009, over 12,000 former LRA soldiers and 25,000 other combatants had been granted amnesty.12 The promise of amnesty from Ugandan prosecution has not completely concluded the matter of legal recourse against the LRA, however; in October 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued arrest warrants for the LRA leaders.13 As a condition of ending the violence, the LRA has demanded that the ICC drop its charges.14 Thus, in an effort to stop the hostilities, the Ugandan government has promulgated an amnesty that has effectively been ignored by the international community via the ICC.

In 2005, the people of Algeria voted to provide amnesty to rebel soldiers who had fought against the government in a thirteen-year civil war.15 This "dirty war"16 was triggered in part by the military's fear that an Islamist government would be elected in 1992.17 Under the guise of saving the country from Islamic rule, a military junta overthrew the government, and fighting between Islamist factions and the military quickly terrorized the country.18 During the fighting, all sides committed horrific human rights abuses including disappearances, torture, and public bombings, and one of the Islamic factions even targeted homosexuals, secularists, and immodest women. …