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Overcoming past traumas to build a stable future

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims. Photo by Adam Carr, February 2005.

If your child is murdered or your friend is tortured or someone tries to kill you, it is tough to forgive and forget.   Animosities that spring from these kinds of brutality run deep. Yet moving on emotionally and psychologically is an important part of rebuilding society after the trauma of conflict and violence.

 Different societies deal with these things in different ways. This week Hilary Clinton visited a former prison in Cambodia where thousands were held before being sent to their deaths in the killing fields. She urged the authorities to proceed with trials of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge so that the country can ‘confront its past’.

This followed the decision by Prime Minister Hun Sen that there would be no more prosecutions after the trials of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders already charged.  The prime minister says the country needs to bury the past. Ms. Clinton argues that a country that is unable to confront its past is a country that cannot overcome it.


The same day, there was another story describing how East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta plans to free Gastao Salsinha, the former rebel who shot and badly wounded him in 2008. The UN Secretary General, rights groups, and the opposition have reacted to the decision with dismay, saying it will undermine the rule of law.


For President Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, it is about mercy and reconciliation. With internal tensions still strong in his impoverished Asian nation, he believes offering clemency is an opportunity to consolidate peace and stability which outweighs arguments for punitive justice.


Is there a right approach to this thorniest of post-conflict problems? Research for the WDR finds that over the last three decades almost 40 countries have implemented various measures to redress serious human rights abuses.


These measures involve both judicial and non-judicial approaches. 


Non-judicial measures include truth commissions, reparation programs for victims, and administrative sanctions, such as vetting people for government service or the army. Traditional or local justice also falls into this category.


Judicial measures range from criminal prosecutions in national courts and international ad hoc tribunals, like the ones for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to hybrid courts, such as the Court for Sierra Leone where Charles Taylor and others stood trial under a mix of national and international law.


Some countries have acted swiftly to set their nation on a new, positive trajectory. Germany, after the war, made a deliberate effort to address its past with the inclusion of Nazi atrocities in the school curriculum and the opening of former concentration camps to the public, lest they forget.  


Other countries, like Argentina and Chile, have initiated broad transitional justice procedures following years of authoritarian rule. In addition to Argentina’s truth commission and reparations programs for victims in both countries, Chile and Argentina have both put on trial more than 600 people accused of human rights violations.


In some places the formal judicial system may be overwhelmed. This was the case in Rwanda after the genocide where the special International Tribunal set up in Arusha and the country’s own justice system could not cope with the number of people in jail awaiting prosecution. 


The government turned to the Gacaca courts, a traditional community conflict resolution system, whose work is now winding down after processing more than 1.5 million cases. This was a contentious solution to meet the huge challenge of providing both punishment and reconciliation but it is hard to see how else the authorities could have dealt with the pressures.   


Other countries have acted later or relied less on prosecutions and formal justice processes. A WDR background paper prepared by South Africa’s Institute of Strategic Studies compares transitional justice systems in Cambodia, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Vietnam. All have made promising transitions out of violence, yet, as the paper indicates, there were big differences in their approaches – with no straightforward relationship between the approach and the attainment of stability.



Submitted by John on
The problem with President Ramos-Horta's pardons is that they send a message that those who commit the most serious crimes have impunity before the law. This is especially true of East Timor's government (and other governments) refusal to press for justice and accountability for crimes committed during Indonesia's illegal occupation when as many as 180,000 were killed. How do you prevent future atrocities if you let those who order and commit murder get away with it? How can ordinary people have any confidence in the legal channels of justice? How can victims of these crimes get any closure, if those who tottured them or killed their relatives get off so easily or even prosper. See for more information

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