Many Nations Strive to Square Accounts With Old Oppressors
WHEN South Korea decided recently not to indict two former presidents implicated in a 1979 military coup, it set off an intense national debate.Skip to next paragraph
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The two ex-generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, should be indicted to ``establish a national spirit by correcting the wrongdoings of the past,'' demanded an opposition leader at a massive rally last week.
But President Kim Young Sam, elected under a reborn democracy in 1992, said indictments would jeopardize ``national unity.''
Such emotional debates are echoing around the world as many nations, shedding authoritarian or communist rule for democracy during the collapse of the cold war, are being forced to deal with their previous oppressors.
But in squaring accounts with their past, these nations often find it difficult to choose between vengeance and reconciliation, between justice and mercy. Some choose to do nothing at all.
``The big dilemma,'' says Jamal Benomar of the Geneva-based United Nations Center for Human Rights, ``is how to strike a balance between the ethical and legal obligations of the government; between the demands of victims for justice and the need to further the democratization process and achieve reconciliation. This is the issue that is being debated.''
``There's no panacea for resolving this problem,'' Mr. Benomar adds. ``There's no model.''
The dilemma for nations coming to terms with the past is not new. The French parliament agonized for three years before deciding to send King Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793. In the United States, the White House and Congress engaged in a protracted debate over how to deal with the defeated Confederacy after the Civil War.
But today, international law requires governments to investigate human rights violations, to bring violators to justice, and to compensate victims. As a practical matter, governments must struggle with the past without compromising the future.
Settling accounts with regimes that have trampled on individual liberties and engaged in extralegal detention, torture, and executions can have a cathartic effect on society, providing a symbolic break with the legacy of authoritarian rule.
In practice, accounts are rarely settled in any comprehensive manner except in countries where old regimes have been swept away by military conquest or violent revolution. In Ethiopia, for example, after President Mengistu Haile-Mariam was defeated in a civil war in 1991, the new government dismantled his Army and arrested thousands of officers. In most countries, where democratic regimes have taken power under more tenuous circumstances, the latitude for retribution is more limited.
In the African nations of Benin and Niger, for example, new governments granted immunity to former rulers to minimize threats to the democratic transition. Democratic leaders in Chile allowed the country's ousted despot, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, to retain control of the Army even as they established a ``truth commission'' to investigate past human rights abuses by General Pinochet's secret service.