Summary of "Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict"

Summary of

Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict

By Nigel Biggar

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Biggar, Nigel, ed. 2001. Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

The collection explores how democratizing countries deal with their violent pasts. Broadly speaking, the chapters address questions as to the obligations of new governments, who or what can offer forgiveness, and what sort of justice is most appropriate or effective.

The first section of the book wrestles with a range of ethical concepts often confronted in any discussion about dealing with the past. In seeking to reconcile peace and justice, Biggar discusses criminal justice and how important aspects of vindication and punishment bridge this gap. Shriver reflects on how forgiveness can be made to serve the cause of justice rather than undermine it. Elshtain too focuses on conditions for victims granting forgiveness and how acknowledgment on the part of perpetrators and beneficiaries as well as uncovering details of the past are critical elements. Forsberg undertakes a review of the growing discourse on transitional justice, lays out the factors to be considered in making the choice of mechanism, and considers whether these largely domestic processes are applicable for interstate or global injustices.

The second part looks at the issue from different levels of analysis. Minow considers the relative strengths of international tribunals, truth commissions, and the International Criminal Court, three institutional innovations the international community has developed to provide some enforcement of international human rights law. Van der Merwe draws attention to reconciliation at the community level. Using South Africa's TRC as an example, he shows how it engaged local communities, but its focus on national reconciliation led to unfulfilled expectations on the part of local stakeholders. Given that both sides have developed cultures of victimhood, Smyth explores how this serves as a challenge for the construction of a common history and ultimately reconciliation. Hamber's chapter focuses on the psychological dimension. While truth commissions and reparations are a useful start in the psychological healing process, he argues, there is a danger in oversimplifying. Individuals have complex needs and recovery is not a linear process.

Finally, some chapters describe specific historical experiences. Chile, Guatemala, South Africa, Rwanda, Northern Ireland. Barahona de Brito chronicles Chile's decade-plus long effort to deal with its legacy of human rights abuses. She follows the gradual opening of opportunities for greater accountability throughout the 1990s after changes in the judiciary and Pinochet's 1998 arrest in London. Looking at Guatemala's experience, Sieder argues that any form of effort at historical memory needs to connect with civil society and the broader public in order to have any real impact on society. Villa-Vicencio provides an overview of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and what needs to be done from here. He defends the amnesty provisions, argues that victims' testimony is important for the construction of national memory and, in combination with reparations, is important for victms' well-being. Vandeginste traces the judicial approach, both international and domestic, to dealing with the Rwandan genocide and outlines its limitations, particularly given that the country is still embroiled in armed conflict and the government has not attempted to create inclusive political arrangements. Taking the Good Friday Agreement as point of departure, McCaughey considers what is necessary to build on this start to advance genuine reconciliation.