During the 1980s dictatorships gave way, or began to give way, to elected civilian governments. The trend was most wide-spread in Central America and South America, and was most astonishing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It also included such Asian governments as Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Whether all these nations, or indeed any of them, will evolve into genuine democracies in which rights are fully protected is, of course, far from settled. To some degree, this depends on factors beyond the control of any one country, such as international economic developments and whether the current détente between the United States and the Soviet Union continues. But in a number of countries whose future is uncertain, one of the most difficult questions is what to do about the past.
For most of the nations now emerging from dictatorial rule, the past was a period of terrible repression. South America had its worst period during the 1970s, when “disappearances,” extra-judicial killings, and torture were systematically practiced in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, all of which elected civilian governments in the first half of the 1980s; and in Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship is now in its final weeks. In Central America, the worst period was more recent: the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, when death-squad killings, massacres that obliterated entire villages, and disappearances often took place in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Despite the change to what is labelled “democracy” in these countries, many such crimes are still being committed. This is the case in Guatemala, where only traces of a guerrilla war remain, and in El Salvador the most intense military conflict in the hemisphere continues. The murder on November 16 of six Jesuit priests, their cook, and the cook’s daughter was only the most visible reminder of the savagery that has marked those conflicts. In the Philippines, the most egregious abuses—including death-squad killings and torture in prisons—took place under Marcos during the first half of the 1980s, though they started earlier during his rule and have continued in significant measure during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. In South Korea, the ascent to power of the nation’s last dictator, General Chun Doo Hwan, was particularly marked by brutality, especially in the southwestern city of Kwangju, where a massacre by the army in 1980 may have killed more people than were killed in the massacre by the Chinese army in Beijing this past June. (The actual numbers of people who died in both episodes will probably never be known.)
In the Soviet Union, the repression that is most often mentioned in official pronouncements about the past is the murder and starvation of many millions under Stalin. But vast suffering caused by abuses of human rights began before Stalin and continued during the more than three-and-a-half decades since his death. According to current official pronouncements, virtually all the evils of the past can be attributed to a single villain in much …