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 the same way that Stalin was once credited with every achievement in the Soviet Union. The effect is to promote a cult of personality in reverse. In Poland and Hungary the most severe abuses took place during Stalin’s time and for several years after his death, especially following the “bread and freedom” riots in Poznan, Poland, in June 1956 and the much larger revolt in Hungary later that year, which was partly inspired by the events in Poznan. As the revolutions now underway in East Germany and Czechoslovakia proceed, some of the terrible crimes committed in those countries during the past four decades are also being explored.

It is likely that the question of accountability for the repression of the past will loom especially large in Romania, both because the upheaval that overthrew the Ceausescu dictatorship was itself so bloody and because of the severity of the repression by that dictatorship up to the very end. Indeed, of the many countries where accountability for the crimes of the past is a major issue, Romania is the one where there seems a risk of a period of what might be called “Robespierre justice,” as suggested by the summary trial and execution of Ceausescu and his wife. As the new government in Romania confronts mounting international criticism of that episode, however, the chances of avoiding a new reign of terror seem to be rising.

Among the nations undergoing a “transition to democracy,” the most ambitious government effort to deal with the abuses of the past took place in Argentina. Immediately upon assuming office in December 1983, the government of President Raúl Alfonsin established a civilian commission, under the direction of the well-known novelist Ernesto Sabato, to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the disappearances during the preceding seven-and-a-half years, when thousands of people were abducted, tortured, and murdered, and their bodies disposed of clandestinely, while the military government refused to provide any information about the fate of those who had vanished. These crimes, which claimed more than 9,000 victims in Argentina, were committed under the military regime that took power in 1976, when a coup overthrew the presidency of Isabel Perón, and lasted until civilian government was restored in 1983, after the armed forces were discredited following their humiliating defeat in the Falklands war the previous year.


Alfonsin ordered prosecutions for gross abuses of human rights of the nine military commanders who made up the first three juntas that ruled Argentina during the years following the coup. The prosecutions were carried out by lawyers who were known for their professional competence, some of whom had no political connections with Alfonsin’s party. The nature and extent of the crimes that were committed and the identities of the victims were meticulously investigated and documented; the rights of those accused of crimes were scrupulously protected; the guilt of the junta members was carefully assessed, and five were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from four-and-a-half years to life imprisonment. The Argentine public was provided with enough information for the entire nation to grasp what had taken place. The trials were carried out in a dignified manner, which inculcated respect for the rule of law.

Nevertheless, something went seriously wrong. Some lower-ranking military officers who were also facing prosecution conspired to mount small military revolts during Alfonsin’s final years in office. Several army posts were briefly taken over, and indicted officers were protected from arrest and trial. As a consequence of such actions, much of what was accomplished by Alfonsin was rescinded or reversed before he left office. That reversal has now proceeded much further under his successor Carlos Saúl Menem, who assumed office several months before Alfonsin’s term was due to expire in the midst of an economic crisis in mid-1989.

No such prosecutions have occurred in the Soviet Union. Despite Gorbachev and glasnost, there has been as yet no formal government investigation and disclosure of the crimes of the past. Nor is there much prospect that the Soviet government will officially face up to its past. The most it has been willing to do so far is to tolerate the publication of excerpts from such works as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and memoirs of other victims. These are beginning to appear in various periodicals, in which some Soviet historians are demanding that the archives be opened and the truth about the past be made known.

An important part of the effort to deal with the past in the Soviet Union can be seen in the work of an organization known as “Memorial.” This group was formed just over a year ago, and although it is not yet officially recognized—and therefore is unable to obtain an office or to pay out funds from its bank account—by early November it already had some 226 chapters throughout the Soviet Union. (Some local chapters, such as the one in Leningrad, have been officially registered by the soviets, or town councils, of their own communities.) Initially, Memorial’s purpose was to build a monument to the victims of Stalin and to establish a research institute to gather information on the victims, and on manifestations of Stalinism. By now, however, as I learned from a visit with Memorial’s leaders in November on behalf of Helsinki Watch (I was accompanied by Helsinki Watch’s Soviet specialist, Cathy Fitzpatrick), its concerns have broadened so that it also deals with many current human rights issues.

Indeed, Memorial is now by far the largest organization in the Soviet Union that could be called a human rights group. Still, the heart of its program is assembling documents, testimony, and certain artifacts, such as carvings from the labor camps, that would contribute to a history of repression in the Soviet Union. Founded by such persons as the late Andrei Sakharov and by Yuri Afanasyev (a prominent historian and an outspoken critic of Soviet government policies who lately seemed to irritate President Gorbachev), Memorial’s board of directors is largely made up of historians and archivists.

Memorial is increasingly bold, to judge by an unprecedented demonstration that I observed in Moscow on October 30. Some 1,500 to 2,000 people, many of them carrying candles, formed a human chain around the massive headquarters building of the KGB in central Moscow, which also houses the dreaded Lubyanka prison, where some of Stalin’s most prominent victims are believed to have been executed. A demonstration at any KGB office would have been virtually unthinkable until recently. Yet simultaneously—October 30 is “political prisoners day” in the Soviet Union, commemorating a hunger strike in the labor camps that began on that date fifteen years ago—similar demonstrations were held by Memorial in many other cities at prisons and other sites chosen because they symbolized repression.


Memorial does not demand that anyone be punished. In view of the time that has passed since the Stalinist abuses that are their main concern, this is hardly surprising. Nor do the leaders of Memorial call for punishment of more recent abuses. Sergei Kovalyov, a biologist who was imprisoned between 1974 and 1981 and then spent three years in internal exile for his human rights activities, and who has again become a leader of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, told me a year ago that so many people had taken part in Soviet repression that it would be impossible to single out particular officials for prosecution.

Kovalyov is particularly concerned these days with rehabilitating thousands of political prisoners who were kept in camps during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and have since been released. Only a handful have succeeded in obtaining an official statement that they are now citizens in good standing by conducting determined campaigns in their own behalf. The rest continue to suffer from various restrictions in their daily lives; they have trouble obtaining residence permits, for example, because they were convicted of such crimes as anti-Soviet agitation. Some officials who now agree that the laws penalizing such offenses should be revised say they are unwilling to support rehabilitation, since the convictions were justifiable under the conditions that prevailed at the time—a vague and indefensible bureaucratic formula. The Soviet government itself has taken no steps to wipe out the criminal records, either on a case-by-case basis or by legislation.

Though Stalin’s crimes occurred a long time ago, many people in the Soviet Union still suffer the consequences. The case of the Crimean Tartars is instructive. Although most of the Crimean Tartars were strongly opposed to Stalin’s rule, tens of thousands of them were killed fighting against the German invasion during World War II. Even so, after the Germans were driven out of the Crimea, the Crimean Tartars were collectively charged in May 1944 with betraying their country to the enemy, and were rounded up, loaded into sealed boxcars and transported to central Asia, where those who survived the trip were forced to live in unheated sheds. About two hundred thousand—nearly half of those who were forcibly relocated—died of suffocation, starvation, the extreme cold, and disease. The mosques in the Crimea were destroyed, their books were burned, and their cemeteries were plowed under. History books were rewritten to eliminate the record of their settlement in the Crimea, which dated back to the thirteenth century. Similar methods were employed to relocate other ethnic groups, among them the Volga Germans and another Muslim people, the Meshketians, and they suffered comparably.

Ever since Krushchev’s 1956 speech on the crimes of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, the surviving Crimean Tartars have campaigned for the right to return to their homeland. During the last few years, about 50,000 have managed to do so, most of them settling near the city of Simferopol. Many more want to return. Indeed when I met recently with some of their leaders in Moscow and asked how many wished to go back (their population has grown dramatically and is now estimated to be between a half million and a million people), the response I got implied that I had asked a foolish question. “Everyone, of course,” I was told. Yet, Ukrainians and others of European stock have since moved on to these lands and into what were once the communities of the Crimean Tartars. After more than four decades those settlers cannot simply be uprooted and sent elsewhere. The Supreme Soviet has created a commission to study the problem, but it has made little headway.

The Crimean Tartars were victims of a terrible crime, but most Soviet citizens know little about what happened to them—much less, for example, than Americans know about the forcible relocation and internment of Japanese Americans by the US government at roughly the same time. Congress recently apologized and authorized financial compensation to the survivors. Such measures would also seem appropriate in the Soviet Union, if the regime is to make amends for the far harsher treatment of the Crimean Tartars. But what is probably required most urgently is publication by the Soviet government of a detailed, truthful, and comprehensive account of what was done to the Crimean Tartars by Stalin and how they suffered—a report like that of Argentina’s Sabato commission. A solution for their claim to return to their traditional homeland will not necessarily emerge from such an accounting, but at least the importance of dealing with that claim will become better known.

Perhaps the most serious crimes by the Soviet government in recent years were those committed by their forces in Afghanistan following the invasion of 1979. Among the more than half a million who are estimated to have died, thousands were killed by Soviet troops in deliberate attacks on civilians and even more died in indiscriminate Soviet attacks. Aside from Andrei Sakharov, few in the Soviet Union seemed to be concerned with these crimes, in which the victims were Afghans rather than Soviet citizens. Some would argue that the lack of concern for human life is comparable to the indifference in the United States following the Vietnam War; yet at least one case, the massacre at My Lai, resulted in public acknowledgment of crimes by United States soldiers and in prosecutions, if little by way of punishment. Not even that much has taken place in the Soviet Union. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told the Supreme Soviet on October 23, “We violated the norms of proper behavior” in Afghanistan. “We went against general human values. We committed the most serious violations of our own legislation, our party and civilian norms.” Yet Shevardnadze was apparently referring only to the invasion of Afghanistan. He stopped short of acknowledging that Soviet attacks on Afghan civilians were also a severe violation of civilized norms. There has been no disclosure of those abuses by the Soviet government.

The government of President Najibullah in Afghanistan has now acknowledged that the Afghan secret police, the Khad (which had Soviet support) killed 11,000 political prisoners in the twenty months before the Soviet invasion, and has released the names of the victims; but the Afghans have not yet acknowledged that such killings continued after the Soviet occupation. Before Shevardnadze’s speech, Alexander Sukharev, the USSR Procurator General, told the Supreme Soviet that he was proposing an amnesty for all the Soviet soldiers who had served in Afghanistan. In describing the extent of the amnesty, Sukharev lumped together “4,307 people [who] were made criminally responsible over 10 years for selfish crimes—theft, black marketeering, smuggling,” and others who “were found guilty of hooliganism, crimes against persons, and military breaches, including grave ones.” Sukharev did not disclose the nature of these “crimes against persons” or “military breaches,” but the scant information available suggests that he was referring here to crimes Soviet soldiers committed against one another. In any event, the amnesty proposed by Sukharev and adopted by the Supreme Soviet on November 28, would exclude the possibility of prosecutions for deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against Afghan civilians.

Amnesty laws have been popular in Latin American countries, where crimes have been committed by the armed forces against the citizens of their own country. In Brazil the armed forces granted themselves amnesty in 1979 before permitting the civilian government to be restored in 1985. In Uruguay, the civilian government adopted an amnesty law in 1986 after taking office in 1985, apparently making good on a private agreement with the armed forces in the Naval Club Pact, the agreement that permitted the transition to civilian rule. More than a quarter of the voters of Uruguay signed petitions to require a national referendum on the amnesty law. After a bitter campaign, a majority of Uruguayan voters upheld the amnesty law last April.1

In Guatemala, the armed forces declared an amnesty for themselves in January 1986, just four days before they turned over the government to a civilian President, Vinicio Cerezo. The President promptly accepted it. (Previously, President Raúl Alfonsin had rejected as self-serving and void the amnesty the Argentine armed forces had decreed two weeks before his election, which restored civilian rule.) The Guatemalan amnesty was retroactive to 1982, the year another such amnesty was decreed by the armed forces, absolving them of the crimes they had committed up to that point. In El Salvador, in October 1987, the government of José Napoléon Duarte announced an amnesty for the armed forces, ostensibly in compliance with the Central American Peace Plan that had been signed by the five presidents in the region two months before. But the plan called only for amnesties for the guerrilla groups fighting the government in the region. Similar amnesties for the military were declared at about the same time in Honduras, where there was no guerrilla struggle, and once again in Guatemala to cover the period since the January 1986 amnesty.

In Nicaragua, the government in 1983 declared both an amnesty for Miskito Indian prisoners and for the Sandinista troops who had committed crimes against the Miskitos. If the remaining 1,300 or so Nicaraguan prisoners who have been accused of activity on behalf of the contras are released, the government will almost certainly extend an amnesty to the members of its security police and army who have been accused, and in a few cases convicted, of crimes against civilians. In Chile, the Pinochet regime declared an amnesty for the armed forces for crimes dating as far back as 1978, thereby attempting to absolve itself of crimes committed during its first five years, the bloodiest period of its rule. Whether or not Pinochet declares another amnesty before leaving the presidency, he has announced that he will not tolerate prosecutions of members of the armed forces by the civilian government that will take office. Since Pinochet will remain as commander in chief of the Army under the Constitution he created nearly a decade ago, he could well be in a position to enforce a de facto amnesty even if another amnesty is not officially declared.

Arguably, none of these amnesties is valid under international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by the US, the Soviet Union, and most Latin American nations, stipulates that a State must provide an “effective remedy” for abuses. The Geneva Conventions, which regulate the conduct of wars and have been ratified by nearly all the nations of the world, are more explicit, providing that nations must search for those who commit “grave breaches” during military conflicts and “bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.” But there is no effective way of enforcing such international agreements.

Though an amnesty may not be valid legally, particularly in the case of extensive crimes committed during military conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and El Salvador, prosecuting members of the armed forces for such crimes poses considerable risks. Some of the civilian governments that have succeeded military dictatorships, in the Philippines, for example, or in some Latin American countries, would run a strong risk of being overthrown if they indicted officers responsible for torture or political murder. This will be a matter of much concern in Chile when a civilian government takes office.

President Cerezo of Guatemala told me, several months after he took office in 1986, that to repudiate the amnesty that the military decreed for themselves would mean the end of his government. In Uruguay, some legislators who voted for the amnesty legislation, and some voters who endorsed the amnesty in the subsequent referendum, made it clear that they feared that prosecutions of the armed forces would provoke a military coup. Even if a civilian government were not overthrown, it might not be able to enforce its orders if the armed forces, or parts of them, are determined to block, prosecutions. Concern about such military intransigence, rather than fear of an actual military coup, was probably the main reason why the government of President Alfonsin in Argentina backed away from prosecuting the middle-level officers who had engaged in horrendous crimes during the years of the “dirty war against subversion.”

A painful dilemma arises when the question of accountability poses the risk of overthrowing a civilian government. Permitting the armed forces to make themselves immune to prosecution for dreadful crimes seems intolerable; yet it also seems irrational to insist that an elected civilian government should commit suicide by provoking its armed forces. This dilemma illustrates the fragility of most of the elected governments that have recently taken over from dictatorships. On a matter that is crucial to the military, the commanding officers still wield decisive power. Yet if the new civilian governments are to evolve into genuine democracies, it is essential that the rule of law should prevail and that the armed forces should be subordinated to democratic rule.

It is worth considering why the Argentine prosecution of crimes against human rights started so promisingly and why it ended so badly. It is often said that Alfonsin was able to order the prosecutions because, at the moment he took office, the armed forces had been so weakened and discredited by the Falklands war that they had no power to resist. But this is only a partial explanation. Alfonsin acted as soon as he assumed office, at a moment when his popularity was at its highest, and when heads of state from around the world had just visited Buenos Aires for his inauguration to celebrate the restoration of democracy. More significant, I believe, were Alfonsin’s decision to establish the Sabato commission, in order to document and publicize the disappearances, and the fact that the commission performed this task admirably and quickly. Though the prosecutions were announced earlier, they did not seriously get underway until after the Sabato commission issued its report.

The decision to prosecute high military commanders who were members of the junta seems to me to have been correct. Indeed, if the prosecutions had been limited to these officers, the military uprisings against the Alfonsin government might never have taken place. Punishment of officers at the higher level who were responsible for crimes would likely have been accepted by most of the Argentine population, and many in the military. But when middle-level officers were indicted as well, local revolts among the military began to take place. The prosecution of middle-level officers who had presided over acts of torture and killing was fully justified; but it was also deeply resented by many officers who claimed they were only “following orders,” and by their military comrades. In order to appease them, Alfonsin pushed through the congress a “due obedience” law, exonerating most such officers.

In hindsight, this appears to have been a mistake. By giving in, Alfonsin probably encouraged the rebel officers to make further demands and to launch further revolts, preparing the way for the pardons issued by President Menem in October that covered all but five convicted commanders—one is still facing trial—and for Menem’s announcement that he intends to pardon those commanders soon. In retrospect, Alfonsin might have done better to limit prosecutions to the top commanders, while continuing to publicize the crimes committed by lower-ranking officers.

Another country that has had some success in dealing with past abuses, although it has not undergone a “transition to democracy,” is Uganda. The government of General Yoweri Museveni established a commission of inquiry in 1986 which has been holding hearings about the crimes that were committed by Ugandan forces under Museveni’s brutal predecessors, Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Unlike the Sabato commission in Argentina, the Ugandan commission’s hearings are public, broadcast live and in full on the radio and television. Indeed, the hearings are by far the most popular broadcasts in Uganda, as the story of the nation’s awful past is recounted by survivors among the victims and by their oppressors. Just what will come of these hearings and whether the people accused will be indicted and tried fairly remain unclear; there is no sign as yet of what will happen to them.

The Philippines has failed to establish even as much accountability as Uganda for past abuses. Mrs. Aquino came to office with the help of the commanders of the armed forces and, though she established a Presidential Committee on Human Rights (PCHR) to investigate past abuses, mainly by civilian police, security, and prison officials, military officers were largely excluded from its early inquiries. Soon after the PCHR was established its highly respected chairman, the lawyer Jose Diokno, died of cancer. Aquino’s reliance on the military in her effort to defeat the insurgency of the New People’s Army made her increasingly unwilling to confront army officials who had grossly abused human rights. Less than a year after it was established the PCHR was disbanded. The revolts by part of the military that have continued to threaten Aquino’s government make her dependent on the good will of forces that remain loyal. Accordingly the prospect that human rights abuses by the armed forces will be punished has grown ever more remote.

Some human rights activists divide the process of establishing accountability into the “truth” phase and the “justice” phase.2 The truth phase takes place when a government acknowledges the responsibility of agents of the state for the abuses that have taken place and makes public exactly what happened.3 The justice phase takes place when those responsible for severe abuses are prosecuted and, if their guilt is demonstrated, punished.

Of the two phases, the one devoted to the “truth” seems to me the more important. By knowing what happened, a nation is able to debate honestly why and how dreadful crimes came to be committed. To identify those responsible, and to show what they did, is to mark them with a public stigma that is a punishment in itself, and to identify the victims, and recall how they were tortured and killed, is a way of acknowledging their worth and dignity.

To say that truth is more important is not to depreciate the importance of punishment. In punishing offenders, a society expresses its respect for its own laws and makes clear its insistence that everyone is subject to them; neither rank nor office puts a person above the law. It is also a way of expressing respect for victims of those violations; by prosecuting those who hurt them, a society makes clear the significance it attaches to the harm that has been done.

Of course, concerns for truth and justice are closely linked. In Argentina, the disclosure of the truth by the Sabato commission helped to create a climate of opinion that supported the government’s prosecutions. In most cases, a government such as Argentina’s tries to suppress the truth about its abuses while they are being committed. Whereas many people may be generally aware that killing, torture, and disappearances are taking place, they know little of their extent and details. When the prosecutions were brought, the information disclosed at the trial both confirmed the findings of the Sabato commission and gave a more precise identification of torturers and killers. Indeed, because a huge number of Argentine citizens watched the trial of members of the junta day by day, the trial did more than the Sabato commission itself to circulate information. During the trial, a special daily newspaper containing transcripts of the trials and discussions of the issues out-sold any other newspaper in the country.

In the Soviet Union, where prosecutions may be impossible because so many were involved in repression, and in Chile where prosecutions may be difficult because Pinochet and the armed forces will continue to hold considerable power, some degree of accountability may still be achieved by disclosing as much of the truth as possible. If hearings can be held in Uganda informing the public about abuses of the past, why not in Moscow and Santiago? The same could now be said for East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

To call for such hearings is not to preclude prosecutions. The amnesty for members of the Soviet armed forces that has now been enacted by the Supreme Soviet is clearly not warranted. Prosecutions should at least remain a possibility, particularly for the highest-ranking officials who ordered the abuses, both because they bear responsibility and because, as was shown in Argentina, such prosecutions may be politically more feasible. For if subordinates are prosecuted, commanders who ordered, approved, or tolerated their abuses, have little choice except to rally to their side. On the other hand, a commander’s subordinates have no such obligation. Their loyalty is to the nation, and to the institution of the armed forces. They may defend their commanders, but as was shown in Argentina, this is far from certain if the state lays the groundwork for prosecuting the people ultimately in charge.

In a case such as that of Guatemala, of course, it seems most unlikely that the government will pursue either truth or justice. Vinicio Cerezo is almost certainly correct when he says his presidency could not survive if he attempted to hold officials and military officers accountable for past abuses. What is to be done in such circumstances? Certainly outside observers and other governments, such as the US, should drop the pretense that Cerezo heads a democratic government, or even a government that is making a transition to democracy. Cerezo has turned out to be a somewhat glorified puppet of his nation’s military commanders, a civilian face for what remains a regime that is still controlled in all essential respects by the armed forces. Cerezo is useful to the Guatemalan military in promoting trade and aid from the United States and western Europe, but he has no way of bringing members of the armed forces to account for their abuses; and his evident weakness also precludes any effective effort to halt the abuses that are now taking place, including the killing during the last few months of several student leaders at San Carlos University and the “disappearances” of four members of the CERJ, an Indian human rights group. If Cerezo were recognized for what he is, the advantages the armed forces gain from installing a civilian in the presidential palace would be diminished. To obtain these advantages, the armed forces should have been required to turn over more authority to a civilian president, or at least to curb the abuses that continue.

I do not claim that acknowledging and disclosing the truth about past abuses, or punishing those responsible for abuses, will necessarily deter future abuses. I doubt there is decisive evidence for this proposition. The same can be said of the contrary view, sometimes argued by proponents of amnesties, that an amnesty promotes reconciliation, while if a government making a transition to democracy attempts to punish those guilty of past abuses, it risks allowing those people to seize power again. Either outcome is possible. Whether the guilty are accorded amnesty or punished is only one among many factors that affect the pattern of events in any country.

If the Soviet Union were to punish the military leaders responsible for massacring civilians in Afghanistan, will the military be more careful in its use of force in suppressing a nationalist uprising in one of the non-Russian republics? Or would it prompt a military revolt that will curb Gorbachev’s authority and lead to further abuses? If a civilian government in Chile insists on putting Pinochet on trial, now only a remote possibility, would the armed forces launch a new coup? Or will asserting civilian authority curb future military abuses and deter a future coup? Such questions depend both on the particular political culture involved and the often unpredictable interplay of political events and personalities.

The important point is that accountability should not be understood or judged merely as a political tactic. Accountability means recognizing the moral responsibilities that arise from the past, even if little can be done at a given moment to enforce those responsibilities. Throughout the world, dictatorships have committed unspeakable cruelties. The ideological justification for their crimes has commonly been utilitarian—some variant on the need to serve the greater good, whether that is defined as “building socialism,” as in the case of Stalin or Mac, or stopping terrorism, as in Argentina, or defeating a communist insurgency, as in Guatemala. To demand accountability, especially so far as exposing the truth is concerned, is to insist that people not be sacrificed for the greater good; that their suffering should be disclosed, and the responsibility of the state and its agents for causing that suffering be made clear.

To those who hold such views, the respect for the rights of each person inherent in such an accounting is central to a democratic society. Some leaders of nations currently undergoing “transitions to democracy” are impatient with the demands of past victims and their families and see these an obstacle to “national reconciliation” and to their hopes to build stable democratic governments. They fear that those who might be brought to account for their past abuses may later take revenge. Such fears are often understandable; but to the extent that a society or government dismisses the principle of accountability as unnecessary, it undermines its possibilities of becoming a true democracy, in which citizens can feel confident that their rights are firmly protected.

The debate between partisans of these opposing views will not end soon. How it is resolved will do much to determine which of the countries that claim to aspire to democracy during the 1990s will actually achieve it.

This Issue

February 1, 1990