I've always been a fan of Amnesty International and for good reason. Active advocates for human rights, protecting those who have "been forgotten" or squished between political forces, unjust laws, or the wills of others.
What I did not know until last week that "being forgotten" or "forgetting" is what the word Amnesty is all about. The word was born between the 16th and 17th Centuries, coming from the Greek and Latin for forgetting.Think "Amnesia"
Francis Bacon's writings were not the first introduction of the word (According to the Oxford English Dictionary), but nearly the first. He was the second. In his work On Advanced Learning he published in 1605,
Reconcilemente is better managed by an Amnesty and passing ouer that which is past.
What impact does this have on our post-conflict processes as well as our legal system? If "Amnesty" means to forget, what is it we are forgetting? The 1592 usage from Sir T Smith says amnesty allows for "a new lyfe" - (Yes, they wrote funny in the 1500s. I like the "y" in life.. Why take the "y" out of life?)
So in post-atrocity societies with transitional governments (transitioning to democracy, that is) processes are undergone that offer "amnesty" in exchange for testimony. You see "truth and reconciliation commissions" or just "truth commissions" need alleged perpetrators for their processes to work symbolically or otherwise. The most famous case if South Africa where Afrikaans police officers working under the National Party's direction during apartheid came forward and took responsibilities for the killings of some very good people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has become an iconic occurrence. Critiqued, reviewed, and bettered by scholars and others everywhere. Post-conflict anthropologist Leslie Dwyer at George Mason U says South Africa has almost become a pilgrimage site for those interested in conducting such commissions in their home country or who want to learn about transitional justice.
But before I forget, back to the topic of "amnesia" and "amnesty." One of the controversial aspects of such commissions is the idea that perpetrators receive amnesty - or official forgiveness of their crimes, in exchange either for their participation in a tribunal, testimony, etc. While the terms may vary, the idea remains the same. Your record is wiped clean, you do not go to jail, and you do not face "retributive justice." This is a restorative justice process whereby Reconcilement, in the words of Bacon, becomes more important than vengeance and/or revenge.
In the larger project of "justice" this makes sense. Perhaps on a global stage truth is worth more than retributive justice. (though Lawrence Kohlberg thinks those at Stage 6 in his human moral development model can hold truth & justice without compromise-- think MKL) I think such "deals" make sense and I'm not a death penalty advocate in any cases. I figure life is harder than death, so let them life.
But my opinion about amnesty has been complicated by my education and exposure to "post-conflict" silence.
When things are "forgotten" in this way, there is a kind of silence that may not serve the victims.
Are people forced to forget? Is history written differently when someone's record is wiped clean?
Good history will record the amnesty process- what was done, what was "forgotten" and the deal that was made. But in the day-to-day experience, such amnesty could be experienced as a forced silence. The change in official records may have some ripple affect whereby people feel they cannot discuss anymore the perpetrators. Their accountability does not matter to the state. I'm not a vengeance fan. So I see the benefits of moving forward. But in places like Indonesia where people still cannot talk freely about 1965 I have concerns about silence. Now, Indonesia has not had a Truth and Reconciliation council. They had a few failed starts, in part because the government while very post-Suharto (he was out of power in 1998) members of the current government were still a part of that regime. So what can be remembered is still very political.
I ask not that amnesty be removed as a possibility, simply that we consider what and how we are forgetting and how this might impact those who must live everyday with that that you ask be forgotten. On youtube you can see videos of South Africans with missing hands, missing spouses, etc. What kind of Amnesty are they to have? They can never forget...amnesty is