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Clara Ramírez-Barat (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)

The role of forgiveness in transitions to democracy.


In willing to assess the role that forgiveness can play in transitions to democracy, the most appropriated way to proceed, would probably imply to carry on an empirical-comparative type of research. Nonetheless, before trying to accomplish such a task, I believe, it is also necessary to deal with some interrelated theoretical issues such as: what do we understand by forgiveness? Which relation does it has with apology? Can there be such a thing as forgiveness in the political realm, or it is only a moral concept? What is supposed to be its contribution in a democratic transition? Does it have to be backward of forward-looking oriented? Or, which is it relation with the process of reconciliation? These are some of the questions that could be legitimately posed, and that would probably be necessary to reply before carrying on an empirical analysis.

These paper aims to address some of these theoretical questions that, in the other hand, are recurrently being met in transitional processes. Albeit the target here is modest, I will try to line of research in which all these concerns can remain interconnected, that will be need to be continued in future projects. In what follows I will to proceed in three sections. First, I will try to set a rough conceptual framework in which to locate the word forgiveness; for then properly shift its meaning in the political arena. Then, in section II, I will ask which is the role that the act of forgiveness can have in transitional procedures. This will render us, as I will try to show, to two different ways of understanding the goals of transitional justice mechanisms, underlying which we also find two conceptions of justice-one restorative, the other retributive-, as it is exemplified in the discussion between Crocker and Tutu. Finally, in (III) I will try to argue that, because transitional processes are precisely located between these two logics, we must find a balance so that reconciliation is not achieved at the expense of justice.



            Forgiveness is only one option among the many that human beings have after an offense has been done. Other options that follow transgression are vengeance, punishment, admonishment, ignorance, denial… Apology is thus, only a particular way of settling disputes among many others. “To apologize is to declare voluntarily that one has no excuse, defense, justification, or explanation for an action (or inaction) that has «insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another»” and thus, “one who apologizes seeks forgiveness and redemption for what is unreasonable, unjustified, understanding inequitable” (Tavuchis; 1991: 17).

            In our daily vocabulary, the word forgiveness is mainly used in a moral or religious sense. At first sight, it seems difficult to se how we can translate its meaning into the political realm (Digeser, Schaap). In this section I will try precisely to give an account of forgiveness in political terms taking into account questions like: it is mere amnesty a form of forgiveness, or does an act of forgiveness imply something else (Bennett)? And, what would be even more important here; how does it matter the form that such an apology-forgiveness act takes place in a political process, in this particular case, a democratic transition?



            When a country has to face a transitional process many challenges have to be faced, while many different goals are aimed -justice, legitimation of the new regime, stability are probably among the most relevant – which collapse finally in the ideal of social reconciliation. This plurality of goals that are perceived in democratic transitions reflects, nonetheless, that there is not a common understanding on what reconciliation is about. While it has some cases a strong religious connotation- as it is the case of Tutu’s work- and thus it is conceived only as the ability to forgive the wrong deeds of the past; others believe that it only stems from an explanation and apology for the suffering that has been endured. Still others claim that a genuine reconciliation must be based on truth and justice with regard to the past (Crocker).

            In general lines, these different ways of understanding reconciliation imply also different perspectives about how should we deal with past state-sponsored wrongdoings. In one hand, we can argue that those who believe that reconciliation is possible after some act of apology-forgiveness, hold a restorative concept of justice (Battle, Tutu), strongly linked with a communitarian perspective of the political ethos. In the other hand, those who emphasize the role of trials and punishment, argue for a retributive version of justice (Crocker, Markel), based in the same individualistic model in which the culture of human rights has been raised.

This tension reflects another one that is raised with many other of the issues that are considered in Transitional Justice literature; which is what has been called the forward vs. backward looking logic (McAdams, Teitel). A tension that it is completely logical, if we take into account that transitions to democracy are precisely this: processes in which we have to combine the coming from a violent past with the construction of a stable and just democratic future. Trying to find a balance among both is never something easy.

This problematic has been developed in a paper by David Crocker (2002), in which he explicitly attacks Tutu’s defense of restorative justice, putting into question the reality of the societal healing properties that this model of pardon/forgiveness has. In his book No future with out Forgiveness, Tutu defends a restorative approach to justice- extrapolated from the South African case- which is based on the ideal of ubuntu. As he explains this African word - being very difficult to translate to the western culture- refers to a sort of social harmony which is considered as the summum bonum, and which incarnates the African motto “A person is a person through other persons”, which makes anger, resentment, or lust for revenge corrosive of this good (Tutu; 1999: 31). Though, for Tutu, to forgive is the best form to promote social reconciliation.

Crocker challenges Tutu’s defense of reconciliation through forgiveness and revises the attacks that Tutu makes to the retributive model. Crocker believes that a society must be very careful if overestimating the restorative effects of pardon and amnesty, as well as underestimating the restorative power of justice (Crocker; 20002: 549). Of course, Tutu is far away from saying that amnesty is always a good thing- as he considers the African case in which it was only granted in exchange of truth- nevertheless, he takes for granted that forgiveness is something intrinsically good. While Tutu’s insights stress important facts about how to reach democratic consolidation- the value of the community and the importance of the future- I also believe, as Crocker points out, that he still has to be shown how forgiveness can be related with justice when we have to deal with the past wrongdoings in transitional stages. Trying to find a coherent and solid path between these two lines of argumentation (retributivistis and restorativists), that remains at the same time near to problematic opened by transitional justice literature, will be the main target of this contribution.


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