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Justice, the Past, and Forgiveness

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Aug 27, 2013, 9:52 am

Between approximately 1960 and 1990, Latin America experienced numerous armed conflicts in which various governments across the region were confronted by guerrilla in both urban and rural areas. Some of those governments were civilian — such as that of Guatemala during the 1970s and that of Peru against the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), primarily in the 1980s. The others were military governments — of Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador.

The guerrilla were Marxists (or close to Marxists), and they attempted to create socialist regimes in their countries. By nature, as armed groups, and in conjunction with the support they received from allies of the Soviet Union, these groups trended toward the centralized authoritarianism of communism, whether Cuban, Chinese, or Vietnamese variants. Except in Nicaragua, they failed to take power in any of the countries.

These fights, as happens in all civil conflicts, were unusually cruel and dirty, wherein the governments launched brutal and ruthless counterinsurgent offensives, while the guerrilla kidnapped, assassinated, and engaged in all kinds of terrorist acts. With minimal popular support, these insurgent movements inevitably found destruction and failure. Peace summits followed in many of the affected countries, and wide ranging amnesty laws were approved in most of the affected regions.

The conflicts have ended, fortunately, with only one remaining guerrilla group of considerable strength on the continent. That is the Colombian FARC, which is currently at the negotiating table with the government. Peace has triumphed, opening new horizons for everyone, but the aftermath of those acts is still a source of conflict in our countries.

Organizations that purport to fight for human rights have proceeded to open well-financed campaigns which have, in my opinion, had the effect of reviving those conflicts and reopening the wounds of such horrible conflicts. I say this because these initiatives — in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Brazil, and Uruguay, for example — have focused on utilizing tribunals to prosecute only the the militaries which committed brutal acts during those conflicts. In doing so, they have completely ignored the guerrilla, which also mercilessly disrespected the rights of the populations (both civilians and military), who fell victim to their attacks.

A totally partial view of the past, which spreads as historical truth, has insisted on presenting the insurgents as idealists, who fought for a better world, and the militaries or governmental officials as bloodthirsty perpetrators of genocide. This is the predominant version today in most of the developed world.

It’s not easy to hold a neutral and constructive opinion of such a turbulent past. But it doesn’t seem sensible, in the name of justice, to prosecute some and forget the abuses of others. To say that reconciliation can only come after justice has been served, leaves open a fundamental question about what “justice” means — particularly when use is made of legal formalities to ignore the crimes of some but to judge to the maximum extent of the law the crimes of others.

There is only one path to justice: judge everyone with the same severity, or accept the agreements reached at the time to leave everything in the past and confidently turn the page of history. Of course, the last solution doesn’t offer compensation to the victims and fails to punish the perpetrators. But the alternative solution, to judge everyone, seems even worse. If everyone must face tribunals, wouldn’t there be thousands of defendants, endless processes, infinite lawsuits, and accusations? In fact, through those tribunals, wouldn’t we be reliving conflicts which have historically been overcome for the most part, which were the result of other times and circumstances?

Prosecuting certain groups, and leaving others with immunity, which is what is happening, is the worst of all alternatives. Is reconciliation possible when one side is attempting to send the other to jail by whatever means possible? In my judgement, which is of course only my personal opinion, irreversible damage is being done to the cause of human rights when judicial tribunals are used to advance politically motivated causes, as they currently are. It infringes on the independence of institutions, and reopens a debate that belongs in history.

Everyone should be made aware that from outside of our countries, and without understanding them, many are trying to impose judgements on those who, at the time, were defending their own way of life.

Translated by Joel Fensch.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324