Reconciling Justice and Amnesty and the Ethical Demands in Conflicy and War Divided Societies

A few weeks ago I watched on Aljazeera Television how the Israeli government granted some Palestinian prisoners and detainees amnesty in reaction to the peace initiative between Israel and Palestine. At the same time, I could see some Israelis gnashing their teeth who must have been bereaved of their loved ones I guess. There was pain, grieve and anguish on their faces signaling that they wanted justice. I then took a long breath and ponder again on the notion of justice and of course, retributive justice in particular. Going by my basic understanding of retributive justice, one which holds and considers it as punishment, if proportionate to the offence or crime committed and of course it is believed to be the best response to offence; that is, when an offender infracted upon the law of the state. Consequently, he or she forfeits or suspends his or her rights to anything of equal value and justice requires that this forfeit be enacted by the state. I also realized from my basic understanding of retributive justice as totally different from vengeance. Vengeance as I know it to be is personal, pleasurable at the suffering of others and more importantly vengeance lacks procedural standards. Retribution on the other hand, I see it as directed only on wrongs and has its inherent limits. For example, in ethics and law, it is assumed that every punishment must fit the crime or offence an individual has committed in which the severity of the penalty of the wrongdoing should be reasonable and proportionate with the severity of the infraction. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that the idea of retributive justice finds expression in virtually all cultures throughout the world. For example , the Mosaic Principle i.e. the Law of Moses that can be found in Christian holy book of Exodus 21:23-27; Deuteronomy 17-17-21 that categorically stresses the punishment of life for life, eye for eye, hand or hand, tooth for tooth etc. One thing that is very vivid and clear is that this Mosaic value recurs in many cultures of the world thus it is used as moral standard although; the moral judgment varies across cultures and societies.

However, philosophers of punishment have examined retributive justice side by side utilitarianism. For the utilitarians, punishment is justified by a supposed ability for future social benefits such as deterring the individuals from committing future crime or offence such as reducing it. And for the retributionists punishment is justified by the offence or crime that has been committed and carried out to atone for the damage, wickedness and evil that are already done to fellow humankind. The socio- political intricacies of our time has ushered in the notion of amnesty which in some quarter s is seen as uncalled for, and at the same time un ethical quoting Tom Tancredo “Amnesty is a terrible policy, and it’s terrible politics. It’s a terrible politics because you are rewarding people for breaking the law”. The term amnesty refers to acquittal, compurgation, forgiveness, mercy etc.  Amnesty in governmental or political parlance therefore refers to pardon for past offence or crime especially political ones by the state. By extension, amnesty goes beyond granting pardon in that it forgives the offence or crime completely. Today, the idea of amnesty had been held and is still hold as a precondition for peace making and peace building in conflict and war divided societies especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This reminds me of Nigeria where amnesty was granted to armed militia insurgency in the Niger Delta Area  in South- South Nigeria by the then Late President, a policy that was directed towards a peaceful coexistence of Nigerians due to protracted turbulent national security threats. Consequent upon the amnesty, many of the militia were re-integrated into the society and again became loyal to the state. The criminal actions of these militia has caused  so many a people the lives of their love ones , some are still nursing the psychological and physical wounds today and  see such people granted amnesty parading themselves on the street and living their normal lives in the name of amnesty. A recent development is another armed militia insurgency in North East Nigeria whose criminal activities have equally claimed a huge number of innocent citizens’ lives and the state is willing to offer and grant them amnesty. When the wicked ones or criminals who have offended the individuals and the state are freed from their wicked acts and let go at the ‘scorn’ of those who have been severely hurt and more so that justice has been undermined. Obviously, I ask myself, how do we reconcile the ethical demands between justice and amnesty in relation to peace making and peace building in our societies in general?

The question I pose here is: shall we say these moves are ethically and morally wrong/bad or good, how do we morally judge the state actions given the examples afore-identified? Can peace be achieved and built without a price being paid by individuals that are forgiving? Can peace be built and made on win –win formula only?   

 If therefore, amnesty goes beyond pardon and it’s taken as forgiveness, the poser again is: can peace be built and be achieved by forgiving one another amidst cultural diversity on the notion of forgiveness?

Having provided a background for this discourse, I like to know your your take on this.        

Tags: Ethics, Justice, Law, Peace

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Valentine:  My "take" is this is a learned exposition of a very complex subject -Justice.  Thanks for creating and sharing !  According to American Heritage Dictionary: amnesty: a general pardon granted by a government, especially for political offenses; to grant a general pardon. Pardon to release a person from punishment,exempt from penalty.Forgive to excuse for fault or an offense, to pardon; to renounce anger or resentment against.Seems to me you might be "splitting hairs" on definitions. If amnesty is a government pardon, it still is a "pardon".  Getting philosophical, it seems to me that an "eye for an eye" retributive justice is pragmatically traded-off for the "ultimate overall good of society" e.g., Mandela  apartheid; Al

Thanks for the reaction and bringing this issue to the fore again Mr. Al, obviously as you have said the concept of justice is a complex subject. Thus, the application of retributive justice across the board may tend to be difficult as well if not contextualized and that is the more reason my emphasis has been on ‘war divided societies’. Be that as it may, if we did agree on a trade-off that means a price has to be paid for the ultimate overall good of the society (peace) perhaps in the form of tolerance, let go of anguish and bitterness, renounce of anger or resentment, forbearance etc. To a carnal man, this price may tend to be ‘heavy’ because it is ‘I win you lose’ and individuals who are desirous to pay or have paid the price by trade-off may be looked upon as weak, but I think they are strong, they may be looked upon as stupid, but I have realized that they are wise, they may be looked upon to have committed sacrilege, but to me their actions are sacred.
Again, if we did agree on retributive justice say for example ‘eye for eye’ which is synonymous with ‘I win you win’ or ‘the chicken has poured away my syrup drug and I shall break its egg in return’ .In a condition like this devoid of trade-off, reprisal actions become the order of the day especially in war divided societies and these have always been counterproductive in the absence of virtue for the sake of peace. It has always been said that to err is man and to forgive is divine, I think we need to seek for divine help to aid our virtuous actions to sustain peace on our planet. Let us trade off our carnality or carnal life for our social life where love, tolerance, accommodation, forgiveness etc, is the virtuous action for its sustenance which can only thrive on our peaceful coexistence with one another.
For the state to grant amnesty for the sake of peace to reign can be seen as moral action and for those societies that strongly hold to their cultural values that find expression in the law of retribution and given the philosophy of pluralism, I believe with the fluid nature of culture and the propensity for man to learn easily the afore-identified virtues and more importantly to weigh the pros and cons of his actions are sufficient enough to evoke change of attitude in the dispensation of time just for peace to reign.

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