Reconciling Justice and Amnesty and the Ethical Demands in Conflict 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 take on this.        

Tags: Ethics, Justice, Law, Peace

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Peace-building and reconciliation, I believe mostly comes with a price attached (that price to me is almost always known to be compromise)! However, different societies have their own perceptions and approaches even though some of the legal procedures to justice, amnesty and punishment may follow similar paths. To me, inasmuch as we wish to be forgiveful as a group or nation, I believe that the consideration of victim plight and  rights are fundamental to upholding justice.

On the other hand, punishment of culprits also, can only be perceived just if they match with existing laws and strategies and are done openly. The ethical point that comes to my mind is that human behaviors could be termed 'evil' but punishments should serve as reforming, reconciling and correcting our very mistakes and not necessarily making society an environment of hatred and fear.

Oumie! I quite agree with your views. Perhaps, we may hinge it on the fact that ' To err is Man and To forgive is Divine'. As such, the divinity in forgiveness I believe is linked up with the price to be paid in peace building and reconciliation which many have always compromised as you have underscored. Although, its not always easy to let go of the evil or wicked deeds of an erred man or an erred nation by virtue of our canal nature as human.But nevertheless,Humanity must rely on divinity for the gift of  forgiveness knowing fully well that what goes around comes around.  


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