Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Justice in Democracy

After the discussion of Martha Minow's eight goals for addressing mass violence and investigating several truth commissions other than the South African TRC in order to begin work on my research paper, it is hard not to place the rule "Forge the basis for a domestic democratic order that respects and enforces human rights" at the top of my list. Although the rule concerning reconciliation across social divisions was the one we ultimately selected for the number one spot, several issues lead to the necessity of a democratic order being the ultimate end for seeking justice.

First, I think that my initial support for the reconciliation rule stemmed from my knowledge of apartheid and the eventual formulation of the South African TRC. Since the roots of the horrible human rights abuses in this case grew out of a state-sanctioned form of racism, I felt as though finding the truth and formulating some sort of justice for the victims to grab on to required some form of reconciliation above all else. Furthermore, since the South African TRC bartered amnesty for truth in an effort to put the society there back together, I thought that the form of government was somehow less important so long as a truth commission was given adequate legal space in which to operate. I know that this is one objection we discussed when debating these two objectives of truth commissions, but after learning about the 'disappeared' in Argentina and reading an article called "Settling Accounts: The Duty to prosecute the Human Rights Violations of a Prior Regime," I realized how supremely important the formulation of a domestic democratic order is to the effectiveness of a truth commission.

Essentially, this is article discusses the role of international laws concerning human rights and how they should be applied to various violations once the transition to a democratic regime has been made. Most importantly however, this article made me think about how human rights violations such as those in South Africa or Argentina occur in the first place. In both these cases, a totalitarian regime was established, which enabled ‘enforcers’ to invade every aspect of society - including basic human rights. Viewed in this light, a shift to democracy seems to be the only method of truly ending such violations. For me, this was best realized when looking at the case of Argentina, where a select group of military juntas staged a coup and subsequently began the act of 'disappearing' all those who were suspected of holding any type of anti-government sentiments. So, unlike the racial foundations of the events in South Africa, that which occurred in Argentina recognized no social, economic or political predilections. Whereas the horrors of apartheid can be tracked by its legislative record of repression, the military coup in Argentina marked a transition into a clandestine state-run terror operation that the government didn’t even recognize the existence of. As Ernesto Sabato appropriately points out, a veil of vulnerability and fear was immediately cast across the entire country:

A feeling of complete vulnerability spread throughout Argentine society, coupled with the fear that anyone, however innocent, might become a victim of the never-ending witch-hunt. Some people reacted with alarm. Others tended, consciously or unconsciously, to justify the horror. ’There must be some reason for it,’ they would whisper, as though trying to propitiate awesome and inscrutable gods, regarding the children or parents of the disappeared as plague-bearers. Yet such feelings could never be wholehearted, as so many cases were known of people who had been sucked into that bottomless pit who were obviously not guilty of anything.

In this situation seems as though any form of recovery from such widespread fear would end in the establishment of a democracy that would completely prevent such total abuse of power from ever happening again. And since a totalitarian government is essentially the required context for gross violations of human rights, the restoration of democracy, and more importantly handing control back to the people seems to be the most readily achievable form of justice regardless of the extent of prosecution.

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