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Andrew Rigby, 'Justice and Reconciliation after the Violence'

Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001. ISBN 1 55587 960 8 (paper) and ISBN 1 55587 986 1. 207 pp

The twentieth century has ended up with a dark account of violence and of wars all over the world. After the horrors of World War II it seemed that the situation had to change, that it was not possible to continue with the way things were going. Looking back, clearly it was able go on.

Quite a long time ago we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the International Human Rights Declaration. Amnesty International's report for 2001 says that - according to the information they have been able to gather during 2001 - there were extrajudicial executions in 61 countries; people disappeared in 30; torture was common practice in 125; 63 countries had prisoners of conscience; 72 had imprisoned people without bringing charges against them; 1,457 people were executed; and 3,058 more were living on death row.

Andrew Rigby's book is set in this context and he bravely starts the title of his book with the word Justice, a word normally avoided as being contentious in times of transition, when countries face dilemmas and tensions that are a consequence of ethical requirements and political restraints that arise when trying to deal with past human rights abuses.

Justice is also a common demand of the people who have suffered the consequences of war or political repression. Rigby uses a direct language, agile and easy to understand for the academic as well as the activist, and avoids the use of euphemisms. At the same time, he uses lots of quotes that sustain and make vivid his positions and deepen the insights expressed.

He says in his first chapter, “... the past continues to dominate the present, and hence to some degree determines the future.

”How to move on? How to address the past in a constructive future-oriented manner? It seems to be a sign of the times to try to address this dilemma. Hayner asks: `Can a society build a democratic future on a foundation of blind, denied, or forgotten history?' In recent years, virtually every country emerging from a dark history has directly confronted this question.”

Rigby organises his book around the specific patterns followed by governments who come into power after a political change - as a result of the end of a war or a dictatorship - in connection with dealing with the past.

It is interesting the way he describes each method of handling an issue, without taking positions or picking up the pros and cons; he leaves that to the reader and he does not necessarily draw “lessons to be learnt” from each case, as often in books on the topic.

In his classification some experiences are not included, as they do not correspond to the patterns he describes. Initially I wondered why cases like Northern Ireland were not included; though now it is clear to me. This is not a comprehensive book examining all the possible ways of dealing (or of not dealing) with the past, it is an organised presentation of quite clear-cut alternatives, which in turn makes it clear that there is not one simple answer to such complex problems.

The areas he covers include:

  • European Purges After WWII;
  • Spain: Amnesty and Amnesia;
  • Truth and Justice as Far as Possible: The Latin American Experience as seen through Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina;
  • The Post-1989 European “Cleansing” Process;
  • South Africa: Amnesty in Return for Truth;
  • Palestine: Collaboration and Its Consequences - A Worst-Case scenario and Third Party Intervention.

    I would highly recommend the book to anybody interested in the topic as it is easy to read and can connect with personal or familiar experiences.

    I have not forgotten that the book is called Justice and Reconciliation, but from my reading, this part is not its strength: it is not the issue that occupies most of the book. My field experience has taught me well: that reconciliation is not a necessary consequence of justice, nor of time as part of the healing process. Indeed we can't even be sure that it is necessary to know the truth in order to advance reconciliation. An examination of these topics would constitute a book in itself.