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Mark R. Amstutz

After the Death Squads

Since the early 1980s the world has witnessed a dramatic political transformation of many Third World authoritarian governments and former Soviet-controlled communist regimes into representative democracies. The replacement of these dictatorial regimes with constitutional governments has resulted in a major dilemma--namely, how to reconcile the legacy of widespread human-rights abuses and massive structural injustices with the consolidation of democratic institutions. Is a comprehensive accounting of the sordid history of political oppression necessary to overcome the hurt and hate resulting from totalitarian party rule? If truth-telling is necessary, is it also sufficient to overcome the legacy of oppression and injustice, or must political crimes and state-sponsored abuses be punished and victims given restitution? Finally, what role can repentance and forgiveness play in promoting national reconciliation?

Recent history suggests that there is no simple way to overcome a regime's past oppression and injustice. Consider the following:

--After democracy returned to Uruguay in 1985, the new government released political prisoners and pardoned all crimes committed by state security forces during the 1970s, when leftist terrorists were embarked in an urban guerrilla war. Although the amnesty decision was bitterly denounced by human-rights groups, a national referendum inned quest for truth and justice for human-rights abuses carried out during the 1976-83 era of military rule.

A national truth commission issued a comprehensive report (50,000 pages) on the major human-rights abuses of the late 1970s when more than 9,000 persons disappeared, while civilian courts began prosecuting the top military leaders responsible for the major crimes of the "dirty war." Although Argentine society was supportive of these trials, the continuing prosecution of former military leaders resulted in several military disturbances that threatened Argentina's fragile demo-cratic order. As a result, ...

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