|No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.|
Amnesty and Truth Commissions
In recent times, the question of whether to prosecute perpetrators who have committed atrocities, such as torture, in states which are in a period of transition from a repressive past to a democratic future has become an important issue for the international human rights community. Most people agree that leaders who organize mass murder and torture should be brought to justice. But, as human rights advocates such as Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch point out, recent practice in transitional situations has shown that effective trials are far and few between, and more often leaders and perpetrators are granted amnesties in exchange for telling the truth about their crimes. Brody points, for example, to the cases of Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos, Anastasio Somoza, and Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The South African TRC was established in the wake of the fall of apartheid in the early 1990's as a means by which the country could attempt to deal with its dark past of repression, racial discriminationm and gross human rights violations. At that time South Africa faced the most difficult moral question facing transitional regimes: can one sacrifice the pursuit of justice as usually understood for the sake of promoting other social purposes such as reconciliation? The TRC was South Africa's response to this question and represented an explicit political compromise between the broad amnesty that apartheid leaders sought and the prosecutions proposed by the ANC, which would have antagonized any hope of peaceful transition. The ingenious solution was to keep the prosecution option open (and some prosecutions were conducted) but to grant individual amnesties for those who came forward and told the truth about their crimes--in public and on TV.
Reed Brody, "The End of Impunity" available at http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/chile/dispatches.html
Peter Danchin, Columbia University