Foreign Policy Blogs

What amnesty cannot bury

Transition from military rule to full democracy is never easy and often involves serious questions about accountability. This can involve accountability for past actions, or new questions about how a civilian government can be held accountable to the people. Because of the complicated nature of any transition, some governments opt to take the easy way out with the first question, and implement amnesty laws in an attempt to simply move on from the past. Sometimes this option can work, but as current events in Brazil demonstrate, there still some things that amnesty cannot bury no matter how much time has passed.

In the slow transition to civilian rule, Brazil passed an amnesty law in 1979 for political crimes committed under the military government, while the 1988 constitution granted amnesty to those who had been prosecuted for purely political reasons. These two provisions and other related laws allowed Brazil to transition to civilian rule, but left many seeking justice. While other Latin American governments implemented truth and reconciliation commissions as a way to balance human rights concerns with practical politics, Brazil never officially had a truth commission. That gap in accountability and the example set by other Latin American countries is what has led to President Lula da Silva to propose an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate acts of torture that occurred under the military government from 1964 to 1985.  It is also what is creating a political firestorm with victims questioning the sincerity of the new attempt at justice and key military leaders resigning from the government rather than support the creation of a commission.

The controversy illustrates that while often easier in the short run, amnesty is never straightforward.  Thirty years after the fact, Brazil is now having to face the ghosts of its past.  The questions that should have been answered then are finally being asked, bringing to light all the complicated issues that transition involves.  While Brazil is far more stable today and it is unlikely that the issue will significantly undo the progress that it has made in the last thirty years, it is also clear that these issues will not go away.

In order for Brazil to truly move on from its past and fully transition from its military government, it is not enough for civilians to be in charge; there must be some form of accountability as well. This is because the cost of human rights abuses does not end when the abuses stop. Although this has been shown again and again, the events in Brazil over the past month give us one more demonstration of why amnesties usually create more problems than they solve in the long run.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa