Posted by: sean | September 15, 2006

Peace versus justice

I’ve thought often about peace deals that include offers of amnesty for war criminals. Should justice be sacrificed for peace? The case of Pinochet comes to mind as one in which a former tyrant was given immunity when he left power (although it was stripped from him nearly 10 years later, first by British and Spanish courts — the latter with a claim to universal jurisdiction — and only later by Chile itself).

There has been a recent cease-fire put in place in Northern Uganda, where Joseph Kony (who is wanted by the International Criminal Court) and his Lord’s Resistance Army have been using abducted children as soldiers to terrorize the people in Acholiland, killing and torturing thousands in their rebel war against the government in Kampala.

Kony has said that he will end the rebellion if, and only if, he is granted amnesty. This is in line with the traditional Acholi practice of reconciliation called mataput, in which a wrong-doer drinks a bitter root and is forgiven by those he has harmed (in many cases, fellow villagers whose ears, lips or noses have been cut off). There has been talk since 2004 of Uganda retracting its case in the International Criminal Court in return for an end to the conflict through such traditional reconciliation processes, some of which involve stepping on an egg and then being forgiven. And in the past, such practices have had an effect on weakening the cult leader’s rebellion:

But it’s not just geopolitics that’s weakening Kony. It’s also a powerful ethic of forgiveness — one that parallels South Africa’s famous reconciliation efforts after apartheid.

In the local Acholi tribe there’s a traditional ceremony in which elders place an egg — the symbol of new life — on the ground. A repentant wrongdoer then steps on the egg. The act symbolizes the opening of a new life. The person is welcomed back into the village family. This and other ceremonies are being used to reintegrate former LRA soldiers, despite their awful acts. Pressured by local leaders, the government also offers legal amnesty to former fighters.

A major reason for the forgiveness is that so many LRA fighters were abducted as children. They were often forced to kill civilians — or be killed themselves. “The child was innocent — taken forcefully and forced to commit the crime,” says Sheik Musa Khalil of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. “Forgiveness is the only way to solve this conflict.”

The attitude has put local leaders at odds with the UN’s International Criminal Court, which aims to prosecute Kony and others. But the news of the amnesty being broadcast via radio into the bush has spurred increasing numbers of rebels to desert Kony.

While I can see how the issue of child soldiers, particularly ones who were drugged and abducted, is morally complex and perhaps well-served by such traditional forgiveness practices (providing that there is a disarming and reintigration process included), I have to admit that I feel uneasy about letting people like Joseph Kony off the hook so easily, and groups like Amnesty International agrees.

Is peace in Northern Uganda worth letting Kony live the rest of his life a free man? Probably. Would I feel good about making the call? Definitely not.


  1. Yep, the whole “justice and peace” thing has been around in social/political philosophy forever at this point.

    I’ve been switching back and forth between Hobbes (Leviathan – Respect for “Common Law” through “order” and “rational reasoning”) vs Kant (Perpetual Peace – gradual historical effort to truly delegitimize the act of war crimes by reflecting upon the PRAGMATIC lessons) for a while now.

    In another side of the world, we’re only starting to learn that Sadaam Hussein periodically destroyed Shi’ite villages in order to maintain law and order. Imagine what it would mean in Iraq once the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal decides to execute him (Kantian nightmare)? Yet, perhaps the former Hobbesian-logician has a point that the US cannot afford to do without him?

    Either way, in this day and age, I am positively unsure if justice has really found a way to maintain “order” or a working process for “perpetual peace”. We must choose one of these opposing sides if we are to reach moral-based progress.


  2. […] usual, this sort of action brings up the question of justice versus peace, which is always a difficult one. Those who support the warrant, like the ICG, dance around the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: