Leading Article: Truth and consequences

WHAT IS truth? said Nelson Mandela, but unlike jesting Pilate he stayed for an answer. In some respects, the way in which the report of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has appeared is unsatisfactory. It may have been underhand, and suspicious, for the African National Congress to try at the last moment to block the report. But it is grossly unfair that F W de Klerk, and he alone, should have been able to suppress passages critical of himself. For all that, the report's fierce criticism of the brutality of several different parties, including the ANC, and notably of Winnie Mandela, while scarcely pleasant reading for President Mandela himself, is profoundly impressive. It is impressive in its assumption that reconciliation can be brought about through telling the truth; and still more so in its belief that the truth should be told equally about all.

In one prevailing view - that "mankind cannot bear too much reality" - the wounds inflicted by history can be healed only with an element of evasion or "denial", by a measure of wilful blindness. Hence, the Chileans were right to grant General Pinochet amnesty, despite his undoubted and atrocious crimes, as part of the process of restoring the country to democracy. Hence also, the countries of the former Soviet Union and its sometime empire were right not to seek punishment for their own criminals who had committed so many atrocities.

This is plausible and even wise, but it is not the end of the matter, and it runs the risk of confusing two things. Some degree of oblivion or amnesia is necessary to make human life possible, from friendship or marriage to politics and warfare. There is much to be said in favour of asking for forgiveness for our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. There is even something to be said for Balfour's "I never forgive but always forget". But beyond that, the thirst for justice remains a deep human instinct.

What needs to be remembered is that "the difference between justice and vengeance is that justice applies equally to all". Those were the words at the time of one critic of the Nuremberg trials. Even now, those trials leave a very mixed taste. The Nazi leaders had committed crimes which were qualitatively unequalled in history: there was no precedent for or equivalent to the systematic extermination of a whole people in death camps. And yet those defendants were also tried for "war crimes" by the Allies, who had arguably committed their own. At one point, the Nuremberg prosecution wanted to include the bombing of cities on the charge sheet, until it was pointed out that the RAF had killed about ten times as many civilians as the Luftwaffe. Nor was the sight of men being tried by Stalin's representatives for human rights abuses an attractive one. And the fact was that all the defendants were the vanquished, all the judges the victors. No wonder Winston Churchill is supposed to have said privately that we must take good care not to lose the next war.

The Pinochet case has led to calls for all such tyrants to face justice. But it is not just the general's disingenuous or odious advocates on the right who will wonder about the sense or honesty of this. If Pinochet should have been arrested in London, should Castro have been allowed to visit Portugal unmolested at the same time? If Peter Mandelson thinks it would be "gut-wrenching" to allow Pinochet to escape justice, shouldn't Tony Blair have effected a citizen's arrest on the Chinese leaders when he met them two weeks ago, leaders of a regime which in the past 50 years has killed more than the equivalent of the Chilean population several times over?

At the end of our brutal century, the search for perfect political justice is as elusive as ever. Much as it goes against the grain to see men such as Pinochet, or the brutes of apartheid, die in their beds, it is simply impossible to find a form of state justice that would apply equally to all. Quite different is the search for truth. That is why the new and free South Africa has shown the way forward. That is why the best judges of Pinochet's fate (pace Geoffrey Robertson on this page) are the people of the new and free Chile, trying to weigh the needs of reconciliation with the call for punishment. And that is why the ultimate healing medicine is not just vengeance or time, but truth.