Leading Article: Truth and consequences

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?