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FOCUS March 1997 Volume 7

Social Catharsis and Impunity


When people begin to feel deep regret and repentance for a wrong committed and express the same, this is said to be a catharsis. And when this is done regarding matters of social significance or by the society as a whole, then there is social catharsis. What is significant about catharsis is the owning of previously denied or hidden wrongful acts.

People's experiences in various parts of the world point to social catharsis as a mode of arriving at truth and justice. The public confessions of Argentinian generals about the "death flights" and of the former South African government officials about murders of political dissenters are clear examples.

So what does it mean to have social catharsis in relation to human rights violations?

Public confessions about human rights violations do establish the truth about the past to a great degree. The same can be said of court trials or fact-finding public hearings which extract as much information as possible.

The remaining question is how will social catharsis lead to justice? Is it necessary to punish those who admitted committing wrong and compensate those who suffered? Since impunity is not sanctioned by the principles of human rights, it follows that human rights violators must account for their actions and human rights violations victims must be compensated.

Yet in many cases in this region, neither truth nor justice is obtained. The deaths and alleged disappearances during the May 1992 events in Thailand have not been fully accounted for. The same is true with the killing fields in Cambodia, the martial law experience in the Philippines, the deaths of native East Timorese under Indonesian rule, the Bhopal tragedy in India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts case in Bangladesh. The violations of economic, social and cultural rights in this region are equally in the same situation. In the Thai and Cambodian cases, amnesty was given to people who would be the first to be held liable for the human rights violations. They were never even asked to confess or tell the truth about the violations. This is not to deny that amnesty was used to stop the violence or to obtain the surrender of an armed opposition group - certainly important in normalizing national situations. But these cases show impunity as more the rule than the exception.

Without truth and justice, the suffering of people continues.

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