The Impact of Amnesties on Violence and Peace


Geoff Dancy

Do legal amnesties for combatants help end civil wars? International policy experts often take it for granted that amnesties promote negotiated settlements with rebels. However, a large number of amnesties are followed by continued fighting or a return to the battlefield. What, then, are the factors that make amnesties effective or ineffective?

My name is Geoff Dancy, and for ten years I have been collecting and analyzing information on accountability from all over the world. Together with a group of scholars called the Transitional Justice Research Collaborative, I study whether various mechanisms like trials, truth commissions, or reparations decrease political violence over time.

In describing what we’ve learned so far, one’s impulse is to start with criminal prosecutions. Human rights trials—like those held at the International Criminal Court—are the primary focal point for a great deal of advocacy. These trials embody the hope that one day political authorities will no longer enjoy impunity for acts of extreme cruelty.

However, it makes more sense to start with amnesties. Amnesties are “extraordinary legal measures” meant to protect certain people from prosecution for specified offenses.[1] Amnesties can be used for noble purposes, like releasing prisoners of conscience or allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in their country of residence. But in the world of human rights, amnesties are seen as the enemy of accountability. Throughout the last five decades, they have been used in transitional democracies or civil war states to thwart justice, guaranteeing impunity for powerful people guilty of ordering and committing atrocities.

Infamous rights violators like Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor claimed protection from prosecution under amnesty offers. So too did South African police enforcers of apartheid, who were eligible to apply for amnesty in exchange for confessions.

In some of these cases—like when the Argentine junta regime passed a law protecting itself--amnesties seem terribly unjust. In other cases, they seem like a “necessary evil.” Realists commonly remark that amnesties are needed to incentivize peace. Their reasoning is this: alleged human rights violators who are still in command of violent forces will not cede power if doing so means they will go on trial.

In this sense, the logic behind the use of amnesties is straightforward. Sometimes moving forward means bargaining with unsavory figures instead of trying to put them in jail. It may even save lives. For instance, if given the choice, would you amnesty Bashar al-Assad for gassing civilians, if it meant a quick end to the war in Syria? Many people would answer “yes.”

Based on this ethical reasoning, peacemakers have frequently advocated for amnesties as a justifiable devil’s bargain: they may deny justice to victims of atrocity, but at least they can end repression or civil war violence in the short term. Given that non-recurrence is a key goal for transitional justice practitioners, this is thinking that we should take seriously.

The problem with the pro-amnesty argument is that is it not grounded in much evidence.

Until recently, proponents of amnesties simply pointed to a handful of case examples, or appealed to hypotheticals like my Bashar al-Assad example, to make their point. But this is not good enough. Hypothetical scenarios are often nonsensical: who would provide Assad with an amnesty, and how would that actually change anything? Additionally, case studies seldom include baseline comparisons. For every amnesty that may have worked (like Mozambique in 1992), another amnesty did not work (DRC in 2009). Can we really say that, on average, amnesties promote peace?

I set out to answer this question using a comprehensive data set of all amnesty laws passed between 1945 and 2010. With these data, I studied the average relationship between amnesties, the termination of violent conflict, and the recurrence of future conflicts. The results, which are published here, provide a few important takeaways.

First, of the 297 amnesty laws aimed at ending civil war, only 77 (26%) provide explicit protection for serious violations of human rights. Blanket amnesties for atrocity criminals are actually quite uncommon.

Second, 60% of all amnesties are passed while fighting is ongoing. These are often aimed at trying to get rebel soldiers to defect and accept legal protections provided by the state, thus weakening opposition. Surprisingly, these amnesties do not increase the likelihood of conflict termination. In fact, they are associated with longer conflict duration. The reason for this is that rebels interpret amnesties as a trick or as a sign of weakness on the part of the government, rather a good-faith effort at negotiating.

Third, if enacted following the end of fighting, amnesties do have a pacifying effect. That is, they decrease the likelihood that rebels or government forces will return to battle. However--and very important--this does not hold for those amnesties that forgive human rights violators for atrocities. In other words, amnesties promote peace, unless they provide protection for international criminals.

For many analysts, this is counter-intuitive, but I argue that it makes perfect sense if we consider bargaining logic. The primary reason that civil wars recur is that the former opposition groups cannot trust each other to stick to peace deals. Blanket amnesties make this problem of commitment even worse because they show future rebels that there is no price to be paid for engaging in extreme violence when fighting the state. Why not return to the battlefield if you know that there is an amnesty waiting for you afterward?

In short, using evidence, we have discovered that amnesties, one of the preferred tools of peace negotiators, works only in limited conditions, and not because they sidestep demands for justice. The most effective amnesties are those that provide some protection to rebels who chose to challenge the state, but stop short of forgiving atrocity criminals.

A final note. Some amnesties are enacted not to stop civil war, but to make transition to democracy more manageable for former authoritarian rulers. We find no empirical evidence that these kinds of amnesties lead to a decline in repressive violence in the future. That is, making short-term compromises to usher in democracy does not necessarily improve human rights conditions later.

In the end, the choice between justice through accountability and peace through amnesties is overplayed. The impact of amnesties—the great foil to accountability—is quite limited. Claims to the contrary are often not grounded in reality.

[1] Mark Freeman, Necessary Evils: Amnesties and the Search for Justice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 13.

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Geoff Dancy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. 

Issue: Impact

Transitional Justice is value-oriented and aims to help build sustainably peaceful and just societies. What do we know about its real impacts?