Mahmood Mamdani

Perpetrators Must Be a Part of Reformed Society

By Mahmood Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani took what the world knew about genocides and etched it out with such visceral precision that it allowed people to see perhaps more clearly than ever before, that it is not enough to just describe hatred but to find exactly where it stems from. Mamdani points out how colonization created new political categories in colonies, that framed people as `natives and settlors,’  and new kinds of prejudice were formed. His writing changed the way the world looked at hate crimes, particularly in places like Rwanda and India. He is currently the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and the Herbert Lehman professor of government at Columbia University.

First published in the New York Times, March 8th, 2013, re-printed with permission of the author

Prosecuting government leaders who commit mass violence against their people is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it is especially misguided when it comes to African countries. More often than not, trials merely put a Band-Aid on the wounds that drive civil conflict within a society, rather than tackling the root causes behind the violence.

Mass violence in Africa is typically intrastate violence, occurring between ethnic groups whose identities were politicized under colonial rule. The international community insists that the only morally appropriate response is to hold leaders legally accountable, a path taken in Rwanda and Sierra Leone by United Nations tribunals and in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo by the International Criminal Court.

But that approach can actually be dangerous and counterproductive. Trials exclude perpetrators from the process of founding new, more inclusive political orders in the aftermath of civil war. Denying these people a say in how to reform countries emerging from civil war will only increase the chance that the cycle of violence will repeat itself.

The contrast between Mozambique and Uganda is illustrative. In Mozambique, a full amnesty in 1992 cleared the way for the rebels who had tried to overthrow the government to participate in elections and emerge as the leading opposition party. In Uganda, the government invited the I.C.C. to mount prosecutions against the Lord’s Resistance Army leadership in 2003. That has made Joseph Kony and other L.R.A. leaders more reluctant to enter into peace talks, prolonging the violence.

The fact is, while morally abhorrent, these atrocities also lay bare the forces that divide societies and trigger communal violence. Understanding these root causes is a vital step toward building more inclusive and peaceful communities.

Take South Africa, where Nelson Mandela decided not to take apartheid leaders to trial. Many celebrate the achievements of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but key to the peaceful end to apartheid was actually the grant of amnesty from criminal justice. Mandela’s decision made it possible for each side to decriminalize the other and treat it as a political adversary. The result was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the constitutional talks that led to the dismantling of juridical and political apartheid, paving the way for the 1994 general elections and majority rule.

Instead of just being morally outraged at mass human rights abuses, why don’t we also study what gives rise to them, and forge more peaceful and democratic societies in the process?