Here at ArcU, we’ve been following the case of Egyptian human rights activist Yara Sallam, a former student of the Center for Civil and Human Rights here at Notre Dame. After being held in jail since June 2014 by the regime of el-Sissi, she has just been released. We celebrate this joyful news. See here for the story.
On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, we might pose the question: Does his favorite theme of mercy have relevance for politics? A report that I recently completed in partnership with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Uganda looks at forgiveness, one dimension of mercy, and asks whether people practice it in the wake of armed conflict.
I was motivated to write the report after one reviewer of my book, Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, Barry Gewen, writing for The New Republic, cautioned that the forgiveness that I was advocating is something that only rare saints exercise and could be dangerous if advocated widely.
So I decided to investigate: Is forgiveness truly rare or are there places where it is practiced commonly among a population? With funding from The Fetzer Institute, I traveled to Uganda. I also wanted to know, in the case that people do practice forgiveness, what forgiveness entails, why they practice it, who practices it, and with what effect. The staff of RLP and I chose five districts, surveyed 640 people, conducted ten day-long focus groups, and interviewed 27 “exemplars” of forgiveness.
The results were striking. Over 590 of the 640 survey respondents had experienced actual violence or some serious form of related trauma. Yet they reported favor for forgiveness and the actual practice of forgiveness in high numbers. 68.3% of the victims said they forgave the perpetrator of violence against them. 60.94% said they would forgive members of rebel groups when presented with forgiveness among a number of options. 53.91% said they would forgive members of the Ugandan military. 85.97% said they “agreed” that “it is good for victims to practice forgiveness in the wake of armed violence.”
When I have presented these results to western audiences, they shake their heads in disbelief. Westerners are skeptical of forgiveness for several reasons. They believe that it foregoes justice. What people really want is revenge and punishment. Some think that it short-circuits resentment, an allegedly far healthier response. They also believe that forgiveness retraumatizes victims and that when it is advocated too strongly, it violates their autonomy. Some worry that forgiveness is practiced disproportionately by women, who thereby yield themselves to those who have disempowered them radically. And many think that forgiveness is just too psychologically difficult in the wake of armed violence.
Ugandans, however, find the results plausible. This is not to deny that they debate forgiveness, even vigorously, but only that they don’t find it hard to believe that their fellow citizens forgive even the worst sorts of crimes imaginable. Before I carried out the research, I conducted numerous conversations with a wide variety of Ugandans to see if they thought forgiveness plausible and common. They did. And the conversations in the focus groups and interviews corroborated the survey results.
Why do Ugandans forgive? The strongest correlate is their faith, their Christian faith. Muslims in the northwestern Yumbe district also forgave in similarly high numbers and were influenced by their faith. Others cited the psychological benefits of getting beyond the anger. Other reasons included tribal traditions, family tradition, a desire for peace in the community, and, sometimes, a judgment about the complexity of perpetrators’ motives – victims may believe that perpetrators were under duress when he committed violence, for instance.
Ugandans do not forgive wihthout demanding justice. They demand trials, compensation, the airing of truth about injustices, confession, apologies, and other forms of justice. Remarkably, however, they are willing to forgive even when these other forms of justice are absent.
Only a tiny portion of Ugandans reported being pressured to forgive by a religious, political, or tribal leader. Numerous demographic factors had little impact on forgiveness attitudes and practice, including gender. A high percentage thought that forgiveness can be a potent tool for peacebuilding in the wake of armed conflict.
This last point is the most important of the study – that forgiveness can help to build a lasting peace in places that have suffered war, genocide, and dictatorship. Western ngos, governments around the world, diplomats in international organizations, and religious leaders everywhere ought to accord forgiveness much more of an active role on peacebuilding than they have heretofore. This is not to say that forgiveness can be programmed. It is practiced most healthily and authentically when it is practiced freely, meaning that victims are not pressured or scripted into forgiveness. Still, leaders who hold moral prestige among their populations can commend forgiveness to their people and practice it through example. Nelson Mandela of South Africa is a famous exemplar. Remembering him and following the inspiration of Pope Francis, others might follow suit.
A year ago today, on the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland during World War II, I shared reflections on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Those interested in the human rights impact of the occupation and annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in early 2014 will welcome a report that was released today by OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM). The report demonstrates that, following the Russian annexation, the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms has deteriorated radically for a large number of residents and displaced persons in Crimea – particularly for pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists and the Crimean Tatar community.
The 100-page Report of the Human Rights Assessment Mission on Crimea lists examples of discrimination and legal irregularities, and provides a comprehensive examination of the current human rights situation in Crimea, in light of developments since the release of a previous joint report by ODIHR and the HCNM, issued in May 2014.
“Fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, expression and movement have all been restricted by the de facto authorities in Crimea,” said Michael Georg Link, Director of ODIHR. “This has occurred through the application of restrictive Russian Federation laws and through the sporadic targeting of individuals, media or communities seeking to peacefully present opposing views.”
Based on interviews with more than 100 civil society actors, representatives of the Ukrainian authorities, Crimean residents and displaced persons, and people travelling between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, the ODIHR/HCNM report presents numerous credible, consistent and compelling accounts of serious human rights violations and legal irregularities in Crimea.
“We found in Crimea that those Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who openly supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine, refused Russian citizenship or did not support the de facto authorities were in a particularly vulnerable position,” said Astrid Thors, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. “Since the annexation of Crimea, the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian communities have been subjected to increasing pressure on and control of the peaceful expression of both their culture and their political views.”
The allegations documented and trends established by the report demand urgently to be addressed by de facto authorities in Crimea, and underscore the need for systematic independent monitoring of the human rights situation in Crimea and access to the peninsula by impartial international bodies, ODIHR and HCNM say in the report.
In the meanwhile, 56-year-old Rafis Kashapov, the Head of the Tatar Public Center, was reportedly sentenced this week by a Russian court to three years imprisonment over social network posts criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine.