Post-Conflict Accountability and the Demands of Justice: Can Conditional Amnesties Take the Place of Criminal Prosecutions?

28 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2011 Last revised: 21 Jun 2011

See all articles by Antje du Bois-Pedain

Antje du Bois-Pedain

University of Cambridge, Faculty of Law

Date Written: June 13, 2011


When justice campaigners formulate aims and expectations for post-conflict justice, criminal prosecutions of the persons responsible for human rights violations and for politically motivated crimes are often given pride of place. Criminal trials in the aftermath of violent conflict and political suppression are intended to hold individuals accountable for horrific injuries they inflicted on their fellow citizens. And often enough, trials do succeed in this ambition, at least in respect of the (often comparatively few) accused brought before the courts. Against this background, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that post-conflict trials are not ends-in-themselves. The end in question is accountability – and this provides the starting point for asking whether credible alternative accountability mechanisms exist and when, if ever, such mechanisms ought to be preferred to criminal prosecutions.

One alternative to prosecution, it has been argued, is the transitional amnesty implemented by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 2001. This amnesty was available to political activists and to members of the apartheid state’s security forces, provided that an individual amnesty application was submitted within a limited period and upon full disclosure of the salient facts concerning the commission of politically motivated crimes. After reminding the reader of the extent to which this amnesty scheme was indeed capable of meeting the main tenets of accountability, the working paper reviews the manifold ways in which the experience of amnesty continues to exert its influence in South African political life. It addresses the frustrating prosecutorial aftermath of unsuccessful amnesty applications as well as the drawn-out special pardons process under way since 2002 to deal with some of the perceived shortcomings of the initial amnesty scheme. It argues that while South Africa’s amnesty law was quite rightly hailed as a blueprint for future transitions in which accountability through criminal trials cannot be ensured, the justifications put forward for this form of amnesty need to be effectively communicated in order to avoid creating a legacy of impunity which may ultimately pose a threat to democratic consolidation and the rule of law.

Keywords: Transitional Justice, South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, Amnesty, Pardons, Political Offenders, Prosecutions, Political Transitions, Impunity

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

du Bois-Pedain, Antje, Post-Conflict Accountability and the Demands of Justice: Can Conditional Amnesties Take the Place of Criminal Prosecutions? (June 13, 2011). University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 32/2011. Available at SSRN: or

Antje Du Bois-Pedain (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge, Faculty of Law ( email )

10 West Road
Cambridge, CB3 9DZ
United Kingdom

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