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Examining the Use of Amnesties and Pardons as a Response to Internal Armed Conflict

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2014

Andrew G Reiter*
Assistant Professor of Politics, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, United States;
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The use of amnesty for human rights violations has been heavily criticised on legal, ethical and political grounds. Yet amnesties have been the most popular transitional justice mechanisms over the past four decades, particularly in the context of internal armed conflict. States justify these amnesties by claiming they are important tools to secure peace. But how successful is amnesty in accomplishing these goals? This article seeks to answer this question by analysing the use and effectiveness of 236 amnesties used in internal armed conflicts worldwide since 1970. The article first creates a typology of the use of amnesty in the context of internal armed conflict. It then qualitatively examines the impact on peace of each type of amnesty. The article finds that most amnesties granted in the context of internal armed conflict have no demonstrable impact on peace and security. Yet amnesties granted as carrots to entice the surrender of armed actors occasionally succeed in bringing about the demobilisation of individual combatants or even entire armed groups. More importantly, amnesties extended as part of a peace process are effective in initiating negotiations, securing agreements, and building the foundation for long-lasting peace.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and The Faculty of Law, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2014 

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1 See the definition of transitional justice by the International Journal of Transitional Justice at

2 United Nations, ‘Guidance Note of the Secretary General: United Nations Approach to Transitional Justice’, March 2010,

3 See Andrew G Reiter, ‘Transitional Justice Bibliography’,

4 Olsen, Tricia D, Payne, Leigh A and Reiter, Andrew G, Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Processes, Weighing Efficacy (United States Institute of Peace Press 2010)Google Scholar.

5 From this point on I will use the term ‘amnesties’ to refer to amnesties and pardons collectively.

6 Helga Malmin Binningsbø, Loyle, Cyanne E, Gates, Scott and Elster, Jon, ‘Armed Conflict and Post-Conflict Justice, 1946–2006: A Dataset’ (2012) 49 Journal of Peace ResearchGoogle Scholar 731, 735; Reiter, Andrew G, Olsen, Tricia D and Payne, Leigh A, ‘Transitional Justice and Civil War: Exploring New Pathways, Challenging Old Guideposts’ (2012) 1 Transitional Justice Review 137Google Scholar, 158; Olsen, Tricia D, Payne, Leigh A and Reiter, Andrew G, ‘Transitional Justice in the World, 1970–2007: Insights from a New Dataset’ (2010) 47 Journal of Peace Research 803Google Scholar, 807.

7 Lutz, Ellen and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘The Justice Cascade: The Evolution and Impact of Foreign Human Rights Trials in Latin America’ (2001) 2 Chicago Journal of International Law 1Google Scholar; Sikkink, Kathryn and Walling, Carrie Booth, ‘The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America’ (2007) 44 Journal of Peace Research 427Google Scholar, 428; and Sriram, Chandra Lekha, Globalizing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Revolution in Accountability (Routledge 2005)Google Scholar.

8 Högbladh, Stina, ‘Peace Agreements 1975–2011 – Updating the UCDP Peace Agreement Dataset’ in Pettersson, Therése and Themnér, Lotta (eds), States in Armed Conflict 2011 (Uppsala University, Department of Peace and Conflict Research Report 99, 2012) 39Google Scholar,; Erik Melander, ‘Justice or Peace? A Statistical Study of the Relationship between Amnesties and Durable Peace’, Lund University, JAD-PbP Working Paper Series No 4, August 2009, 4,; Freeman, Mark and Pensky, Max, ‘The Amnesty Controversy in International Law’ in Lessa, Francesca and Payne, Leigh A (eds), Amnesty in the Age of Human Rights Accountability (Cambridge University Press 2012)Google Scholar 42.

9 Scott Gates, Helga Malmin Binningsbø and Tove Grete Lie, ‘Post-Conflict Justice and Sustainable Peace’, World Bank: Post-Conflict Transitions Working Paper No 5, April 2007,

10 Mallinder, Louise, Amnesty, Human Rights and Political Transitions: Bridging the Peace and Justice Divide (Hart 2008)Google Scholar.

11 Lutz and Sikkink (n 7); Sikkink and Booth Walling (n 7); Sriram (n 7).

12 This was originally stated in United Nations Security Council (UNSC), ‘The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations’, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc S/2004/616, 23 August 2004, para 10. Also see, more recently, UNSC, ‘The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations’, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc S/2011/634, 12 October 2011, para 12.

13 Keck, Margaret E and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Cornell University Press 1998)Google Scholar.

14 See, eg, Priscilla Hayner, ‘Negotiating Justice: Guidance for Mediators’, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and International Centre for Transitional Justice, February 2009,

15 Roht-Arriaza, Naomi and Gibson, Lauren, ‘The Developing Jurisprudence on Amnesty’ (1998) 20 Human Rights Quarterly 843Google Scholar, 884.

16 Kathleen Dean Moore, for example, contends that pardoning should be used only when consistent with retributivist principles of justice: see Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest (Oxford University Press 1989)Google Scholar. John J Moore Jr argues that ‘[p]olitical forgiveness, in any context, cannot succeed when it attempts to sidestep norms of human rights and the rule of law’: see Problems with Forgiveness: Granting Amnesty under the Arias Plan in Nicaragua and El Salvador’ (1991) 43 Stanford Law Review 733Google Scholar, 777.

17 Méndez, Juan E, ‘Accountability for Past Abuses’ (1997) 19 Human Rights Quarterly 255Google Scholar, 277. See also Drumbl, Mark A, Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law (Cambridge University Press 2007) 4144.Google Scholar

18 Freeman, Mark, Necessary Evils: Amnesty and the Search for Justice (Cambridge University Press 2009) 2223.Google Scholar

19 The classic statement on the duty to prosecute is found in Orentlicher, Diane, ‘Settling Accounts: The Duty to Prosecute Human Rights Violations of a Prior Regime’ (1991) 100 Yale Law Review 2537.Google Scholar See also Malamud-Goti, Jaime, ‘Transitional Governments in the Breach: Why Punish State Criminals?’ (1990) 12 Human Rights Quarterly 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roht-Arriaza, Naomi (ed), Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice (Oxford University Press 1995)Google Scholar; Robertson, Geoffrey, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (Penguin 2004)Google Scholar; Roht-Arriaza, Naomi, ‘State Responsibility to Investigate and Prosecute Grave Human Rights Violations in International Law’ (1990) 78 California Law Review 449Google Scholar; Scharf, Michael P, ‘The Letter of the Law: The Scope of the International Legal Obligation to Prosecute Human Rights Crimes’ (1996) 59 Law and Contemporary Problems 41Google Scholar; and Bassiouni, M Cherif, ‘International Crimes: Jus Cogens and Obligatio Erga Omnes’ (1996) 59 Law and Contemporary Problems 63CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a recent reflection, see Orentlicher, Diane, ‘“Settling Accounts” Revisited: Reconciling Global Norms with Local Agency’ (2007) 1 International Journal of Transitional Justice 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (entered into force 12 January 1951) 78 UNTS 277, art 5.

21 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (entered into force 26 June 1987) 1465 UNTS 85, arts 4, 7.

22 Roht-Arriaza (1990) (n 19) 464–65.

23 Borneman, John, Settling Accounts: Violence, Justice, and Accountability in Postsocialist Europe (Princeton University Press 1997) 6Google Scholar; Bass, Gary Jonathan, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton University Press 2000) 307Google Scholar; Goldstone, Richard, ‘Exposing Human Rights Abuses – A Help or Hindrance to Reconciliation?’ (1995) 22 Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 607Google Scholar, 620.

24 Freeman (n 18).

25 Cobban, Helena, Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes (Paradigm 2007) 199Google Scholar.

26 Pensky, Max, ‘Amnesty on Trial: Impunity, Accountability, and the Norms of International Law’ (2008) 1 Ethics & Global Politics 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Freeman and Pensky (n 8).

28 See the argument, eg, in Mallinder, Louise, ‘Can Amnesties and International Justice Be Reconciled?’ (2007) 1 International Journal of Transitional Justice 208.Google Scholar

29 Osiel, Mark J, ‘Why Prosecute? Critics of Punishment for Mass Atrocity’ (2000) 22 Human Rights Quarterly 118Google Scholar; Ackerman, Bruce, The Future of Liberal Revolution (Yale University Press 1992)Google Scholar; Acuña, Carlos H and Smulovitz, Catalina, ‘Guarding the Guardians in Argentina: Some Lessons about the Risks and Benefits of Empowering the Courts’ in McAdams, A James (ed), Transitional Justice and the Rule of Law in New Democracies (University of Notre Dame Press 1997) 93Google Scholar; Stedman, Stephen John, ‘Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes’ (1997) 22 International Security 5.Google Scholar

30 Long, William J and Brecke, Peter, War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotions in Conflict Resolution (The MIT Press 2003)Google Scholar; Hadden, Tom, ‘Punishment, Amnesty and Truth: Legal and Political Approaches’ in Guelke, Adrian (ed), Democracy and Ethnic Conflict: Advancing Peace in Deeply Divided Societies (Palgrave Macmillan 2004) 196.Google Scholar

31 Snyder, Jack and Vinjamuri, Leslie, ‘Trials and Errors: Principle and Pragmatism in Strategies of International Justice’ (2003) 28 International Security 5Google Scholar; Cobban, Helena, ‘Thinking Again: International Courts’ (2006) 153 Foreign Policy 22.Google Scholar

32 Mark Freeman, ‘Amnesties and DDR Programs’, Research Brief, International Center for Transitional Justice, February 2010,

33 Putnam, Tonya, ‘Human Rights and Sustainable Peace’ in Stedman, Stephen J, Rothchild, Donald and Cousens, Elizabeth M (eds), Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Lynne Rienner 2002) 237.Google Scholar

34 Freeman (n 18) 19.

35 The data is available at For more information on the dataset see Olsen, Payne and Reiter (n 6).

36 Keesing's World News Archives includes Keesing's Contemporary Archives (1931–87) and Keesing's Record of World Events (1987 to the present),

37 For other studies that have used Keesing's see Engene, Jan Oskar, ‘Five Decades of Terrorism in Europe: The TWEED Dataset’ (2007) 44 Journal of Peace Research 109Google Scholar; Doyle, Michael W and Sambanis, Nicholas, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton University Press 2006)Google Scholar; Walter, Barbara, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton University Press 2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 Note that the book manuscript (see Olsen and others (n 6)) examines only amnesties for human rights violations, but the larger dataset also contains amnesties for other political crimes.

39 Gleditsch, Nils P and others, ‘Armed Conflict, 1946–2001: A New Dataset’ (2002) 39 Journal of Peace Research 615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar I use 2005 as an end date to allow sufficient time to examine the impact of the most recent amnesties.

40 Uppsala Conflict Data Program, ‘UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset Codebook for Version 4’, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University 2009, 1, I exclude extra-systemic (often termed colonial) wars and interstate wars.

41 In many cases, there are lulls in the fighting with years of fewer than 25 battle deaths in between years of more than 25 battle deaths. I code those years as part of the same conflict unless there is a five-year gap between years of at least 25 battle deaths, at which point I code the first conflict as terminated and the start of a new conflict. This corresponds with the onset5 coding delineated in Håvard Strand, ‘Onset of Armed Conflict: A New List for the Period 1946–2004, with Applications’, unpublished manuscript, 2006.

42 ‘Reaching the “No-Peace” Agreement: The Role of Palestinian Prisoner Releases in Permanent Status Negotiations’, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, December 2009,

43 Joel Greenberg, ‘Israel Frees Palestinian Leader Held 23 Years’, The New York Times, 20 October 1993.

44 Dallas Morning News, ‘Amnesty Offered to Mexican Rebels’, The Baltimore Sun, 17 January 1994.

45 Case of Barrios Altos v Peru (2001) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 14 March 2001, (Ser C) No 75.

46 For more on costly signalling in civil war peace negotiations, see Fearon, James D, ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’ (1995) 49 International Organization 379CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hoddie, Matthew and Hartzell, Caroline, ‘Civil War Settlements and the Implementation of Military Power-Sharing Arrangements’ (2003) 40 Journal of Peace Research 303.Google Scholar

47 The number is 26 and not 31 because in five cases – South Africa, Indonesia (Aceh), El Salvador, Colombia and Angola – two amnesties were granted at different stages in the same peace process.

48 See, for example, the case discussions in Snyder and Vinjamuri (n 31).