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

  • Andrew G Reiter (a1)

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.

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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).

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 Research 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 137, 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 803, 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 1; Sikkink Kathryn and Walling Carrie Booth, ‘The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America’ (2007) 44 Journal of Peace Research 427, 428; and Sriram Chandra Lekha, Globalizing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Revolution in Accountability (Routledge 2005).

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) 39,; 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) 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).

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).

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 843, 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). 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 733, 777.

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

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

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

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) 6; Bass Gary Jonathan, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton University Press 2000) 307; Goldstone Richard, ‘Exposing Human Rights Abuses – A Help or Hindrance to Reconciliation?’ (1995) 22 Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 607, 620.

24 Freeman (n 18).

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

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

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.

29 Osiel Mark J, ‘Why Prosecute? Critics of Punishment for Mass Atrocity’ (2000) 22 Human Rights Quarterly 118; Ackerman Bruce, The Future of Liberal Revolution (Yale University Press 1992); 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) 93; Stedman Stephen John, ‘Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes’ (1997) 22 International Security 5.

30 Long William J and Brecke Peter, War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotions in Conflict Resolution (The MIT Press 2003); 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.

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

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.

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 109; Doyle Michael W and Sambanis Nicholas, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton University Press 2006); Walter Barbara, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton University Press 2002).

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. 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 379; and Hoddie Matthew and Hartzell Caroline, ‘Civil War Settlements and the Implementation of Military Power-Sharing Arrangements’ (2003) 40 Journal of Peace Research 303.

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).

The author would like to thank Shawn Greene for research assistance.

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