International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Individual Responsibility and Collective Guilt

The Allison Bisset piece, Truth Commissions and Criminal Courts, addresses the difference between individualization of responsibility and collective moral guilt. The individualization of responsibility is primarily brought about though prosecution in trials and is thought to meet the “desire for revenge” of victims. More interestingly, Bisset says that the individualization of responsibility is thought to help alleviate inter-ethnic and religious tensions. It steers the blame away from collective groups that could potentially foster revenge and continued ethnic and national conflicts.
Bisset argues that truth commissions are more concerned with assigning institutional responsibility. If one of truth commissions’ primary aims is to establish a macro-truth and provide a picture of violations and institutions as a whole, then in cases of racial and ethnic conflict it seems that there is a very fine line between assigning a “collective guilt” and establishing a macro-truth. In these situations, do truth commissions undermine the trials objective to reduce cycles of blame and collective moral guilt?

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5 responses to “Individual Responsibility and Collective Guilt

  1. alexj528 November 17, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Bisset’s writing brought up an important counterargument to the prevailing trend seen in previous writings. While many authors highlight the problems of individual accountability, namely, that it fails to exemplify the unacceptable nature of the actions in general, appearing as revenge. In areas that have suffered from genocide and/or ethnic violence, individual accountability not only serves to the rule of law, but prevents widespread retaliation against the perpetrators, (blame is instead focused on he leaders, and not the group as a whole).

    In response to the above post, truth commissions appear to have a high potential of escalating tensions, and restarting the cycle of violence. While it cannot be denied that victims have a right to the truth, it is also evident that truth commissions can indirectly place blame on a group as a whole. In areas with a deep history of ethnic violence, this could easily resume conflicts.

    With this in mind, it may be better, (in regions with high levels of ethnic tensions), to pursue trials in place of truth commissions, in order to emphasize the rule of law in place of victor’s justice. If truth commissions are employed at all, they must be wary not to place blame on a large segment of the population as a whole, lest the cycle of violence restart.

  2. saracord November 17, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    With the thoughts raised by both of the posts above, it could be interesting to look at the case of Rwanda. Has Rwanda succeeded at avoiding a collective guilt while establishing a macro-truth, in the absence of a truth commission?

    It seems as if there have been three major transitional processes at work in Rwanda since the genocide: the ICTR, the Gacaca courts, and the rise of Kagame’s authoritarian state. It has been this last process that has taken on the task of deciding and disseminating the macro-truth in lieu of a truth commission: that of a Hutu-perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis, resulting from years and years of forced indoctrination of “ethnicities” by colonial rulers. To say otherwise results in arrest on the grounds of “genocide ideology,” as we discussed in class.

    Since the genocide, the Rwandan government, in conjunction with international partners, has arguably been successful at maintaining peace, stability, and respect (or fear) for the rule of law. The Gacaca courts themselves seem to be further mechanisms of both maintaining the rule of law and making sure that the “official” version of the truth is the only one told. Thus, the Rwandan government has been successful both at keeping the ICTR from prosecuting any RPF crimes, and at using the Gacaca courts to prosecute mainly Hutus and no RPF crimes. Victor’s justice in Rwanda brought with it victor’s truth, and it is difficult to know if the prosecutorial mechanisms of transitional justice in Rwanda are compelling enough for a group as a whole to not feel blamed by this truth.

  3. jokadieva November 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    While most of the readings concerning Truth Commissions have highlighted that a common goal of those commissions is to create a collective memory and overarching truth, this goal seems to be farfetched and is rarely accomplished. Even truth commissions that pursue thousands of statements and include a vast representation of victims’ perspective in their reports will have trouble creating a collective past, and that is because the goal itself is misdirected. The fact is, most truth commission have sweeping mandates and aim to address multiple human rights violations. In fact, what the victims feel and seek is highly individualized. Each victim is uniquely affected by a variety of different crimes used by the oppressor. Therefore, the commission will only ever produce a watered down “summary” of the collective responses.

    Bisset’s idea individualized guilt complements the notion that suffering is highly particular and should be addressed on a personal level. Reparations are an excellent example of an individual method of redress: they can be symbolic or monetary, and address a person or group’s need.

    Additionally, seeking out responsible individuals does not necessarily fall in line with a vehement desire for revenge: in fact, placing the blame on those leaders who masterminded the vast violations allows for another prong of reconciliation: accountability. Individualizing guilt, more importantly, relaxes the need for collective retribution. Only the most responsibly are suffering for their crimes, and seeing them take responsibility vindicates the victims from their hatred of a collective body or regime. While it can be said that there is a collective process of forgiveness, there are individuals that make up the collective, and they each have different requirements before they can reconcile a violent past with a democratic future.

  4. louisemcl November 19, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    I think another interesting aspect of the distinction between individual guilt as opposed to institutional guilt or collective guilt is that this also affects victims as well, and the social expectations of them. Namely, as some of our readings have mentioned, there’s can be a sentiment that victims should forgive the individual perpetrator who wronged them, in the name of restorative justice, stability, and for a nation to move forward, whether or not they may be ready to do so.
    For example, in Telling the Truths: Truth-Telling and Peace-Building in Post-Conflict Countries, Charles Villa-Villencio wrote about victims’ discomfort with the expectations that they would forgive the perpetrators in question. Villa-Villencio quotes one South African victim who said, “What really makes me angry about the TRC and [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu is that they are putting pressure on me to forgive. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do so. […] What makes me even angrier is that they are trying to dictate my forgiveness.”
    I doubt that victims would feel the same pressure to forgive an institution, or a collective group of society, that they do when guilt is individualized. The individualization of responsibility, then, affects victims in a profoundly individual way, in addition to its effects on the perpetrators in question.

  5. indraswb November 21, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I’ve viewed truth commissions as a virtually imperative complementary justice mechanism to trials. From the victims’ perspective, I’ve wondered the extent to which big fish trials quell the personal need for justice; while large scale perpetrators have hold the plurality of the blame, their degrees of separation from victims is something to take into account. Some victims will desire the particulars of the most physically proximate perpetrators. In the sense that these numerous case-specific truths would be ascertained via commission over trial, I’m inclined to view the macro/micro model of truth as a false dichotomy. After all, the victim centrality of a commission aims to individualise and humanise victims even if it is in pursuit of a grand historical narrative.

    Nonetheless, I see how collectivising the blame can be counterproductive. Daly’s “Truth Skepticism” provides an example of how Serbs, even when exposed to factual information, would not acknowledge culpability in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and interpreted the authoritative record to their benefit. Truth-seeking did not further the cause of reconciliation as has also been the case in Rwanda where ethnic identity has been synonymised with guilt or innocence.

    I think your point adds credibility to Olsen’s Justice Balance issue. One user above claims that individualizing guilt (through trials) relaxes the need for collective retribution. A truth commission on its own can only promote so much accountability without the promise of retribution. Without trials placing faces to the crimes, it is easy for the victim group to fall back on blaming everyone sharing a social identity with the perpetrators. Thus, as Olsen argues, a truth commission would have a negative impact on its own.

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