On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying both the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, leaving no survivors. Although it was thought that Hutu extremist were responsible for the downing of the plane, there were allegations placed on RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) leaders for what happened. This ignited a bloodbath, lasting 100 days killing between 800,000 and a million people. Across the airwaves there was talk fueling the massacre by inciting Hutu’s to eliminate those “Tutsi cockroaches.” Less than 30 minutes after the plane crash the atrocities began creating unimaginable fear, suffering and death. The killing shocked the international community and were clearly acts of genocide.
The Rwandan genocide was the culmination of decades of oppression and hatred towards the Tutsi by the Hutu majority group members. Beginning with Belgian rule, colonial policies fostered divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, according to Jeremy Maron writing for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The Belgians viewed the Tutsi minority as superior and favored them for leadership positions which created ongoing and deepening tensions between Hutu and Tutsi. The civil war was in part due to the long-standing emotional undertow which was never resolved between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples that boiled over into a conflict between the Tutsi-led RPF and the Hutu-controlled government. Unfortunately, even with the cries of “never again,” genocide keeps rearing its ugly head in other parts of the world.
Genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes years in the making and is fueled by intense emotions, which never get resolved but are left alone to fester like a ticking time bomb ready to detonate. Not dealing with the undertow of strong emotions is inviting violence to take place. Rwanda and other countries where there has been genocide, repeated violence, and unresolved conflicts serve as examples. As a result, peace treaties often fail and negotiations end in an impasse. Emotions can be very difficult to deal with, but if ignored violence will rear its ugly head.
Peacebuilding measures address the issues which appear to be the immediate cause of the conflict, but for the most part ignore the emotions that fuel the conflict. A political forgiveness process is uniquely different than other peacebuilding measures — it provides a healing mechanism to deal with the emotional undertow that keeps a conflict alive. Political forgiveness builds a structure to contain the deep undercurrent of emotions that inevitably arise, and provides a way for these forceful emotions to be resolved, making this process distinct from other processes such as mediation, peacemaking, or reconciliation. Indeed, high emotions and deep division, are often a direct result of oppression, dehumanization, and polarization, often stoking grievances, hatred, and the need for revenge. Political forgiveness is the only peacebuilding process that consciously supports participants in expressing their strong emotions, which ultimately can lead to a transformation of the conflict.
Why is a process such as political forgiveness so hard to achieve? When thinking about something as horrifying as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, our feelings about what took place are so abhorrent that we feel the people who committed these crimes are so stained with evil that there is nothing they could do which would warrant forgiveness. Even if we recognize that perhaps they are not inherently evil, morally they are not deserving of forgiveness. Our belief is that they are incapable of change and what they have done permanently defines who they are. Believing someone is unforgivable is very different than not being ready to forgive someone. It involves how someone feels about the innate worth of the wrongdoer.
While holding on to the belief that someone is unforgivable, what one is also saying is that this person is inherently morally inferior and not capable of change. As Christopher Bennett said in the European Journal of Philosophy: “Not to recognize a person as a member of the moral community would mean that it was no longer possible … to involve them in any dialogue on questions of value or policies or responsibilities and no longer possible to engage with them in a trusting relationship.” This has very important implications for any political forgiveness process.
The most important reason to consider forgiveness is that people may not recognize an unforgiving attitude is not much different than the moral outlook of dehumanizing evil. We are maintaining the belief in the perpetrator’s inferior nature, just as the perpetrator holds on to the belief of inferiority towards their targets. Perpetrators of dehumanizing evil see their victims only as objects of hate and morally inferior. The unforgiving stance views the perpetrator as morally inferior, never to be taken into moral consideration. Perpetrators of dehumanizing evil define the victim by only one aspect of who they are. If the victim for example is a Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide, that alone would determine their intrinsic worth which can never be changed. Holding an unforgiving attitude does the same by objectifying the wrongdoer. What we are now saying is, “I am not inferior, you are.” We are doing the same thing that we are accusing the perpetrator of doing.
Are there implications for what is taking place within the United States today where racism is on the rise, culture wars are being played out and shootings the daily fare? Are we holding whoever we deem as “the other” unforgivable because we see them as inferior, less than us and therefore not deserving of being forgiven? Are we too afraid to come together and address the pain and suffering that all of us feel because of the anger and hate we feel inside?
We need to have forgiveness in politics precisely because there are wrongs suffered that can never be put right. By demonstrating forgiveness on a political level, it opens space for people to unburden themselves, at least partially, from the hold the past has on them, to relate to others in a more productive way and to have a more peaceful future. This is where its power lies and what it means for forgiveness to be political. Forgiveness is not easy. Political forgiveness is not easy either. It is a complex undertaking and the process must be crafted to the specific situation it is intended to address. If a political forgiveness process is to be successful it must work for, and with, the local community it intends to help. There are no one-size fits all processes. As we have seen so often, around the world, processes that include elements of political forgiveness instituted by outside forces, and not led by local society, often fail, and end up right back where they started. This kind of approach does not create a lasting sustainable peace. Consultation, inclusion, and understanding are key elements in any political forgiveness process. When done with these elements in mind a profound healing can take place and conflict can be transformed.