Leidner Will Study Whether Truth Commissions or Criminal Courts Help Lead to Reconciliation after Large Conflicts

Bernhard Leidner

AMHERST, Mass. – Political psychologist Bernhard Leidner of the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently received a three-year, $374,750 grant from the National Science Foundation to study what approach may be most promising to achieve reconciliation and peace after international or inter-ethnic conflict and violence such as witnessed in Rwanda, South Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

Leidner is a professor with the UMass Amherst Psychology of Peace and Violence Program, which was launched in 2004 and is the only program of its kind in the United States. The new research by Leidner and his graduate student Mengyao Li will address international debate about the effectiveness of three different approaches: Truth commissions, criminal trials or simply doing nothing, also known as “impunity,” to determine which offers better support for reconciliation after conflict.

“We don’t think that any one of these three will always be the best,” says Leidner. “There are too many different situations and variables. Sometimes one is just not practical. But little research attention has been paid to trials, tribunals or truth commissions compared to impunity. Despite their widespread use, they have been poorly understood. We will develop an evidence-based understanding of the circumstances under which one approach is more likely than the others to facilitate peace in post-conflict societies.”

He adds, “There are those who argue that impunity, doing nothing, is preferable to holding trials or truth commissions. They suggest that seeking a legal or social justice solution only re-inflames the conflict and roils the waters again. This could be true, but really, no one knows. Others argue that seeking legal justice helps, but there is no quantifiable, cause-effect evidence for either view. This project is an important first step toward finding out.”

Historical examples of impunity after international conflict include World War I, when war reparations were contemplated but never enacted, the researchers say. An early effort toward international criminal proceedings came with the Nuremberg trials after World War II, then “fell asleep for a few decades,” Leidner notes, until a treaty created the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 1998 and war criminals from the former Yugoslavia were put on trial.

Truth commissions with no criminal proceedings were used in South Africa after apartheid was dismantled and in Australia, after the so-called “stolen generations” when aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools.

Leidner will recruit as many as 800 participants per study to take part in 10 experiments with collaborating scholars in other countries: Bosnian and Serb respondents through the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Belgrade, Australian aboriginals and whites through the universities of Melbourne and Queensland, British and German participants through the University of Kent and the Free University of Berlin and through his own contacts with Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Participants will receive written narratives, in some cases manipulated accounts of conflict, then answer questionnaires about their attitudes toward the “other side.” Also, participants may be asked to interact with someone from the other side of a conflict either as a direct participant or as an observer, then asked to respond to questions about their beliefs and possible changes in attitude.

Among other outcomes, Leidner and colleagues hypothesize that a person’s perceived fairness of one of the three approaches to resolution may lead to “increased willingness to reconcile and decreased motivation for future violence, by increasing empathy for, decreasing anger at and dehumanization of the adversarial group of a past conflict.”

This perceived fairness should depend on whether the person belongs to the victim or the perpetrator group and their beliefs about their own group’s superiority. However, Leidner stresses, “Nobody knows the effects of criminal trials versus truth commissions on people. Entities such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court hope that intervention helps the victims and curbs future violence, deterring perpetrators, but we don’t know for sure.”

“From a psychological perspective, we want to explore the effects of a person hearing about activities, say, a truth commission. For example, do attitudes change about friendship; is there more willingness to reconcile on a personal level or a group political level after a truth commission? Would you like your country to reconcile?”

In a final part of the study, Leidner and colleagues will explore the relationship between past justice procedures and subsequent human rights records. For example, have truth commissions in Latin American countries led to improved human rights in these countries, and if so, have they improved human rights more than trials have in other countries?

Knowledge gained from this research should help scholars of international relations, international law, political science, psychology and sociology, the researchers expect, and will inform understanding of and decisions about such interventions.