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Trauma and Vengeance: Assessing the Psychological and Emotional Effects of Post-Conflict Justice

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 31, Number 3, August 2009
pp. 592-623 | 10.1353/hrq.0.0100



Do war crimes tribunals or truth commissions satisfy victims of war and atrocity and provide psychological relief from war-induced trauma? Do they make victims less vengeful and less likely to engage in or support violent retribution? Or does the experience of post-conflict justice simply reinforce and exacerbate emotional and psychological suffering? Answers to these questions are central to the logic of truth-telling’s peace-promoting effects in post-authoritarian and post-war societies. Indeed, one of transitional justice’s core arguments is that victims of wartime abuse demand truth and justice. These arguments, however, assume that truth-telling processes, on average, provide psychological and emotional benefits to victims. Some critics have argued, however, that they actually cause more harm than good. Although victims’ preferences for truth and justice are well documented, we know considerably less about their actual impact. This article assesses that impact by surveying the extant empirical evidence from prominent cases of transitional justice, as well as research in forensic and clinical psychology. It finds a paltry empirical record that offers little support for claims of either salutary or harmful effects of post-conflict justice. Although there is little evidence that truth-telling in general dramatically harms individuals, the notion that formal truth-telling processes satisfy victims’ need for justice, ease their emotional and psychological suffering, and dampen their desire for vengeance, remains highly dubious.

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