Research Paper - Reconciliation and Impunity In Chile


Research Paper: 'Reconciliation and Impunity in Chile'

Course: Culture, Violence, Trauma and Reconciliation

October 2007

My research paper consists of an anthropological casestudy situated in Chile, the casestudy referring to the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The central questions of my paper are: In which dimensions does impunity act as an obstacle to the reconciliation process initiated by the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in the 1990's? To which extend was national authentic and lasting reconciliation achieved in Chile, and what was the contribution of the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation?

Doing research for this paper I first orientated myself on finding information about the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a very unpleasant period in Chilean history. Studying different sources I read about the establishment of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (the Comisión Nacional para la Verdad y Reconciliación), and decided to explore the role of this particular organ in the process of national reconciliation in Chile.

I will begin my paper with giving background information on the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, followed by an elucidation of the concepts of two key terms included in the central questions of my paper: reconciliation and impunity. I will relate these two concepts to each other and to the situation in Chile, post-dictatorship. While elucidating each key term I will discuss matters that link these terms to my casestudy. In doing so I hope to find answers to my central questions. Then I intend to end my paper with the conclusions drawn from the elaboration of the key terms and from which the answers to my central questions come forth.


The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation was established by President Patricio Aylwin in 1991 to investigate the violations of human rights committed at the time of Pinochet's regime (September 1973 to March, 1990). The Commission is often also referred to as the Rettig Commission (named after chairman Raúl Rettig). It was set up to investigate (politically motivated) killings and disappearances during sixteen and a half years of the military dictatorship, that had been neglected by the military tribunals as lacking enough evidence or as falling under the amnesty law approved by the military government in 1978.

The Commission was created on the basis of an official, but limited, mandate, as a result of many negotiations and political agreements. It was limited in the sense that certain human right violations were excluded from the investigations (violations through torture, assault and illegal imprisonment that did not result in death), that trials were prohibited from taking place and that the Commission was given a limited period of nine months (May 1990 to February 1991) to investigate these grave violations.

The Commission's prime aim was to achieve the re-establishment of truth over the most serious human rights violations and hence aid in the national reconciliation of all Chileans. As stated in the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, the Commission had four main tasks: 1) To establish as complete a picture as possible of those grave events, as well as their antecedents and circumstances; 2) To gather evidence that might make it possible to identify the victims by name and determine their fate or whereabouts; 3) To recommend such measures of reparation and the restoration of people's good name as it regarded as just; and 4) To recommend the legal and administrative measures which in its judgement should be adopted in order to prevent further grave human rights violations from being committed.1

The harm done to many Chileans during the dictatorship, called for some degree of reconciliation in which this national Commission was supposed to play a major part. It played an important part in establishing an authoritative record of the past and in providing the victims of human right violations with a platform to tell their stories and obtain redress.


After having given a brief narrative of the Commission I will now continue with the concept of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a rather recent concept in the field of conflict resolution, which has been developed in the last two decades. I did not come across one standard definition of the term, but I will attempt to gather in this paper the most widely spread explanations. Reconciliation refers to the future and requires the active participation of those who were divided by enmity. At the core of any reconciliation process is the preparedness of people to anticipate a shared future. For this to occur they are required not to forget but to forgive the past, and thus be in a position to move forward together. There can be no real and lasting reconciliation without re-establishment of the fundamental values that affirm the dignity of every human being and make life in society possible (Rigby 2001:12).

The urge for reconciliation is in proportion to the pain (on a physical, mental, individual and collective level) caused by the the Pinochet's military dictatorship. These wounds that are left behind, affect every aspect of the lives of Chileans. This does not only concern individuals but also groups, the whole nation, divided communities and their perception of 'the others' (the enemy) coloured by fear, resentment of hatred. Not only human beings and relationships were shattered during the dictatorship, but also moral references and value systems.

Taking as a point of reference framework developed by John Paul Lederach, four values can be identified that need to be present for reconciliation as a process and a condition: Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace. According to Lederach; “Truth is the longing for the acknowledgement of wrong and the validation of painful loss and experience, but it is coupled with mercy, which articulates the need for acceptance, letting go, and a new beginning. Justice represents the search for individual and group rights, for social restructuring, and for restitution, but is linked with peace, which underscores the need for independence, well-being and security” (Rigby 2001:13).

Human rights violations would be investigated by the Commission and the findings would be publicised (truth). Victims and their families of the investigated cases, would receive some degree reparation (justice) and the blend of mercy and forgiveness would hence yield reconciliation. Truth and Justice are the two most relevant values to my paper topic, and therefore I am going to expound the two hereafter.


Truth provides the basis for reconciliation and is an absolute value for specific reasons: in order to provide for measures of reconciliation, it must be understood who needs to be reconciled and how the reconciliation process can be stimulated. In the introduction of its report the Commission indicates that its central purpose is to clarify in a comprehensive manner the truth about the most serious human rights violations committed in recent years in order to aid in the reconciliation of all Chileans.2 Establishing the truth can be seen as a measure to stimulate the process of reconciliation under the following circumstances: It must be impartial, complete, and objective in order for the true facts of the violations to be elicited under public awareness and in order to restore the honor and dignity of the (relatives of the) victims that were wronged. The step was taken by the Chilean government, through the Commission, to acknowledge officially the wrongs and violations done under the regime of Pinochet as having taken place and constituting part of the national history. On the parallel, it is also essential that the perpetrators of violence acknowledge their criminal actions and the violations they participated in and to come forth with the truth.

I can imagine that this is an important step, appreciated by (the families of the) victims. This last step, concerning the perpetrators, is not an easy one to be taken on the side of the perpetrators. Why confess the wrongdoing and deal with the unpleasant consequences? This question I will get back to later on in this paper when talking about impunity.

Under the pressure and influence from Pinochet, the Commission was prohibited from carrying out any judicial authority. This authority was left with the courts of justice. But there were to be no trials. During my research I came across various opinions over what justice entails on the road to national reconciliation. Some argue that for the sake of reconciliation it is essential that the guilty be punished and be put in trial. Others believe that it would not be recommendable to open or reopen trial procedures, since the results could be the opposite of those sought, given the amount of time that had passed since the dictatorship, the way in which the events happend and their context. I find myself caught in between these two views, since I partially agree with both. On the one hand I think that the perpetrators should be punished for the wrongs they did or at least that they admit the wrong they have done aimed at the victim (longing for the reparation), to clear their conscience and to deal with the consequences. For the sake of reconciliation it is important that the perpetrators are identified. On the other hand I believe that punishing the perpetrators through revenge or opening trials is maybe one step too far because of the risk that old wounds will be (re-)opened and that can backfire and as a result worsen the situation.

As recommended in the report of the Commission the military should apologise for its crimes to clear the road to justice. But the military did not follow that recommendation. Instand only the violations and their victims were publicised, not the perpetrators themselves. This is where one comes to terms with the matter of impunity, which I will discuss in the following section. I will continue now with the elucidation of the ideal-typical and hypothetical model of a phased reconciliation process in order to determine in which phase reconciliation process in Chile can be placed, after the creation of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.

According to Rigby authentic and lasting reconciliation is ideally made up of the following four phases: 1) Securing Peace, 2) Uncovering the truth, 3) Approaching Justice and 4) Putting the past in its proper place. Chile's reconciliation process initiated by the Commission can be placed in the second phase because uncovering the truth is the central issue. I have mentioned earlier that an essential aspect to reconciliation is the preparedness of different groups to anticipate a shared future, either with or alongside each other. This requires a profound definition of one's personal and collective identity vis-á-vis 'the other', a transformation from 'victims' versus 'perpetrators', toward a new definition and relationship that acknowledges difference but on the basis of a shared identity as human beings. Those who have suffered trauma, wrongs, and bereavement need to feel that their pain and loss have been properly acknowledged and their truth needs to be heard and validated (Rigby 2001:186-188).

Authentic and lasting reconciliation can only come about if everyone concerned is involved. Any reconciliation process is by nature inclusive; it must include the past and the present - with its deaths and its suffering (the importance of recovering truth and memory); and it must include the conscious commitment of all the parties that have been in conflict, the recognition of the victims and their rights and the reintegration of the perpetrators into society. This is a condition which in the case of Chile was hindered to be put in practice since the perpetrators were not willing to recover the whole truth and stayed in certain way in denial of the violations they committed, resulting in a deceleration of the reconciliation process. Noone can be reconciled against their will.

In the efforts to promote reconciliation it is crucial that the process should not be confined to a narrow strata of society. The different dimensions and values that together contribute to any healing process must be deepened and broadened to encompass all levels of society (Rigby 2001:183). The reconciliation of society, in this case the Chilean, depends on a shared identity. Through the gradual construction of a shared memory, an awareness can be established of joint responsibility for unfolding and recording a history which does not try to conceal either the fate of the victims or the fate of the perpetrators. Restoring collective (or shared) memory and remembering is thus an essential step that needs to be taken towards reconciliation. A part of society that has bits of its memory forbidden to it or kept silent has also had part of its identity amputated consequently affecting individuals. It is through remembering, through the recovering and passing on of memories, that a person identifies himself in relation to others and learns to acknowledge the validity of other people's truths. The Commission was aware of the fact that the reconciliation encompassed the whole Chilean society and the collective memory they shared. Therefore they made it part of their mission to try and recover the shared memory through assimilating the truth, and finding ways to establish the justice that the society needed.


In this section I will elaborate on the concept of impunity. First, let me explore the definition of the term. Impunity is, as often perceived by the victims and their relatives, the status or the means by which persons accused of crimes against humanity escape being charged, tried of punished for criminal acts committed with official sanction in time of war or dictatorial rule. Impunity can be achieved through amnesty laws passed or decreed by governments under whose authority the crimes were committed or by a successive government (Harper 2000:ix).

In Chile people have been confronted with the issue of impunity since the dictatorial rule of Pinochet, especially the victims. From what I heard and read I get the impression that even today, impunity is an issue still present in the minds of a majority of Chileans and that the Chilean society still copes with the traumatizing marks impunity left on the (families of the) victims. One of the strongest driving forces of the still ongoing struggle of the victims against impunity seems to be the existencial need to break out of a situation of silence, isolation, fear and falsehood, to know the truth, to recover a shared memory and thus to restore human dignity for the victims and accountability for the perpetrators. This struggle is a consequence resulting from several unfortunate factors or obstacles in the way of obtaining the truth and justice in the past.

One of the key factors that lead to and legitimized impunity was the Amnesty Law 2191, decreed in 1978. This law stated that all hatred was to be left behind and to promote national reconciliation, but it was really only issued in favor of the military and security agents who were protected under this law from dealing openly with their responsibility for the disappearances, torture, and killings that happened between 1973 and 1978. Noone could be compelled to give testimony. President Aylwin did try to annul the Amnesty Law in the attempt to recover the truth and determine culpability with regard to crimes against human rights. But changing the laws of the previous government (that of Pinochet) was not an easy task. The government of Aylwin had done all that was in its power, such as establishing the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, to assure (the family of the) victims peace and reparation, given the restraints that it had to deal with. The Commission was not set up to solve the matter of impunity but rather to encourage and advise on different manners to deal with impunity and to initiate this process.

The silence imposed through impunity condemns all the victims of the human right violations committed during the dictatorial rule of Pinochet, both directly and indirectly, to their suffering and despair. Difficulty arises in terms of the healing process and social rehabilitation. In the absence of justice, victims cannot break free of their hatred and desire for revenge. Simultaneously, the perpetrators too cannot recover their dignity by acknowledging their guilt and paying their debt to society. This hinders the conciliation between the victims and the perpetrators and prevents any restoration of relationships, both between individuals and between groups. More than quarter of a century later, the struggle and mobilization against impunity is still evidently present in Chile. The victims have remained determined that seeing the truth and justice prevail is an essential precondition for national reconciliation. Societies remain deeply divided along political, ideological and philosophical lines. This becomes evident through the many ways Chileans have chosen to express their thoughts on impunity: through writing, art, music, speeches, etc. One example to demonstrate this train of thought is given by Roberta Bacic, a human rights activist. I quote: “ All the activity and argument demonstrates that the topic [impunity] is neither forgotten nore forgiven, and that Chilean society has not been reconciled. No law can achieve that and the process of facing and dealing with our own history has to be dealt with. What do we have to do as a society to restore healthy relationships? Who is responsible for this? How can victims and perpetrators coexist without having at least recognised the harm that has been caused?” (Rigby 2001:89). It becomes clear that still many unanswered questions prevail in the minds of Chileans and they are determined to continue the quest against impunity, initiated by the Commission, until the answers are found, in order to stimulate the process towards authentic national reconciliation.


Having given some background information on the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and after having explored the two key concepts of reconciliation and impunity and placing the two in context of Chile's attempt of reconciliation post-dictatorship, I have arrived at the conclusion of my paper.

As I have mentioned several times reconciliation is a process, it is not something that can be brought about rapidly or suddenly. Instead it needs time to develop and a context in which the necessary prerequisites are present in order for the society to reconcile. In Chile in this context not all prerequisites could be met by the new government of Aylwin and society as a whole, since impunity stood in the way of justice. Consequently regarding the context, lasting reconciliation could not quite be achieved in Chilean society – a society in which the past continues to dominate the present.

In my opinion the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation was a necessary first step on the road to reconciliation considering its good intentions of uncovering the truth of the gravest human rights violations during the regime of Pinochet and building towards a future in which the (families of the) victims could experience some kind of compensation or reparation. But the problem here is that some forms of violations, just as grave and important, were not considered by the Commission, meaning that not all the victims and perpetrators were included in the search for the truth. A necessary prerequisite of reconciliation, as I have mentioned, is that the whole society is involved in the process of reconciliation, clearly that was not the case and that impunity prevailed because of the gap that remained concerning the identification of the perpetrators. Regarding that aspect, I want to remind that the Commission was only a first step taken and that it is simply impossible for the Commission to take all stages of the reconciliation process into account given the granted short period of enactment. But through accumulating recommended legal and administrative measure in their report of reparation and restoration in order to prevent further grave human rights violations from being committed in the future, they did give way to further actions.

I get the impression that the Commission did everything in its power to create a basis for the reconciliation of Chilean society and that through its implementation some progress was made in the effort to overcome impunity and create public awareness of the issue.



  1. Rigby A. (2001); Justice and reconciliation: After the violence; United Kingdom:Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

  2. The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press (1993); vol. I/II (posted by USIP Library in 2002 on

  3. Geneviève J. (2000); Beyond Impunity; An Ecumenical Approach to Truth, Justice and Reconciliation; Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications

  4. Harper C. (1996); Impunity –An Ethical Perspective; Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications

  5. Alexander J. C. et al (2004); Trauma and Collective Identity; Berkely, California: University of California Press

  6. Cuya E. (1999); Las Comisiones de la Verdad en America Latina; Nürnberg, Germany: El DIML - Dokumentations und Informationszentrum Menschenrechte in Lateinamerika

  7. Amnesty International (2001); End impunity - Justice for the victims of torture; London, United Kingdom: Amnesty International Publications







1 The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (Part I, Chapter 1), Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, vol. I/II

2 The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (Introduction), Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, vol. I/II

Work for WorldSupporter


JoHo can really use your help!  Check out the various student jobs here that match your studies, improve your competencies, strengthen your CV and contribute to a more tolerant world

Working for JoHo as a student in Leyden

Parttime werken voor JoHo

Check how to use summaries on

Online access to all summaries, study notes en practice exams

Using and finding summaries, study notes en practice exams on JoHo WorldSupporter

There are several ways to navigate the large amount of summaries, study notes en practice exams on JoHo WorldSupporter.

  1. Starting Pages: for some fields of study and some university curricula editors have created (start) magazines where customised selections of summaries are put together to smoothen navigation. When you have found a magazine of your likings, add that page to your favorites so you can easily go to that starting point directly from your profile during future visits. Below you will find some start magazines per field of study
  2. Use the menu above every page to go to one of the main starting pages
  3. Tags & Taxonomy: gives you insight in the amount of summaries that are tagged by authors on specific subjects. This type of navigation can help find summaries that you could have missed when just using the search tools. Tags are organised per field of study and per study institution. Note: not all content is tagged thoroughly, so when this approach doesn't give the results you were looking for, please check the search tool as back up
  4. Follow authors or (study) organizations: by following individual users, authors and your study organizations you are likely to discover more relevant study materials.
  5. Search tool : 'quick & dirty'- not very elegant but the fastest way to find a specific summary of a book or study assistance with a specific course or subject. The search tool is also available at the bottom of most pages

Do you want to share your summaries with JoHo WorldSupporter and its visitors?

Quicklinks to fields of study (main tags and taxonomy terms)

Field of study

Check all content related to:
Comments, Compliments & Kudos:

Add new contribution

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
The JoHo Insurances Foundation is specialized in insurances for travel, work, study, volunteer, internships an long stay abroad
Check the options on (international insurances) or go direct to JoHo's


Follow the author: JulitaBonita