Abe Ncube has just completed the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights degree offered by SAS’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) for which he was awarded the Albie Sachs Prize for best dissertation. He explains how he used Zimbabwe as a case study to explore the question ‘Do amnesties undermine human rights?’ by looking at the ‘characteristics’ of amnesties; how and why they are used and what international human rights law has to say about them.

I was able to make three key observations about amnesties during my research. The first thing that struck me is what I refer to as the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ or ‘split personality’ condition of amnesties. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 18th-century novel, gave name to what is known in psychiatry as split personality disorder where two personalities exist within the same individual. The same logic can be applied to amnesties which, more often than not, are the mechanism of choice for societies seeking an end to war and civil strife.

On the one hand, amnesties are associated with ‘good’ because of their capacity to convince even the most battle-hardened rebels to lay down their arms and therefore give civilians much needed respite from the ravages of war. On the other hand, they simultaneously have a corresponding ‘evil’ side which, in the eyes of victims, appears to reward perpetrators of human rights abuses.

This leads to the second of my findings which is that because of this split personality character of amnesties, it is almost impossible for them to be ‘pinned down’ under international human rights law – a situation reflected in the ambiguous language of United Nations treaties when it comes to the question of amnesties. It can be argued that international human rights law reinforces the split personality character of amnesties because it doesn’t explicitly prohibit them at the same time as it encourages their use, for example in the 1977 Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.

Last, the debate on amnesties seems to be afflicted with the same relativist thinking which has for so long dogged human rights discourses. According to this relativist thinking, amnesties are said to be situational and relational to conflicts. I argue that this kind of particularism further complicates understanding of amnesties and their place in human rights.

This now brings us to the question of how all of this relate to Zimbabwe. Violence and amnesties have become a permanent feature in post-colonial Zimbabwe – in fact the country was founded on and is sustained by these two. Whereas in international human rights law, it is difficult to ‘pin down’ amnesties because of their ‘split personality’ character, in the case of Zimbabwe, they have been used to frustrate moves towards proper transitional justice and democracy. Democratic transition and therefore transitional justice in Zimbabwe are yet to happen and in the meantime, what is being played out there is ideation and idealisation of the concepts by human rights organisations, victim-support groups and political parties.

All of this research landed me the Albie Sachs Award, something that surprised me because, I didn’t know such a prize existed in the first place. It also delighted me because I felt a sense of huge personal achievement at the end of what was a very stimulating and rigorous course. As someone who comes from the same Southern Africa region as Albie Sachs [one of South Africa’s most respected lawyers and judges and ANC activist] and know about his role in the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa, it is a prize which fills me with a lot of inspiration and desire to contribute whatever I can to the quest for and maintenance of freedom, democracy and justice in that part of the world.  As a human rights campaigner now with a heightened interest in research as a result of completing the MA course and dissertation, I am currently thinking hard about whether (or not) to pursue further study in the field of human rights.

Abe Ncube is a human rights activist whose research interest is in ‘transitional justice and international human rights law’. He campaigns on Zimbabwean human rights issues, with a particular focus on truth and justice for victims of the Matabeleland massacres.