world council of churches

Impunity: An Ethical Perspective
Six case studies from Latin America
by Charles Harper, ed.


Impunity - the situation in which those accused of gross and systematic human rights violations or crimes against humanity are not charged, tried or punished, whether because of amnesty, pardon or deliberate inaction - is a critical issue in international law today. It also raises profound moral and ethical issues.

For the churches of the world, the question is linked with theological convictions, pastoral concerns and often the experience of their own costly engagement in defense of human rights during period of oppression and torture.

Perhaps nowhere was this more intensive than under military governments in Latin America and the Caribbean between the mid-1960s and the end of the 1980s. These case studies offer eloquent testimonies and sharp insights into the issue of impunity drawn from six of those countries, written by persons directly involved in the defense of human rights. (160 pp., WCC, Geneva, 1997.)

It is an obscenity that the likelihood of punishment is greater for a hungry person who has stolen a loaf of bread than for a tyrant who has ordered mass killings. Too often justice and the rights of the victims are sacrificed on the altar of political convenience. Impunity darkens the propects of true and genuine reconciliation. It is encouraging that the United Nations is now actively engaged in this issue and impunity has become part of the global agenda. Charles Harper, with his intimate knowledge of Latin America, has rendered a signal service in bringing together these ethical and biblical reflections - a unique expression of ecumenical concern and a source of inspiration, guidance and critical rethinking.

Theo van Boven
University of Limburg

Charles Harper directed the Human Rights Resources Programme for Latin America in the World Council of Churches from 1973 to 1992.

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