In a setback for human rights and justice in Suriname, Suriname’s parliament passed an amnesty law that lets President Desi Bouterse off the hook for his role in the murder of fifteen political opponents in 1982. Bouterse, elected president in 2010, was a key figure in the military dictatorship that rose to power in 1980 and governed into the 1990s. Parliament, with a majority of representatives from Bouterse’s coalition, passed the amnesty even while Bouterse was on trial for the murders. Although the bill also pledges the establishment of a Truth Commission to look into the killings and to strip immunity from anybody involved in the 1986 Moiwana massacre in which Suriname troops massacred 39 Maroons, this seems to be of little consequence. There’s the question of the utility of a truth commission that, by the very definition of this bill, cannot actually prosecute Bouterse (or any of the other 24 indicted individuals) for the murders if it reinforces their role in the murders. Additionally, the fact that the bill amnesties Bouterse for the 1982 murders sets a dangerous precedent for future human rights cases; if he is found to be connected to the Moiwana massacre, what’s to stop Parliament from simply passing another bill preventing this bill’s removal of amnesty? Finally, it’s no secret (as other cases, most notably Brazil, remind us) that amnesties rarely lead to real gains in seeking justice for human rights abuses; rather, they tend to slow or halt the search for justice for human rights victims. Even cases where prosecutions continued, such as Argentina or Chile, those prosecutions and convictions of individuals tied to torture, “disappearances,” and other violations happened because those countries overcame, undid, or circumvented those amnesties, not because those amnesties were successful in aiding the healing process and uncovering the “truth” of violations. These amnesties in Suriname will more than likely derail the quest to investigate state-sponsored violence during the military regime, just as the 1979 amnesty in Brazil did.
This is not an inconsequential quest, either; prosecution of past leaders for human rights violations is a not-insignificant mechanism to try to prevent future heads of state from resorting to human rights violations and repression with impunity. And while it’s not surprising that one of the parliamentary members declared that this bill will lead to a “renewed Suriname,” it’s hard to argue that those whose family members died in the 1982 murders or in other cases of state-sponsored violence during the military regime can really feel renewed knowing that those who murdered their loved ones will never stand trial or face the consequences for their actions. All in all, it’s just really hard to see how this bill is a net gain for Suriname