Forgiveness and transitional justice:

Two opposed dimensions?

25th April 2021

By: Leslye Dias

Forgiveness is in principle an everyday experience of individual nature in which several basic elements converge: one subject who performs a harmful action; a second subject or group of subjects who suffer the consequences of that action; and finally, the link that is generated between these two subjects, perpetrator and affected. Due to the harmful nature of the action, the link receives the connotation of an 'offense committed'.

It is likely that all of us have participated in this dynamic, in which we are either the perpetrators of the action or the victims, and we have observed how this link caused by the offense leaves us in a state of paralysis. It would seem impossible to free ourselves from this bond until the offense is admitted, acknowledged and - in my opinion - forgiven.

However, when it comes to a situation of armed conflict, this dynamic takes on a colossal complexity. A new element is introduced: the magnitude of the offense committed, which breaks with the limits of what is 'acceptable' or 'forgivable' and dramatically increases its impact. Here, the action committed by the perpetrators in the conflict has the consequence that those harmed become legally recognized victims.1 In the specific case of the armed conflict in Colombia, the conflict has left 9,123,123 victims, according to the report of the single register of victims (RUV).2

The task of forgiveness is complex and is inevitably linked to the relationship between memory and forgetting. So much so that in many cases - both in everyday life and in armed conflict - there is a tendency to believe that, in order to forgive, it is necessary to forget. Hence, we hear about a so-called duty to forget, that is, to leave behind everything that 'enslaves' an individual or a community to the memory of that painful past in order to overcome it.

This paradigm, however, changed radically after the Second World War and the Nuremberg Trials. From there on, the exercise of collective memory becomes, on one hand, an essential aspect of social justice, and on the other, helps to facilitate and resignify the act of forgiveness: "A memory of this kind does not seek to forget the evil suffered or committed, but seeks to speak of it without resentment, anger or prejudice. It is a happy memory, neither amnesic nor inclined to amnesty."

The question here, however, is why is forgiveness important or even necessary?

I want to answer this question from my perspective based on philosophical anthropology. Accordingly, forgiveness is the opposite of forgetting, and is the necessary condition of historical memory -vital for the construction of lasting peace. According to the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the first relevant aspect in understanding the relevance of forgiveness and its role in the process of transition from conflict to peace-building is that of guilt.

The process of forgiveness can only begin when the perpetrator of a crime recognizes themselves as guilty. Such state of authentic guilt can only exist when the subject has voluntarily and consciously reflected on his or her actions and, in doing so, acknowledges his or her responsibility for them. In other words, they make themselves accountable. On the other side, we have the victim who imputes the offense and demands, firstly, the clarification of the truth and secondly, reparation for the harms inflicted. Only at this point does the door open to the possibility of forgiveness.

Notwithstanding the role of authentic guilt by the perpetrator, forgiveness in itself is another action, but this time carried out by the victim. This is the profound value of forgiveness: if the crime committed is an action that generates paralysis and stagnation, forgiveness is the action that frees, that breaks the shackles imposed by the offense.

This may lead us to think that forgiveness does not play a relevant role in transitional justice or at the political level in general, and that its place is limited to the private, interpersonal sphere. At first glance, it would seem that forgiveness and justice, as in the case of forgiveness and memory, are opposing terms, or even mutually exclusive, as, in general terms, justice responds to the logic of proportion. Put differently: the guilty party must, in colloquial words, 'pay for what they did'.

However, when we speak about crimes such as murder, kidnapping, forced disappearance, rape, recruitment of children and adolescents, terrorism, forced displacement, extortion, among many others sadly present in the history of the Colombian conflict, we are faced with a harsh fact:it is not really possible to return what was taken away. The offense is too severe to be solved under the notion of proportionality. This is why we begin to speak of restitution, reparation and non-repetition in the framework of a new type of justice: the transitional justice.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, responds to a different logic. No one can impose forgiveness on another. In that sense, forgiveness remains an intimate experience. However, the example of groups such as the Madres de la Candelaria 3 shows us that forgiveness is not only an individual experience, but that it manifests itself, reinforced by the testimony, as a collective experience.

Indeed, due to the particular conditions of the armed conflict, the perpetrator and the victim are no longer two singular individuals but instead, we speak of two -or more- groups. We observe that criminal actions inadvertently generate a situation where the victims suddenly have a common context and language that enables a sense of proximity and the possibility of sharing individual experiences. That is the case of the Madres de la Candelaria, who reached a point where they were able to recognize forgiveness as a liberating collective exercise of memory.

This is why we understand forgiveness as a parallel path to transitional justice. Both operate with different structures and objects; while justice is guided by the law and deals with the crime itself, forgiveness transcends the legal sphere and is located on the border of the ethical and the political. A forgiveness that is a decision derived of a profound work of memory is an informed forgiveness, a forgiveness that seeks to project itself as an action towards the future, a forgiveness that recognizes history and rationally integrates it with a purpose.

*This opinion article is based on my undergraduate thesis at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. The complete document can be found at: Forgiveness as a possibility of openness from a perspective based on Paul Ricoeur.


1 - A victim in the context of the armed conflict is a person who has been deprived of the enjoyment of his or her rights as a result of the commission of a crime.

2 - For the purposes of the Law 1448/2011, victims are considered to be those persons who individually or collectively have suffered harm as a result of events occurring on or after 1 January 1985, as a result of breaches of international humanitarian law or serious and gross violations of international human rights law, which occurred as a result of the internal armed conflict. (RUV Report as of 31st of March 2021)

3 - The Association ‘Caminos de Esperanza Madres de la Candelaria’ is a non-profit organization founded in 1999 as a response to the numerous forced disappearances, kidnappings and murders in the context of the Colombian armed conflict.


Unidad para la Atención y la Reparación Integral a las Víctimas. (31 Marzo 2021). Registro Único de Víctimas (informe nro. 51). Colombia: Gobierno de Colombia.

Dias Duran, L. (2017) El perdón como posibilidad de apertura desde una perspectiva basada en Paul Ricoeur (Tesis de Grado). Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Medellín.

Valcárcel, A. (2011) La memoria y el perdón. Entrevista a Amelia Valcárcel.  Disponible aquí.