This call for retribution has the virtue of moral clarity, but it is impractical in many situations. What if human rights violations occurred on multiple sides, so that, as the former South African military commander Constand Viljoen said, “the terror of the tyrant invited the terror of the revolutionary”? Or if the perpetrators numbered in the hundreds of thousands, as happened in the Rwanda genocide?

The best approach in such circumstances is restorative, not retributive justice, which involves official acknowledgement of past crimes but not trials for those responsible. The primary mechanism for restorative justice is a government-mandated truth commission to investigate and record the abuses that occurred. The commission’s report is a powerful tool for holding those involved accountable, at least symbolically, by burning their heinous crimes into collective memory. It can thus begin a process of reconciliation aimed at reintegrating perpetrators and victims as civic equals in a shared community.